All eyes were on Detroit in the spring when its two hometown papers, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, unveiled a radical plan for saving the newsroom and serving readers. Both papers cut home delivery to the three most popular days of the week —Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays — with single copies available at newsstands every day. The papers also created daily subscription-only electronic editions while beefing up their Web content and shrinking the newspapers’ size and number of sections.
I spoke with Detroit News publisher Jon Wolman, one of the architects of the newsroom transition, about the future of journalism and what it means for young journalists.
What advice do you have for young journalists choosing a direction in the field?
A young journalist might like to dabble in each of the technologies and find a comfort level for storytelling. Correspondingly, I think it’s time to make a recommitment to watchdog journalism and to civic engagement. The interactivity of this era is really one of the most exciting aspects, and journalists are just beginning to understand how this can be a two-way or multi-way conversation.
What was the impetus for the transition?
It was clear that we couldn’t sustain the business model in the sense of revenue supporting the operations of the newsroom. The newsroom has seen some downsizing over the years, but the next level of downsizing we felt would have set back our coverage and our presentation, and we didn’t want to do that.
How do you think readers are consuming news?
One of the reasons why this new approach makes sense in Detroit is that single-copy sales has always been a chunk of our readership. On the digital aspect, we have seen our traffic expand and really explode over recent years. We see constant traffic on the big stories. We see a persistent interest in the day-to-day goings on here in southeast Michigan and the sports teams and cultural/entertainment coverage, so we’re responding to a migration of our readers from print to digital formats already under way.
How do you think newspapers can use the Web to their best advantage?
I think the most important thing about the Web is to really put a high value on multimedia coverage and take advantage of the technology for this era. It allows for some very rich storytelling. We are blessed in Detroit with outrageously interesting stories of every stripe, and here we are operating in an era in which the technology allows for interactivity and video tied to audio tied to photo galleries tied to text. It really makes for very vital storytelling.
What were some of the challenges of the transition?
We wanted to redesign the newspaper for the specific changes we were making. We created smaller editions — we called them express editions — four days a week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. So we did a redesign for that, and we talked to our journalists about how to fit the big news agenda into that smaller space, and at the same time, we wanted to enhance our digital coverage and our digital presentation. And so we needed to pull that all together in a relatively short amount of time in a way that would make sense to our readers.
How do you think The Detroit News and Free Press might serve as models for newspapers around the country?
I think the most important thing here isn’t for newspapers to look at Detroit as a test bed for what might work for them. We’re going to get a lot of interest from folks trying to see how this market responds to those changes, but I’ll say the most important elements of this, to me, are a commitment to the journalism, a commitment to the public service role and the watchdog role that newspapers and newsrooms play in their community, the recognition that we needed to re-examine the market and re-examine the newsroom and pitch ahead and not show any complacency given the struggles of the day.
Tagged under: Generation J