Detroit’s Other Dying Industry

Papers abandon their best customers

There was a time when the Detroit newspapers — especially the Free Press — were my definition of what a good newspaper should be. I first encountered them in 1986 when I moved to mid-Michigan. They were a revelation. At the time, I started  work at 6:30 a.m, but I’d get up at 4:30 or so, walk down to the convenience store, pick up the Freep, and read every word of it.

People called it a “writers’ paper,” and you only had to read it once to understand why. It was filled with stories of substance and style. Writers were obviously rewarded for taking pains with words and sentences. Distinctive voices spoke to me on every page. And the coverage was something new for me, too. At the time, Detroit was going through a series of soul-wrenching shootings of children. Every time a child died, the Freep wrote about it with the seriousness and effort that other papers save for suburban murders. Most urban papers treat inner-city killings as the ugly detritus of life. Best to rush past. Don’t look too closely. Stories are relegated to inside pages with the barest of routine treatments. But the Freep had an  innate respect for the lives of its readers and its city.

Then there were the features and sports pages. I have never cared about sports, but I would read Freep sports features and columnists for the pleasure of the voices. I look at most feature sections today and yearn for the Freep’s feature sections, brightly written, often funny, and fluffy only in the best sense of the word.

The Detroit News was far more staid and upright by comparison. I respected it. And it always felt like each paper made the other one better. But I loved the Free Press.

Then came the long and bitter Detroit newspaper strike in 1995. When it was over, workers who once felt deep affection for the papers they worked for now felt orphaned and adrift. Many were never called back. Circulation never returned to its previous rates. And the papers were never as good again. I’m sorry to say it. I have friends who work for both today. And despite much individual merit, the Freep had lost its voice. The News seemed to flounder.

Yesterday, the jointly operated papers announced that they would reduce home deliveries to Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, and concentrate instead on their web edition, a move that seems to say “screw you” to their most committed readers. The future is online, they management says. I hope they’re right. But it doesn’t look like embrace of a new world. It looks like retreat.

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