The Detroit Times, the Motor City’s second afternoon daily, lost money hand over fist after a printer’s strike in 1955, to the tune of $2 million a year. When the losses could no longer be sustained, the white flag was raised.
In the wee hours of Monday morning, Nov. 7, 1960, general manager William Mills walked into the newsroom on the sixth floor of the Times’ building at 1370 Cass Ave. (now the Times Square stop on the People Mover line).
A skeleton crew was working on the first edition, but Mills told them to stop typing and go home. Meanwhile, the rest of the 1,500 employees received telegrams telling them not to come to work. The Hearst publishing organization had decided to sell the Times, which first came out in 1900. To end the rivalry among afternoon dailies, The Detroit News had made the acquisition and would incorporate elements of the Times into its own operation, along with expanding its subscription list.
“Feasting on crimes and scandals, the Times’s yellow journalism and wild red headlines had boosted its circulation from 26,000 in 1921 — when Hearst had bought it — to 434,000 in 1951,” writes historian Robert Conot in “American Odyssey: A Unique History of America Told Through the Life of a Great City.” A great journalistic reputation failed to develop apace with the circulation.
Conot surmised that “the violence and ‘entertainment’ featured in the paper were portrayed more graphically on television.” Suburbanites were ignoring the paper, and circulation fell to 380,000 as compared to 482,850 for the Detroit Free Press and 480,673 for the News.
Those were the days when people moved into a home and then subscribed to a newspaper. The choice itself was as indicative as that between Ford and Chevrolet. But the Times was like Studebaker, the era’s last independent automaker. The lurid fare of the Times aside, newspapers espoused truth and high ideals. The News won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for reporting on the U.S. Navy, and later added two more. The Free Press has racked up seven Pulitzers since 1945.
But a funny thing happened to daily newspapers. Just as they achieved technological brilliance in the mid-1990s — color pages everywhere, beautiful presentations of charts, graphs, and maps — readership started to dwindle. Thanks to the internet, the sudden decline of classifieds and display ads started a swoon, with staff cuts and trimmed editions. In 1998, in a bid to save costs, the Free Press moved three blocks along W. Lafayette Boulevard into the News building. Both papers had separate entrances, but the arrangement didn’t last. In October 2014, the pair became cohabitants in the old Federal Reserve Building at 116 W. Fort St. — both papers sold their historic environs to Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Rocket Cos. in Detroit (formerly Quicken Loans Inc.).
In today’s newsrooms, copy editors are few and far between. News bureaus have been eliminated or shrunken. Once-important specialties like society news are gone.
“I like (newspapers) a lot — everybody is working hard — but because of the drop in revenue, they can’t martial the staff,” says Tim Kiska, associate professor of communication at the University of Michigan–Dearborn. Kiska started with the Free Press as a copy boy in 1970 and still keeps a hand in there, even helping with the paper’s coverage of the 2020 election. He remembers the formerly comprehensive staffing, when he was one of three television writers.
But no longer can the Free Press and News spend lavishly on sports coverage or on investigating political corruption, nor can they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal support when the target of that investigation is, say, a mayor. “The papers were in a financial position to do things nobody else was able to do,” Kiska says. (The Free Press did recently file suit against the city for access to records on the municipality’s internal investigation into the possibility of a local charity’s preferential treatment by Mayor Mike Duggan.)
Leaders of today’s newsrooms nevertheless say their fundamental role is unchanged, and the year 2020 — with huge stories such as COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the election — proved the point by intensifying the reach of their websites.
“Traffic was running around 3.5 million visitors per month (with) unique I.P. addresses until March,” says Gary Miles, editor and publisher of the News. “When the pandemic kicked in, those numbers jumped to 6 million and as high as 8 million.” Miles puts the News’ daily circulation at 37,333 and website traffic at just short of 6 million monthly between May and October of 2020. It’s a reassuring response for Miles and others in the industry. “When big news happens, people return to the brands they know and trust, and it’s our job to protect those brands,” he says.
The history of newspaper publishing in Michigan goes back to 1808 when Father Gabriel Richard, pastor of Ste. Anne’s Church (now the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Detroit), acquired a printing press and type. Soon afterward, the first and perhaps only issue of The Michigan Essay, or Impartial Observer, appeared. The articles — 90 percent in English, 10 percent in French — aggregated items from other papers, but the columns also carried three poems and miscellaneous exhortations on early rising and politeness. The asking price for this fare: $5 per year.
The Detroit Gazette followed in 1817. The quality of the type was poor, and collecting the subscriptions was a challenge. An 1820 editorial complained, “Sometimes we get a pig or a load of pumpkins from (the subscriber), and once in a great while there is a man of mettle who pays cash for his paper.”
Even worse, as seen in Clarence Burton’s “The City of Detroit, 1701-1922,” the concept of the First Amendment, adopted in 1791, hadn’t rooted too deeply in Detroit’s glacial clay. After criticizing the territorial court over a larceny case, the Gazette’s founding editor, John Sheldon, was arrested, fined $100, and then jailed for refusing to pay. The public turned out to protest, but to no avail. From confinement, Sheldon kept writing. In testament to his heroism, Burton recounts, “nearly 300 persons filled the jail and the banquet was attended by speeches, songs, and cheers.” Sheldon got out after nine days but resigned his editorship within weeks, and the
Gazette failed after another year.
The voice of the Detroit Free Press awoke and warbled over four pages in 1831 with The Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer. Publisher and editor Sheldon McKnight rehashed foreign reports and items from Washington, D.C. A first-year output of 38,000 copies looked promising considering the expensive cotton-rag newsprint. The paper was published weekly, then semiweekly. The Daily Free Press appeared in 1835 for $8 yearly. Alas, on Jan. 4, 1837, three weeks and two days before Michigan’s statehood, a fire destroyed the printing plant. A few months passed before the relaunch of the Free Press in daily publication.
As the Civil War began, Wilbur Storey, the paper’s bellicose editor, steered it along the lines of the Copperhead resistance to the Union’s efforts. Relief arrived in 1861 after Storey’s departure for Chicago. William Quinby moved up to editor. The 19th century writer Silas Farmer describes Quinby as “a warm friend, an agreeable companion, a graceful writer, and reliable in judgment.” He hired the first local reporters in the city and established a London edition that provided a couple of columns for English news. From the early days of his leadership, there was a spirit of innovation, and it led to the creation of the Western Associated Press, forerunner of today’s AP.
Meanwhile, technological progress reshaped everything. High-speed typesetting and printing, along with cheap newsprint made from wood pulp, facilitated mass circulation. Trained as a reporter, James Scripps abandoned his interest in the Advertiser and Tribune to lead The Evening News in 1873, believing, as Farmer explains, “that he saw a favorable opening for a cheap evening paper.” The price was two cents. Scripps, and the world, benefited from the plethora of feature material written by his sister, Ellen Browning Scripps. The siblings set a template for expansion to other cities, at first in Cleveland, thereby inventing the chain daily.
Their inexpensive tabloids spoke with a populist voice and were read by newly literate members of the working class, and soon were available throughout the Midwest and then up and down the West Coast. The Scripps soon joined the ranks of America’s greatest philanthropists.
The 20th century found the Detroit papers imprinting their identities upon the city. George and Anne Stark, along with Malcolm Bingay, dominated the early decades. George Stark was a News reporter, drama critic, editor, and columnist. His special touch showed in a tribute to actor Richard Berry Harrison, who got his start at the Detroit Training School of Dramatic Art and late in life starred in the Broadway sensation, “The Green Pastures.” The play, which had an all-Black cast, won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. After 18 months on Broadway, it went on the road. “Mr. Harrison played in ‘The Green Pastures’ in the Cass Theater, Detroit, in the very town where he had once been a lowly bell-hop and a cash boy,” Stark wrote. “In Ann Arbor, he walked bareheaded in the rain to go to Ferry Field and see the University of Michigan football team at practice.”
The verses of Anne Campbell Stark first appeared in the News in 1922, and as the paper’s official poet, she supplied new lines every day. Among other things, she also wrote lyrics to Song of Detroit. The Starks were famed for their original Christmas cards, as well. In 1947, the Detroit Federation of Women’s Clubs feted Anne with a banquet at the Masonic Temple in honor of her silver anniversary with the News.
Bingay, who like George Stark was born in 1884, started early at the News and became managing editor before going to England in 1925 to run the London bureau. Something went wrong, and he was fired, but in 1930 the Free Press took him on as editorial director. He was already writing a daily column there, “Good Morning,” when he found himself confronted with what he called a “situation” in the sports department.
The News’ brilliant H.G. Salsinger was pounding all challengers to crumbs with his incisive reports, and when Bingay failed in the attempt to hire an accomplished columnist to compete, he decided to write the piece himself — with the allowance of much stylistic freedom. He slugged it “Iffy the Dopester,” coining two words. Readers, he recalled, “yowled for more.” Art department chief Floyd Nixon imagined Iffy’s likeness and drew a wizened figure who wore baseball cufflinks. The image went on 500,000 buttons, which Tigers’ fans considered mandatory ballpark attire. Florists created tributes to Iffy, and quilters made Iffy quilts. “The Iffy cocktail became the most popular drink at the Book-Cadillac Hotel bar,” Bingay reports in his 1946 book “Detroit Is My Own Home Town.”
Iffy had a long run in the Free Press, but the shtick grew old. Perry Farrell, the Free Press veteran who’s now internship coordinator at Wayne State University’s Department of Communication, observes, “A lot of people enjoyed it. That’s part of being a newspaper, is doing stuff that people enjoy, right? If I remember Iffy the Dopester, though, he looked like somebody in need of a shower and some clothes.”
What latitude a Detroit newspaper had in those days. And there were other experiments. In 1920 the News launched a radio station, to become known as WWJ, which broadcast from its building at 615 W. Lafayette. About two years later, the Free Press owned WCX, which became WJR; this station broadcasted from the Free Press Building before moving to the Book-Cadillac and then the Fisher Building.
A flamboyant episode in 1931 found the News purchasing a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro, an airplane with an enormous free-spinning rotor over the fuselage to provide extra lift and a semi-hovering function said to be useful in aerial photography. People walking on Detroit’s streets probably looked up, read the paper’s name on the fuselage, and muttered about the crazy Scripps family. Luckily, no reporter or photographer lost his life; the plane was retired after two years and donated to The Henry Ford in Dearborn.
Newspapers galloped into the late 20th century with plenty of advertising support and tremendous concentrations of newsroom expertise. Kiska recalls: “When I was in the City-County Bureau for the Free Press, one of the city-county editors drilled into us, to me, ‘OK, there are 27 members of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners. You should have home numbers of all 27, of every judge, (and) all nine members of the city council.’ There was an expertise that was demanded. Since the Free Press and the News had some resources, they could afford to just let somebody loose on a beat to get good at it. It’s harder to do these days because everybody’s pedaling so fast.”
As great as things looked, and for all the excellence of the journalism, the papers lost tens of millions of dollars in the 1980s. The News was now owned by Gannett Co. Inc., the Free Press by Knight-Ridder Inc. Progress continued anyway. New technological tools let designers work with computers to lay out pages. The Free Press became an early adopter of environmentally friendly soy ink, and color graced more section fronts. Somehow, though, it was too little.
By 2000, newspapers’ national advertising revenue peaked at $60 billion, and a steep decline occurred through the next decade. Craigs-list took away the classifieds, the source of up to 70 percent of ad revenue for some papers. Meanwhile, display ads for department stores grew scarcer as retailers dealt with their own problems. Circulation plunged, cuts were made, and publishers tried to figure out how to monetize the websites. The latter quest continues, with web ads amounting to a small pittance — said to be 10 percent to 15 percent of revenue — across the industry. (In August 2020, the Free Press and the News put curated content behind a paywall and sought subscriptions at the introductory rate of $3 for three months.)
“As a whole, newsrooms around the country have been too slow to adapt to the change in technology,” says Hiram Jackson, chief executive of Real Times Media, the Detroit company that publishes the weekly Michigan Chronicle, which has served the Black community since 1936. “I do think most newsrooms get it now,” Jackson continues, “but you’ve got to understand, these big news companies have a lot of infrastructure around distribution, circulation. For years they had brick-and-mortar, and trucks, and unions. So they haven’t been as nimble.”
Nimbleness was supposed to be one of the points of the JOA, or joint operating agreement, of 1986. Drafted after Gannett’s $717-million purchase of the News in the previous year, the proposed JOA sought antitrust exemptions in order to combine the business operations of the Free Press and News — then the nation’s ninth- and tenth-largest newspapers, respectively — for 100 years to come. The new Detroit Newspapers agency would meld together their production, advertising, circulation, and promotions, and the papers could get back to making money. After three and a half years and a 4-4 decision by the United States Supreme Court, the JOA went forward. But all was not well. The Detroit newspaper strike of 1995 found six unions going out for 19 months. The papers were printed in Toledo during this bitter struggle. Ultimately, the courts took management’s side in the dispute.
Meanwhile, a major shift was occurring, leading to today’s gridlock. “I think the decline in physical print circulation is a function of consumer habits,” Jackson muses. “The way people consume their news is different. In this digital age, people want to receive the content 24 hours a day. They want the info spontaneously, as events are unfolding. They want to share the content. They want to comment on the content. That demand is really driving the desire to have the content delivered to them digitally.”
The Free Press now is owned by Gannett, which was acquired in 2019 by GateHouse Media. MNG Enterprises and MediaNews Group owns the News. The papers are offered for home delivery three days per week — some 80,000 subscribers for the Free Press (37,333 for the News). A mongrelized joint Sunday edition of about 200,000 is printed under the Free Press’ banner, yet carries the News’ opinion pages.
Indeed, digital delivery of the content is the No. 1 priority of both newsrooms, according to the respective publishers. And providing it overtaxes the staffs. Peter Bhatia, the amicable editor and vice president of the Free Press since 2017, thinks back to March 10, the day Michigan’s first COVID-19 cases were confirmed. It was also the presidential primary day. “It just kept rolling,” Bhatia says, noting that everybody has been working remotely. “The last nine months have been the most incredible of my career.”
With a newsroom of “slightly under 100 people,” he says, the trick is deciding what breaking stories to cover while also emphasizing investigative pursuits. It may mean skipping a city council meeting or a visit to the police station. “We’re going to focus on doing journalism that makes a difference,” he says. “There’s a lot of heat — and not all of it misplaced, certainly — around the digital world. But we’re proving every day that good content drives digital audiences, and that’s really reaffirming and good to see. It helps to be in Detroit, of course, which is a news town … it’s always (a case of) drinking from a firehose here.”
Much the same tale emerges during a chat with Miles, the soft-spoken Royal Oak native who started with the News 20 years ago and moved up from managing editor in 2019. It starts with the breadth of news that must be covered. “It’s that kind of pace that the staff is, I hate to say used to, but certainly well acquainted with,” Miles says. With a newsroom about the same size as that of the Free Press, the emphasis is on feeding the 25-year-old website. “Digitally, the highest-interest topics are anything related to the pandemic and to politics and the election, which isn’t necessarily a big surprise to anyone.”
To distinguish the News’ coverage from blogs and other digital sources, great emphasis is placed on verification, with much reliance upon reporters’ connections. Bloggers may break stories, but the idea is that an authority like sportswriter Angelique S. Chengelis provides real certification. “That’s the role we want to play in the community,” Miles says. “When you read it in the News, you can take it to the bank.”
The current shapes of the Free Press and News seem likely to change little in the near future. Bhatia foresees printed editions lasting “as long as baby boomers.” Ancillary undertakings — the Detroit Free Press Marathon, website features like podcasts and videos, even the Free Press’ film festival — will likely continue to grow. But besides financial pressures, newspapers face the cultural breakdown that’s in play throughout society. For example, Iffy the Dopester’s streetwise, vernacular, secondhand commentaries would never fly today.
Beyond changing lifestyles, a news year like 2020 may attract readers, but will they pay for subscriptions? Will advertisers return?
“I’d be worried about aging out,” says Jeffrey Stoltman, director of entrepreneurship and innovation programs in the Mike Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State University in Detroit. Drawing a comparison between newspapers and 78-rpm records, Stoltman cites three unavoidable factors — namely, shorter and shorter attention spans, the emergence and continuous availability of the digital space, and what he calls the “contagion effect — it’s more popular to do the new thing than the old thing.”
Stoltman suggests two avenues as the best hopes for newspapers to weather these lean times and rebound. One is by becoming “the safe place for advertisers to go.” The second avenue could be integration with other services. “Jeff Bezos may do this with The Washington Post,” he says. “You bundle things.”
Presently, the Free Press and News boast 332 combined years of publication. Besides formidable traditions, they have a lot of brand equity. The News will observe its sesquicentennial in 2023. Short of a stunt like Miles, who’s an experienced pilot, taking the Pitcairn autogyro out of mothballs and flying a photographer around the city, how will the 150th birthday be celebrated? Stoltman suggests a series of commemorative reprints with current local content around those antique storylines. “Serialization works,” he says.
About a decade ago, Rod Alberts got a call regarding an archive of newspapers. A man fromPontiac said his family had saved every copy of the Detroit Free Press since the 1890s.
“Why don’t you come by?” offered Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association in Troy, the official host of the North American International Auto Show. Before long, the two men had spread well-preserved pages over a boardroom table, and Alberts perused automotive advertising from 110 years earlier.
“You don’t realize how different the writing was back then, the use of the English language, the properness, and the whole bit,” Alberts reflects.
A randomly chosen example, the copy from a 1935 Buick ad, serves to demonstrate his point. It reads: “Buick’s performance is much more than pick-up of 10 to 60 miles an hour in 21 seconds, and 85-mile top speed.” The list of performance claims and features that follows — fuel economy of 15 to 18 miles per gallon, “Knee-Action” gliding ride, synchronized manual transmission — would surely convince anyone. “Buick doubles and trebles the delight of driving,” the copy concludes.
“The artwork is the other part,” Alberts says. “Everything was hand-drawn.”
Of course, as the average transaction cost of a new vehicle today exceeds $37,000, the advertised prices from the auto industry’s early days will also shock. The 1935 Buick Series 40 started at $795, while the top-of-the-line Series 90 reached $2,175.
Another eye-opener was the number of different companies displaying products at the auto shows. “All the booths were 10 by 10 or 10 by 15 (feet),” Alberts says. “Ford Motor Co. had just one booth out of 150 companies, just one small booth. It was a battle of automakers trying to survive — like they have in China now.”
Alberts keeps the selected pages in a large black binder, which he likes to show visitors. “We need the stimulation from the fantasy — especially with a car,” he says. He thinks of an illustration showing the stars, the moon, and a Buick traveling through the sky.
“It captures your imagination, what it’s like to be in that car. There are things that evolve and change, technology-wise, and choices people have in the way they receive information. But in the end, you still have to find a way to capture the imagination of the buyer.”