Media morons

Last week Iris Ovshinsky tragically died while swimming near her home in Farmington Hills. Not only was she half of perhaps the most important team of scientists in Michigan history, she was half of an incredible love story.

If you have a laptop computer, there's a good chance it's running on a nickel-metal-hydride battery, and you have Iris and her husband, Stan, to thank for inventing it. They met at a party back in the 1950s, locked eyes and hearts, and were seldom separated by more than a few arms' lengths after that.

They founded a company that, in many ways, was more revolutionary than Microsoft, though, alas, they were always better scientists than businessmen.

They were pioneers in solar cell research and alternative fuel technology. A word from their last name, Ovonics, is in Webster's Dictionary. Iris and Stan were featured prominently in this year's movie Who Killed the Electric Car?

So ... how much attention did her sudden, shocking death receive in the local media? Well, the next day the Detroit Free Press wrote a story about her "drowning," giving her name but nothing else. The story, in fact, was really about water safety in Oakland County.

Clearly the reporter (Frank Witsil) had no idea whatsoever who she was, nor did his editor, and both were too lazy to check their files, which they could have done electronically in seconds. Had they done so, they might have noticed that the company Iris and Stan founded in 1960, Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., is so important that President George W. Bush himself visited it in February after his State of the Union "switch grass" speech on alternative fuels.

That happened, by the way, even though the White House must have known that the Ovshinskys are proud freethinkers and liberals and wouldn't have dreamed of voting for the things Bush normally represents.

The Oakland Press, the local daily in Ovshinsky's neighborhood, was even worse. A reporter not known for her energy or initiative wrote a weaker drowning story ... but didn't even find out the victim's name! (Sometimes it takes actual work to do that.)

Incidentally, the prominent journalist and filmmaker Harvey Ovshinsky told me his stepmother didn't drown, but had an apparent heart attack in very shallow water ... but reporters have to talk to people to find out such things.

And The Detroit News, which usually cares more about news, dismissed her death with a five-line brief, buried in the business section.

Granted, Dr. Ovshinsky did have the bad taste to die the same day the sex pervert in Thailand claimed he had killed JonBenet Ramsey a decade ago. That instantly became the most important story in the history of the universe, and sufficient reason to leave your television locked on the Home and Garden channel. Yet our local dead-tree burghers all pretend to be newspapers, and one might assume they'd take notice when a local world-class inventor dies.

Yes, I am a silly idealist. By the way, it has been slightly over a year since the absolutely outrageous transfer of ownership at the Detroit newspapers, and it might be time to review what has happened since.

I call what happened "absolutely outrageous" because the companies essentially spit on federal law when they did it, knowing they could get away with murder, with "Kenny Boy" Enron's good buddy in the White House and all.

Here's a little background. Twenty years ago, Knight Ridder, which owned the Detroit Free Press, and Gannett, which had just bought the News, asked the government to let them combine their business operations.

They did that under a law called the Newspaper Preservation Act, which was meant to save struggling newspapers in small towns. Lots of people objected to that, and it went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed the merger, called a Joint Operating Agreement (or JOA), when the high court deadlocked, 4-4, a ninth member sitting it out.

That agreement called for profits to be split evenly. Then, last summer, that deal was changed in a way that would have shocked Al Capone. Gannett sold the battered News to MediaNews Group, run by the cost-cutter Dean Singleton. Gannett then bought the Free Press from Knight Ridder, which fled town.

Unfortunately, the corporation tripped on its underpants fleeing Detroit. Soon the hunt was on; the corporation was sold, spun off, dissolved.

That was bad enough; what did not surface for some time were the actual details of the new JOA. When they did emerge, it was clear that Gannett now effectively owns both papers. They get not half the profits but 95 percent (!) and MediaNews doesn't even begin getting its 5 percent until sometime between 2009 and 2012 ... if it is still publishing then. In the meantime, ol' Dean gets paid a "management fee'" to run The Detroit News. Some independent ownership, eh?

There has been a change in quality of the two papers, and not exactly in the way in which I predicted. I thought the Free Press would get duller, and it has — but much faster and more completely than expected.

The News has gotten considerably better and sharper. The reason, according to common sense and my internal sources, is clear: The reporters and editors have been liberated from the tyrannical idiots at Gannett. When the sale happened, a newspaper publisher several states from here called me.

"Tell me who some of the best people are at the News," he said. "They'll probably want to escape Singleton and we might be able to recruit some of them."

"Nope, you have it backwards," I told him. "You may be able to recruit those folks in three years. However, today they feel like the inmates at Buchenwald the day the American Army showed up."

I said he might have better luck prospecting at the Free Press. Indeed, there has been an exodus of the editorial staff there to make Jehovah proud. People have left for other papers, to work at TV, to work in university public relations, to go back to school, to do anything to get away. For those remaining, the message is very clear; we are all about soccer moms and affluent suburbs.

Reporters wanting to look, say, at health problems in the inner city or other hard-hitting news can forget it. The Gannett Free Press is not especially interested in the sorry state of Detroit, because the geniuses running it think that the soccer moms of Troy and Macomb Township aren't. They even dropped the word "Detroit" from their Sunday front page.

Last week the U.S. Census Bureau released mid-decade population estimates for Michigan, which were devastatingly bad, most of all for Detroit. The News led with the most interesting story: black flight. Middle-class African-Americans are fleeing in droves. Detroit's black population fell 54,000 in five years. That means troublingly many African-Americans who want better lives for themselves and their children see Detroit as a city without a future. The Freep barely mentioned those annoying Detroit blacks. Their story centered on how diverse the area was becoming! Better educated, too, though we could use a few more jobs and people.

How do readers like this bubbly approach? A year ago, before it was a purely Gannett product, the Sunday paper had 679,180 readers. At last count, that was down to 652,488. The circulation staff, like the German army in 1945, has been told to defend the fatherland, as in "concentrate on retention, not new orders."

We know what the headline will be the day the last subscriber cancels too. "Diverse shoppers at Canton's Ikea store sad."

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.