Our changing newspaper world

Apr 27, 2005 at 12:00 am

What continues to be most surprising about the papacy of Carole Leigh Hutton over at the Detroit Free Press is the utter ham-handed clumsiness of it.

Two years ago, she suppressed an honest book review criticizing a mawkish book by Mitch Albom with all the grace of a squat 1930s commissar expropriating a peasant’s cow. Later, she made things worse, earning the contempt of even some otherwise loyal staffers when she clumsily tried to justify what was clearly a journalistically unethical decision.

Then last weekend, the publisher and editor of Michigan’s largest semi-daily newspaper did it again, with a statement ending the investigation into the sportswriter’s fabricated story. Evidently concerned about declining readership, it was decided to abruptly terminate the “investigation” and restore Mitch to glory.

“Detroit Free Press management has completed its internal review,” the readers were told. “Disciplinary action has been taken against five employees.” What that action was, we weren’t told, but hopefully none was terminated with extreme prejudice, as they used to say in the spy novels.

In other words, we weren’t to be told what the Inquisitors found out about Mitch, or exactly what they had done about it. But the local vicar of Knight Ridder did decree, evidently with a straight-faced keyboard, “We also think it is important to report on ourselves and our transgressions in the same way we would report on the institutions we write about regularly.” Interestingly, even as she rendered her judgment, she bizarrely added that the jury was still at work.

“Reporting is continuing on a story that will be published as soon as it is ready.” Oh boy, oh boy. Gosh, I can’t wait. I hope you have as much confidence as I do that it will contain the unvarnished truth.

What, you might wonder, if the “continuing reporting” turns up evidence that Janet Cooke, famous Washington Post fiction writer last seen working the Marshall Field’s counter in Kalamazoo, was really freelancing Mitch’s columns?

Hey, judgment’s rendered, and how about those Pistons! Frankly, what Mitch Albom did was not, in my view, a firing offense, though it was both arrogant and brain-dead. He wrote a column saying that two former basketball players flew to the playoffs, wore their old jerseys and sat in the stands together.

They never showed up, but days before the game even started he wrote a column saying they were there. What’s baffling is that anyone who has ever covered athletes knows perfectly well that our Gods of Sweat all too often don’t show up when they say they’re going to. Perhaps he thought no one could possibly go back on their word to Mitch Albom, media star.

What everyone was really secretly wondering, or worrying about, is whether Albom has done anything like this before. Thursday, the Los Angeles Times published a thoroughly reported piece by David Lyman, a former Free Press reporter. Lyman’s piece uncovered no other fabrications, but indicated that the rules for Mitch Albom were different than the rules for everybody else.

Many people were also quoted about Mitch’s legendary and embarrassing temper tantrums. I was among the people interviewed for the article, and it quoted me accurately as saying that one of my students complained years ago that Mitch had thrown a keyboard at her head.

The next day, one of the reporters on the internal investigation squad called and talked to me about it and wanted to know how to find the student, clearly without any clue Pope Carole was about to pull the plug hours later.

One more than suspects the Free Press was deluged with letters like one Lyman quoted, threatening to “never buy a Free Press again” if Mitch were even punished. Given the priorities of Knight Ridder and Detroit Newspapers, it’s unlikely there’s much sentiment to sacrifice popularity for ethics.

After all, the Free Press has declined from a circulation of 630,000 in the 1980s to barely more than half that today, and even the official end of the strike barely wiggled the electrocardiogram. There was a time when a man named John S. Knight ran these papers, and they were famous for their integrity.

But at least we’ll have Mitch back for the playoffs.


Just wondering: Speaking of fading newspapers, at the end of last month Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the world, took over Hometown Communications Inc., which publishes many weekly and semi-weekly papers in the Detroit area (Mirrors, Observers and Eccentrics, Novi News and others).

Call this just an educated guess, but I bet what that means is The Detroit News will be closed and their reporters jobless in three years.

How can I say that? Consider the facts: The terms of the century-long Joint Operating Agreement say that Knight Ridder and Gannett split the profits equally. Doesn’t matter if, as now, one paper (the Freep) has much more circulation than the other (The News). Doesn’t even matter if they decide to publish only one newspaper — they still split the profits equally.

So here’s my scenario. After a decent interval, the two powerful corporations announce they’re publishing only one paper, which will come out in the morning, and be called either the Free Press or a combined name.

Meanwhile, by buying Hometown, Gannett will control much of the suburban advertising market. If The News were to die, some of the advertising that was in it might go to the Free Press, in which case Gannett still gets half.

Other advertisers may instead choose to move to the Hometown papers, where Gannett doesn’t have to share advertising revenue with anybody.

Naturally, there will be some combined circulation loss at the main product. But any loss as a result will be more than made up for by all the overhead on salaries, etc., they’ll save by closing The Detroit News.

That may not happen for a while. First, there’s likely to be a savage war between Gannett and the Journal-Register Co., a New Jersey-based firm that last summer bought the Oakland Press, Macomb Daily and assorted weeklies from Frank Shepherd’s 21st Century Newspapers.

The odds would seem to favor Gannett, a vastly larger company that has newspapers that more or less surround the Journal-Register ones. But you never know. And it will be interesting to see what happens when the contracts for various newspaper unions at some of these properties expire. Don’t be surprised if both Gannett and Journal-Register go after the unions.

After all, we’ve seen a version of this before. This summer marks the 10th anniversary of Detroit’s last great newspaper strike, in which the unions did about as well as the Native Americans at the Battle of Wounded Knee.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure: I was, until the sale, editorial vice president of Hometown Communications; my job, with the jobs of other corporate staffers, vanished when the company was sold, as I knew it would.

However, my speculation here is based only on a knowledge of the industry, and not any insider information; I have had no conversations with executives of either firm about their long-term plans. (Like they’d tell me anyway.)

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]