McGuire on Media

Michigan newspapers grapple with dramatic solutions

I was born in Michigan. I delivered and read the Saginaw News as a kid. I worked with the Grand Rapids Press when I was the student Sports Information Director at Aquinas College. Competing with Deborah Howell and Walker Lundy in the Twin Cities was a pistol in the 90’s, but I was prepared for those battles by my competition with the Ann Arbor News in the mid-70’s when I was the top editor of the Ypsilanti Press. I’ve always had good friends at the Michigan Newhouse papers so the bombshells there this week struck at all my nostalgic chords.  The “Boothies” as we used to call the newspapers owned by Booth newspapers before the group was sold to Advance Publications, dominated the Michigan newspaper scene in a way that have made them integral to the history and character of the state.

Within two days they became radically different operations, and the disease that has afflicted major metro newspapers has suddenly spread to much smaller papers.  It’s one thing for big-city two-market papers like the Seattle P-I and Denver’s Rocky Mountain news to fold their tents. Sad, but not surprising.  It isn’t shocking that papers like Philly and Minneapolis are in bankruptcy.  However, I was merrily wandering down the path believing smaller newspapers in tight communities were going to survive much longer.  The Michigan carnage may simply tell us that Michigan is an impossible place to operate a media business right now.  On the other hand, this debacle could tell us the breadth of the newspaper problem is wider and deeper than we thought.

Another fascinating element of this story is the way Advance Publications eschewed a one-size-fits-all solution.  They are addressing each area of the state with very different approaches.

The move to end the Ann Arbor News and start over with a new online operation is intriguing and well explained here. This is not a new debate.  Do I turn my newspaper into an online site or do I blow up management, staffs and systems and start a new corporate entity without any legacy obligations?  Ann Arbor chose the latter which I am sure some people see as heartless. Other people will see it as the only practical way to ensure genuine pioneering approaches to a community online operation. I’ll be wishy-washy and wish there was a middle ground. 

Over on the western side of the state The Muskegon Chronicle, Kalamazoo Gazette and Grand Rapids Press will consolidate their printing and production operations in Grand Rapids.  It appears they will continue to publish all three papers in each city. It is wild speculation, but one wonders if the papers farthest away from the auto manufacturing  area of Michigan are doing better than others. 

Three papers in that auto area, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City will go  to three day publication following a similar model in Detroit. They will be online all the time.

Numbness is starting to replace sadness with all these industry downsizing efforts , but the level of experimentation at the Michigan Newhouse papers is admirable. Everybody seems focused on finding the right business revenue models and that search is struggling. This search for the for the right cost model to responsibly serve readers is just as important a quest.

The events of the last several weeks make it obvious that all cost-saving possibilities are on the table. Nobody is feeling restricted in reaching for dramatic solutions.

I told my students two weeks ago they are watching a dramatic unraveling of the industry I have worked in since 1967. The sudden steepness of the hill in the last few months makes the snowball bigger and bigger. That snowball threatens everything we’ve ever known about craft, the business and interacting with readers and community. That dramatic threat means every sort of experimentation becomes legal.

A researcher has written me asking me if I think the Cedar Rapids Gazette people are a little bit weird for announcing a move “from being communications media to becoming social media.” I haven’t answered yet, but my answer is going to be something like “they’d be insane if they didn’t try a fascinating idea like that.”

I am far more excited about positive, forward-thinking actions  than I am about cost-cutting which is inevitably going to damage communities, possibly irreparably.