Rags and ruin

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Last week, in my gentle and understated way, I beat up on our newspapers, primarily the Detroit Free Press, for the increasingly poor job it does covering important news in this area. I used as examples the sudden death of internationally renowned scientist Iris Ovshinsky, which the Free Press treated as a water safety story, and an interim report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The census story showed a dramatic abandonment of Detroit by tens of thousands of middle-class blacks. The Detroit News correctly wrote about the implications of that. The Free Press played it down, writing a story that seemed intentionally designed to cheer up white suburban readers

What startled me was not the stony silence from Gannett management. I expected no less, though I am sure they would love it if Wayne State University got rid of me, and might even endow an Al Neuharth memorial urinal.

However I was amazed by the vast response from current and former inmates of the Detroit newspapers, especially the Free Press. Oh, one of the census reporters had a cow, and went on about how it was a statewide paper, and the black angle wasn’t that new, etc. Black staffers felt quite differently about this; one said to me, simply, “Thanks for some truth.”

The more typical inside reaction came from this letter from a longtime Free Presser:

The link to your column has been making its way around the office this week. Nail right on the friggin’ head, Jack ... about our corporate ownership and the schizophrenic priorities here. Your use of the Ovshinsky example as a peg is accurate ... a reporter with Detroit depth would have already recognized the name. It’s a sign of our out-of-town (and small-town) leadership ... but it’s also an example of something I’ve never seen so prevalent here: Folks in the newsroom are brain-dead. They don’t care. They lack any spark of innovation. Because only one person in this newsroom can have an idea that matters (not even his sidekick who came here last autumn with no daily newspaper experience in the past eight years), people sit dutifully slump-shouldered at their desks staring blankly at their computer monitors all day just trying to figure out what is expected.

Everyone has finally understood what I observed from day one: Gannett felt they didn’t pick up anyone worth keeping here, and they’ve made it clear that they don’t value the ones who have stuck around. They replaced the previous metro editor (bad journalist, good manager) with a person from the News who’s both a bad journalist and a bad manager. They kicked the business editor out the door without a plan, then were turned down by six candidates who decided they couldn’t work here. Finally, they promoted [Paul] Anger’s henchman from Des Moines, who he’d brought here in the spring ... the current staff was largely made of strike-breakers from the ’90s, but they were at least motivated. Now they’re on autopilot.

The theme of working without a plan is repeated often. Gannett had no plan for making money in Detroit. They thought the newsroom was fat and overstaffed, the advertising staff lazy and that they’d make their first-year numbers just by making cutbacks. Then they found out that Frank Vega had already raped the place in the ’90s. Wasn’t he a Gannettoid? How could they not know this?

Ad revenues are horrible, and they cannot seem to keep those new presses busy in Sterling Heights because they haven’t been able to produce good quality. They’ve shaved another inch off the width of the printed page in the past week to save newsprint costs. These are just examples.

It is worth stating again that both the Free Press and the News, its companion in what is now a totally Gannett-controlled partnership, are losing thousands of subscribers every month.

Incidentally, I should add that Gannett is not the worst newspaper company to work for in this market; something called the Journal-Register Co. is.

This is a New Jersey firm that bought the Macomb Daily, Oakland Press and a wad of weeklies two years ago from Frank Shepherd, who had already decimated their staffs and quality. J-R is famous for pettiness, sadistic treatment of the staff, right-wing politics and utter cheapness.

Last month, Garry Gilbert, the longtime editor of the Oakland Press, decided enough is enough, and quit. He was replaced by a character named Glenn Gilbert. My column last week contained a sentence criticizing an Oakland Press reporter who had failed to find out Iris Ovshinsky’s name, which the Free Press had at least done in their account of her death. Gilbert the lesser reportedly had a fit, and ordered that a book review of mine be stripped off a page that had already been readied for publication. “That’ll show him!” he supposedly said. Why, yes, sweetheart, you surely did.

The Journal-Register drones have reason to be testy, since they may know at some primitive level that they are economically doomed. Their once cash-rich company paid too much for Frank Shepherd’s 21st Century Newspapers. It was a deal that would have made sense had they also been able to buy Phil Power’s Hometown Communications Network.

I was a vice president of that company when it, too, went on the block in 2004. J-R was one of two main bidders (with Gannett). Those in the know were privately appalled by the J-R people. One exec who outranked me said, “These are people who would tell you on Jan. 1 how much toilet paper you could buy, and if the staff got the runs and you ran out in October, they would tell you to use your hand.”

Hometown was eventually sold to Gannett; the Journal-Register properties are now surrounded by much richer and bigger Gannett newspapers, and their extinction or next sale is merely a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the Oakland Press, which used to regularly beat the Free Press on its home turf (I was a consultant for it 1996-2003) is running Ann Coulter instead. Finding fault with these newspapers these days is slightly easier than shooting a walrus in your bathtub. (On Monday after this column was written, the Oakland Press unceremoniously fired managing editor Susan Hood, assistant managing editor Dolly Moiseeff and editorial page editor Neil Munro. Each had been at the paper more than 30 years.)

But what ought they to do instead? Arthur Miller, as the current Economist magazine notes, once said, “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” This area desperately needs a statewide conversation about the state of our state — the collapse of the auto industry, the manufacturing economy, about race, about our loss of belief in who we are and what we should be.

We also need to discover fascinating people and things and enjoy good writing. Before Gannett, the News was becoming a paper that explained the world to Detroit. The Free Press was often superbly written, and fun. Now they are neither. The message is that good journalism doesn’t pay anymore. But what these papers are doing instead is losing boatloads of money and readers. Before the lights go out, quality might just be worth a try.

Worth taking in: The Detroit Area Peace With Justice Network is sponsoring a crisis forum: “The Middle East: Peace with Justice — Or Endless War?” at Pleasant Ridge’s community center Sunday at 7 p.m. My spies say there will be good speakers, free refreshments, and the price is right — donations only.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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