- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

DETROIT

For the past two weeks, Detroiters have seen their city make some of the country's biggest news. But on a majority of those days, their newspapers haven't made it to their homes.

The two weeks that have featured the government restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors and the city's hosting a home-state team in the college basketball Final Four have also been the first two weeks since Detroit became the first major city in the nation not to have a hometown paper delivered seven days a week.

And some Detroiters are lamenting the loss of their morning newsprint fix.

”We all kind of feel like something is missing in our daily lives,” said Esmaralda Angott, 58, a small-business owner from the northern suburb of Commerce, Mich., and a Detroit News subscriber for 30 years.

”I know it's a sign of the times and the economics here, but a lot of us in my generation are used to getting the paper. It's hard to give up something that you are used to.”

The News and the Detroit Free Press, paired in an operating agreement as the Detroit Media Partnership, announced in December that they were scaling back daily delivery to three days a week because of dwindling revenues, delivery expenses and other costs.

Since March 30, the News and Free Press have been delivered to homes only on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. The papers do put out slimmed-down print editions on the other days, but they are only sold at stores, newsstands and street boxes. Home subscribers also have access to an electronic version of the papers on the nondelivery days: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.

“We're fighting for our survival,” David Hunke, Free Press publisher and Detroit Media Partnership chief executive officer, said at a news conference announcing the changes.

He noted that 63 percent of the papers' readership had access to broadband Internet and so the paper, like many across the nation, was focusing much of its resources on online content while still offering daily rack and retail sales of its print product.

Each month, about 4.2 million online readers visit the Free Press and 3.6 million view the Detroit News. By comparison, the weekday circulations are about 298,000 for the Free Press and 188,000 for the News. Together, they rank ninth on the list of top-selling U.S. daily newspapers.

Newspapers across the country have been forced to realign resources to dipping demand, many initiating massive layoffs and cutbacks with 2008 advertising revenues dipping a record 17.7 percent and online ad revenues falling 1.8 percent, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

Some two-newspaper cities have lost a paper in the past year, including Denver's Rocky Mountain News and Seattle's Post-Intelligencer, while online readership at some publications continues to grow.

Detroiters, stung by the collapse of the auto industry, home foreclosures and record unemployment, said they understand the cuts given the economic climate in their area, but miss the tradition. Even on days the papers are delivered, they have noticed that the once-thick bundles are getting thinner.

“I've been reading the Free Press since I was 14,” said publicist Tina Heaton, 39, of Clarkston, Mich., as she dined at a local restaurant. “I like seeing it in the print format, knowing that the way it's organized denotes the stories of importance. I like holding the paper and watching how the ink sinks into the newsprint when I do the crosswords. You don't get that online.”

Still, she said, like many readers, she is enjoying the paper's electronic edition, which allows her to click on a thumbnail of the actual pages, viewing the layout and photos as they appear in the printed version.

Her 86-year-old grandfather, however, is not enjoying such cyber-reading.

”He's used to getting up each day, putting on his pot of coffee and going out to get the paper,” she said of the morning tradition that some readers here mourn.

”He's not going to go out to buy a copy or get it online. And I think these people who have been your loyal readers all these decades, you are losing them now, your best customers, and I wonder if what goes with that loss is your loyalty.”

Rich Harshbarger, the Detroit Media Partnership's vice president of consumer sales, said the paper is sensitive to its older readers and those who might not have online access.

The papers have reached out to about 200 senior and community centers in the city's metro area to make sure that copies are readily available for those who aren't able to get their news elsewhere.

Mr. Harshbarger said the Detroit papers have tried to ensure that as many such places as possible have a newspaper box available on site. In some places where it isn't, he said, the Detroit Media Partnership has even gone so far as to deliver newspapers to some senior centers for sale at their main desks.

Noting the high number of residents who go online, including many seniors who have embraced technology, the papers have also worked with local community colleges, centers and libraries “to get them trained on accessing our electronic editions,” he said.

Detroit residents are adapting, he said, even as some are grumbling.

”Overall, it's been received positively,” Mr. Harshbarger said of scaled-back delivery. “We do understand and realize that we have disrupted some people's habits. But we have received several emails and comments saying that this is something that they can get used to and that they liked the e-edition.”

To blunt the loss of home delivery, the papers are offering promotions with local coffee shops and retail outlets. Those are being well received, he said.

The papers are monitoring sales figures but have yet to release numbers because of large-scale recent events, such as the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament and the baseball season's opening day Friday, because the increased visitors to the city could skew sales figures.

“We are running ahead of our projections at this point with early results coming back,” Mr. Harshbarger said, noting that the new delivery schedule has only been in place for two weeks.

At the Caribou Coffee store in Clarkston, store manager Jason Briggs said his customers have been talking about how much they miss their delivery, but he noted that sales are up as many are buying copies when they are stopping in for their morning java and muffins.

He is running a promotion that offers customers a newspaper for a penny with the purchase of coffee or a baked good.

People appreciate the bargain, “but they have been upset,” he added. “It's just a little thing, but one that gets your morning going.”

”I'm old school,” Mr. Briggs, 32, said of his love of print news, though he acknowledged the need for the papers to save money.

”There is something so great about sitting down with the paper and holding the pages and reading it cover to cover.”

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