Detroit Free Press cuts back home delivery to focus on web

by Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Free Press announced today a first-of-its-kind plan in the struggling U.S. newspaper industry — emphasizing more online delivery of news and information and cutting back home delivery days.

Detroit Media Partnership CEO Dave Hunke, publisher of the Free Press, said that starting in spring 2009, both the Free Press and the Detroit News — also operated by the partnership — would deliver to homes only on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, the heaviest days for advertising and the most popular papers for readers. But the newspapers will remain available seven days a week at stores, newsstands and coin boxes across Michigan.

Hunke said the moves would allow both papers to maintain their news-gathering forces, shift resources to their Web sites, develop new ways to deliver information digitally, enhance multimedia offerings — and, for the foreseeable future, keep Detroit one of the nation’s few remaining two-newspaper towns.

The strategy contrasts with significant across-the-board cuts, including sharp newsroom reductions and outsourcing of jobs, at many newspapers struggling to maintain traditional delivery.

“There is a day of reckoning coming for newspapers, which in my mind don’t change and change rapidly,” Hunke said in an interview before today's announcement. “That is a way of life that is going to disappear (for some newspapers) as early as this coming year.”

He said the changes would lead to a reduction of about 9% of the Detroit Media Partnership work force, now around 2,100 people. The partnership publishes, distributes and sells advertising for both the Free Press and News under their 19-year-old Joint Operating Agreement, but the newspapers have independent news staffs.

There will be no job reductions in the newsrooms of either paper as part of the new publishing plan.

Hunke said the strategy was driven less by declining advertising revenue and circulation in a dour Michigan economy than by soaring costs for newsprint, ink and fuel.

“So I’m making a statement that we’re going to reset the business model and how much money we spend on paper, ink, and fuel,” he said. “No question some of those have to offset the economic stress of the business in Michigan, but it also allows us to preserve our news organizations and our marketing organizations.”

The Sunday Free Press is the sixth-largest Sunday paper in the nation, with a circulation of 605,000; the News does not publish a Sunday edition. Weekdays, the Free Press ranks 20th (298,243), the News ranks 49th (188,000); combined they rank ninth in the country.

Since 2002, the Free Press has lost 19% of its print circulation, the News 22%. But taking the paper’s Web site into account, overall readership has soared. Online, attracts 1.5 million page views each day, and has gone as high as nearly 4 million. In 2008, it was one of the fastest growing Web sites in the country.

“The reality,” said Free Press Editor and Vice President Paul Anger, “is that we can’t continue to do all the things we’ve done for decades. The digital future is now. But we are still printing all seven days, and we’re going to deliver the goods — great reporting, provocative commentary, all the things we’re known for.”

Hunke said the Free Press that will be sold on non-home-delivery days will be a more compact product. Editors are designing a product of about 32 pages with an easy-to-pull-out sports section, provocative commentary and enriched lifestyle coverage. Only 40% of the space will be available for advertising, compared with 55%-60% in the current newspaper.

The Sunday and Thursday home-delivery products will be more substantial, but also redesigned to provide a mix of in-depth news and features with quick summaries of information and events.

Hunke said he expects some home-delivery customers will not want a paper just three days a week, but he hopes to retain most of them while attracting new readers to the redesigned compact paper.

“This is going to be disruptive to a lot of people and very loyal customers, and I fully recognize that,” he said. “I also fully recognize that most people don’t read us that way, and that lifestyles and technology have, as easily as five years ago, changed the way most people use the Detroit Free Press or any form of media.

“We can’t be afraid about moving at light speed toward that.”

Free Press newsroom resources will be increasingly devoted to and related Web sites. The Free Press also will offer, enabling subscribers to view online the pages of the paper just as they appear in print.

“The dynamics of delivering information to audiences has changed forever due to technology,” Hunke said.

The plans for this next chapter in the 177-year history of the Free Press were developed, in part, with the help of IDEO, a California-based global design company consistently ranked among the most innovative in the world.

“IDEO challenged some of the assumptions the media industry makes about how people want and desire news,” Hunke said. “We spoke to and observed a broad spectrum of people in their homes, at their places of work and in everyday settings and this guided the development of new offerings.”

The newspapers will sell on stands for 50 cents daily and $1.50 on Sunday. The home delivery service with access to the digital online edition will cost $12 a month. The rate for seven-day home delivery is now $3.25 a week, or $13 a month.

Hunke said raising prices to preserve daily delivery would have cost too many subscribers without raising the revenue to sustain the delivery operations.

Free Press readers are to receive a letter soon outlining the changes and their options for the new service.

The Detroit Media Partnership said two new Web sites, and, have been launched to gather reaction to the coming changes and to keep the public up to date.

The Free Press, the oldest continuously operated business in Detroit, is owned by Gannett Corp., the nation’s largest newspaper company. The News is owed by MediaNews Group.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey