Survivor: Motor City Edition

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Jim Harnden is a retired Ford Motor Company middle manager who knows what’s wrong the Detroit Free Press.

Like a lot of people in Detroit, he thinks that at a time when the U.S. is fighting a war in Iraq, there’s just not enough real news on the front page. “The world according to the Freep is that the Lions, Tigers and Red Wings are more important than anything else that happens in the universe,” he groused in a letter to the editor the other day.

“I want a newspaper — I don’t want The Sporting News,” Harnden elaborates in a phone interview from his suburban West Bloomfield home. “When you get six Marines shot up in Iraq and you have to go to page five to read about it, well, I don’t think that’s doing a good job of covering international and world news.”

There’s plenty else he doesn’t like about the Free Press. He could care less about all the small-bore local scandals the paper uncovers. Celebrity news crowds out the real stuff. A front-page article about hip-hop star Eminem that jumps to, what, four more pages? Come on.

And this is a fan of the paper. Harnden’s been subscribing for most of the 50 years he’s lived in Detroit. He even took the Freep during the bitter strike that started in the summer of 1995, when his friends, liberals like him, joined a boycott of the paper that lasted for years.

However, he’s like other Detroiters in one way: He has no use for the Detroit paper he doesn’t read. The Detroit News, he says, “pretty ultra-conservative.” He says it the way News readers will tell you the Freep takes its marching orders from Ted Kennedy.

People in Detroit aren’t buying newspapers like they used to. In the fall of 1987 — near the end of the all-out competition between the News, then owned by family members descended from founder James E. Scripps, and the Free Press, then owned by Knight Ridder — the papers averaged a combined daily circulation of 1,336,000. Now the combined total is 566,287 — more than 130,000 fewer copies than the News alone sold in ’87.

But even if they don’t necessarily subscribe to either anymore, Detroiters remain strikingly passionate about the goings-on at their local newspapers.

My very first assignment for E&P, back in November of 1983, was to write an overview of the Detroit competition. For the first of many times, I was struck by the level of public interest in intense newspaper competition in Detroit. Just about anything that happened at the papers was fodder for surprisingly extensive TV and talk radio coverage.

And the newspapers gave them plenty of material. “Welcome to the newspaper industry’s equivalent of the Thirty Years War,” Lionel Linder, then the editor of The Detroit News, boomed as I walked into his office on that first assignment.

Over the years since, I’ve concluded that, for Detroit, the Free Press and the News aren’t just hometown papers, they’re a long-running soap opera. The drama featured corporate intriguing by outsize characters like Al Neuharth and Frank “Darth” Vega, surely the only CEO of a joint operating agency (JOA) to become something close to a local celebrity. There was cut-throat competition, with dashing code names like the Freep’s “Operation Tiger,” that ended not with a peaceful truce as in Denver or Las Vegas, but with the most contentious JOA approval process in the history of the Newspaper Preservation Act.

And then there was July 13, 1995, when 2,500 workers walked off their jobs in a bitter labor dispute that can still stir hard feelings a decade later.

This emotional rollercoaster ride has left Detroiters feeling pretty proprietary about the papers. And, as one journalist suggested to me, Detroit’s newspapers don’t compete with a lot of celebrities. So the Free Press columnist Mitch Albom rates the same bold-faced attention as native Eminem.

Bryan Gruley reported in his invaluable 1993 book “Paper Losses” that in the summer of 1988, when the papers began a mass layoff of 500 employees in anticipation of the imminent start of joint production, they hired ambulances to stand by in case anyone reacted to the bad news with a stroke or heart attack.

This summer, when Gannett took over the Free Press from Knight Ridder and another outsize newspaper industry figure, William Dean Singleton, entered the Detroit scene by purchasing the News, there were no ambulances standing by, as far I know. After so much drama, the newsrooms on the front lines were mostly numb even to the surprise swap meet unprecedented in the newspaper industry.

But the Detroit public, again, was fascinated, lighting up the lines to talk radio to carp and kibitz about the papers. I was even on one program myself. Scheduled for 10 minutes, the host kept the topic going for a half-hour.

Hundreds like Herndon wrote the papers with their suggestions. “With the joint operating agreement, The News became a pale echo of the Free Press,” Brett Bellmore of Capac wrote the News. “Maybe with the new ownership, Detroit will once again have two papers, not one published in two editions.”

Detroit, like Dallas, Denver, and Salt Lake City before it, may regard new owner Singleton with suspicion for a while, just as Free Press readers will scrutinize Gannett for incipient signs of political conservatism.

Either way, and even if they don’t read either the News or the Freep, Detroiters will stay tuned to their hometown dailies — as long as the papers keep putting on such an entertaining show.

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