Newspaper Wars in a Trump World
According to Detroit’s editors, we need two journalistic voices now more than ever
The Detroit News’ Lionel Linder (left) outside the Anchor Bar with Neal Shine from the Detroit Free Press, circa 1980.
One of the area’s longest-running bar bets is when Detroit will finally become a one-newspaper town. Given their embattled pasts and present, a better conversation might be how two papers have lasted so long.
Some say that Detroit actually became a one-paper town a long time ago. They cite 1989, when the newspapers combined business operations, or the withering strike of 1995-97, or when the papers moved in together in 1998.
But Detroit’s editors bristle at that, saying that their separate staffs remain fiercely competitive and editorially independent — and that President Donald Trump’s declaration of war on the press motivates journalists to soldier on. Cries that the press publishes “fake news” and that journalists are “enemies” of the people demonstrate the need for competing news outlets, the editors say.
“There is a renewed sense of focus,” said Robert Huschka, a few months before he announced that he was leaving his Detroit Free Press executive editor post. “The right wing says that we’re really too critical ... the left wing says that we did not do enough to play a role in the election. The idea that there’s a single newspaper is completely untrue.”
One floor up in the Dan Gilbert-owned building that houses the newspapers’ offices, The Detroit News Managing Editor Gary Miles says, “Despite the fact that the media writ large is sort of a whipping boy, we are hearing individual comments of support.”
Criticism, Miles adds, “reinforces the value of having a two-newspaper town.”
It’s easy to be cynical about a Trump bump in a war that one laid-off Free Press editor describes as a true-life game of Survivor. But news media across the country have seen print and digital subscriptions perk up, hired staff, and called Trump a boon.
In a different kind of solidarity than the Sterling Heights printing plant experienced during the strike 20 years earlier, an “Emergency Rally: Protect the Truth” was held on Feb. 26.
Supporter Nancy Wildern of Grosse Pointe Park told the Free Press, “There was a sense of alarm and has been for weeks about the treatment of the legitimate press. When some of the major media outlets were shut out of [a] press briefing, that really sent up a flare.”
Miles took heart in a St. Patrick’s Day radio broadcast by WJR’s Paul W. Smith. A guest was U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who had stepped down after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked 46 federal prosecutors from the Obama administration to resign. McQuade said, “You know the work that we do is important, but it’s only important when people know about it because we want to deter other people from committing crimes, so we appreciate when you report on the work of our office. … We need good watchdogs in the media, too.”
Numerically, the idea that Detroit has already lost the equivalent of a whole newspaper holds some water. From staffing highs of more than 300 each, the two newsrooms combined now have far fewer than what just one had. Home-delivery days have been halved. The price of print copies has doubled, but on many days, papers have fewer than half the news they once had.
There is just one Sunday paper, though it has dueling editorial pages. Diversity, though growing in the country, has declined in both papers’ newsrooms. Paid circulation is far less than half what it was when majority partner Gannett Co. announced a $170-million press expansion in Sterling Heights in 2002. Now, to keep the press running, the company prints scores of other newspapers, including Toledo’s paper, The Blade.
The calculus for newspapers has changed.
In an after-work conversation about news credibility at Atwater Brewery on March 16, one journalist called the Free Press a newspaper. Huschka pounded the table and repeated for emphasis that it is not a paper, but “a multimedia news organization.”
He struck the same note in his office, where he said that when people ask how freep.com is doing, he answers with a question: “Which one? There is a freep.com on the web, on Facebook, in e-newsletters, and that name is also printed on the papers.”
The days of measuring success in column inches (the length of a story in a newspaper) and press runs are over, Huschka says.
Miles says the November election set a record for The News online and that it was broken in December when Michigan was in the national spotlight for the presidential recount. A journalist who has worked in both print and TV, Miles is excited about bringing professional polish to The News’ online video.
Miles and Huschka diverge on one point. While Huschka rebrands away from “newspaper,” Miles is fine with it. A student and steward of history, he keeps a passage from a 1925 Detroit News stylebook front and center on his desk, just below his computer screen. It says:
The Detroit News should be:
Vigorous, but not vicious.
Interesting, but not sensational.
Fearless, but fair.
Accurate as far as human effort can obtain accuracy.
Striving ever to gain and impart information.
As bright as possible, but never sacrificing solid
information for brilliancy.
Looking for the uplifting rather than the
depraved things of life.
We should work to have the word RELIABLE stamped
on every page of the paper.
“I don’t care what they call us,” Miles says, “as long as they associate [us] with credibility. I am not eager to disassociate ourselves from what that name stands for … The quality has held up” since The News’ founding in 1873, he says. He refers to this “legacy of credibility” as a shield in the fake-news wars.
Detroit’s newsrooms did not arrive at this place at the time they moved in together — or when Trump moved into the White House. This has been coming for a long time.
Detroit is a window into the industry. Many major developments happened here — lots of them the biggest, boldest, or first. The country’s first newspaper chain, Scripps, began with Detroit News money; many of the biggest newspaper companies have published here. Detroit papers played a pivotal role in forming the Associated Press. Beat reporting was largely invented here, as was the women’s section, the regular Sunday edition, aerial news coverage, and commercial radio. We had one of the first morning papers and the largest evening one.
We have seen the largest newspaper Joint Operating Agreement in U.S. history, and probably the biggest newspaper strike. Detroit’s papers were among the first to limit home deliveries.
So, is one of the papers going to give up the ghost soon? Nobody knows.
The current agreement, effective on Aug. 3, 2005, says that either partner can leave the Joint Operating Agreement if, after 10 years, the partnership has had three years in a row of financial losses.
The agreement describes losses this way: “… newspaper operating losses for a year shall mean the publication of the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News has resulted in an aggregate operating loss for such year determined in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles, provided that all revenues generated and expenses incurred during such year which related to commercial printing (including, but not limited to, commercial printing of other newspapers), shall be excluded from the calculation of newspaper operating losses.”
The language is neither protection nor prediction. The 2005 agreement showed that new agreements can come out of the blue. As far as the opt-out clause, that addresses only continuance of the agreement. The result could be a new agreement. Closing a newspaper would be a separate decision.
Meanwhile in the newsrooms, the diminished staffs fight on. Both lived through the overnight ownership swap in 2005, when almost no one in Detroit knew a new agreement was taking effect. They know that secrecy surrounded the original 1986 JOA application. Even high-ranking Detroit editors have been some of the last to know.
In the final analysis, does it matter whether Detroit has two newspapers, or one, or none?
The Free Press’ Huschka says it matters a lot. He says people used to kid him about the future and ask whether the newspapers can last. He tells them, “You better hope that we do last because you’ll miss us when we’re gone.”
Ever since Trump took office, “people who used to chuckle about that don’t chuckle as much as they used to,” Huschka says.
Joe Grimm was an editor at the Detroit Free Press from 1983 until he joined the Michigan State University School of Journalism in 2008.
Anatomy of Shrinking News Outlets
A brief history of Detroit’s print news outlets from the 1950s to today
Detroit’s population crested after the 1950 census, but suburban growth disrupted the economies of urban newspapers that relied on delivering large concentrations of consumers to advertisers. People worried that Detroit could not survive as a three-newspaper town with The Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, and the Detroit Times.
Vultures began circling the third-place Times.
The Detroit News bought the Times and shuttered it so fast it could not get off a “Goodbye, Detroit” edition. The News had coveted not the Times, but its subscriber list and 400,000 readers. The Free Press hired as many Times circulation people as it could.
The two-newspaper war was on.
Before the decade ended, new census figures showed a 20-year decline of 336,000 people. The 1967 uprising and a nine-month newspaper strike further weakened both newspapers.
Both newsrooms upgraded technology and writing and competed for scoops, flying reporters around the world. Persistent inflation, the energy crisis and the rise of big-box stores pecked away at the financial heart of newspapers nationally.
Meanwhile, George F. Valassis developed a business. The “coupon king” figured out how to hollow away newspapers’ bread and butter of selling and printing coupons.
A strike shut down the Free Press just as it was to unveil before news celebrities and its Knight Ridder Inc., executives the coverage plans for the 1980 Republican convention to be held in Detroit.
Union officials and striking workers block the entrance to the Detroit News Building during the Newspaper Strike. Shortly after this photo was taken the demonstrators were arrested and striking employees were fired. // Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Detroit’s downtown J.L. Hudson’s department store closed in early 1983, an exemplar of the flight of readers and retailers from city centers.
Sensing panic at The News as the circulation gap narrowed, Free Press editors asked Knight Ridder for an all-out push. It included a further press expansion. The News faced dissension within the Booth family, which held stock in the parent Evening News Association. Suitors lined up to buy The News.
Gannett drove into Detroit and completed a $717 “white knight” deal to buy The Evening News Association. Soon, they cut its newsstand price. The Free Press matched the cut that day.
With both papers now losing more than $10 million a year, Knight Ridder and Gannett applied for an exemption to anti-trust laws, declaring the Free Press “a failing newspaper.” This became the biggest Joint Operating Agreement in U.S. history.
The JOA was on again and off again as it went through the courts. The Knight Ridder board said that without a JOA, it would close the Free Press. Gannett would wind up with either a true monopoly or a sanctioned one.
The JOA survived when a 4-4 tie by the Supreme Court let a lower ruling stand. The JOA took effect.
Preoccupied with the JOA, Detroit might have scarcely noticed that Advo, the nation’s largest direct mail marketer, had gone public in 1986. It was to become another drain on newspaper revenue.
A bitter strike began in July 1995, and ran until February 1997. Everyone lost money and relationships. For a while, Detroit had just one paper every day with a combined front page nameplate and sections from both strike-shrunken newsrooms.
On Labor Day weekend, 1995, there was a huge Labor Day protest in Detroit over the strike. Meanwhile in California, Pierre Omidyar spent the weekend writing code for what would become eBay.
Emerging from the strike with smaller staffs, the newspapers could then be housed in one building. In 1998, the Free Press moved out of its 1925 Albert Kahn building and into The News’ 1917 Albert Kahn building down the street on Lafayette Boulevard.
In a three-company swap in 2005, Gannett took ownership of the Free Press. It dealt The News to MediaNews Group. The switcheroo happened so fast that new editors ran the news meetings that day.
Having exited its toxic partnership with Gannett, Knight Ridder was soon swallowed whole by McClatchy Company, which then spit out some of its newspapers to other companies.
Gannett executives’ hopes for a re-engineered JOA were dashed. They feared they would lose a newspaper. In 2008 they came up with the Griffon Plan, tragically named after the first sailing vessel to sink on the Great Lakes. The vessel has never been recovered. The plan saved money by cutting deliveries back to just a few days a week and focusing on digital.
On Oct. 27, 2014, The News and Free Press moved into one of Dan Gilbert’s buildings, the old Federal Reserve building.
In 2015, following other companies, Gannett (the parent company of the Detroit Free Press) was spun off as a publicly traded company focused on digital growth. The rest of the company became TEGNA, with more than 40 broadcast properties and digital enterprises including cars.com.