Read all about it

Q: Why was The Detroit News sold to Singleton?

A: Osama bin Laden didn’t offer $100 more.


The day before the Detroit newspapers were sold, someone from the trade journal Editor and Publisher called to tell me about it. Naturally, none of the inmates had been told, and the response of one fairly high-ranking editor when asked about the rumor was a snappish, “That’s ridiculous.”

Yes, and so was the Bay of Pigs.

But both happened and, bizarrely, my first thought was of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of life as a pioneer girl on the prairies in the 1870s. One year, a cloud of locusts came, ate up all the crops and laid their eggs. The next year, a new generation of grasshoppers finished the job, and then flew off to greener pastures.

Having destroyed The Detroit News, Gannett is now munching on the Free Press. I thought of all the strikers who went back to, in reporter Jack Kresnak’s words, “save the Free Press,” and the smug little people who now work at the Freep and swore they would never work for Gannett.

Years ago, Arthur Koestler, the great European writer and intellectual, worked for a number of newspapers that were, by turns, taken over by the Nazis and the Communists. In his memoirs, he said whenever this happened, about 10 percent of the staff quit on principle and another 10 percent were shot.

The other four-fifths cheerfully reversed course and began putting out a Communist or Nazi newspaper. Look for far fewer resignations on principle, and far more jobs to be liquidated over the next year, particularly at The News.

Yes, yes, I know they said “everybody has been hired,” etc. Corporate suits always do that when they buy a company. They don’t want the serfs running off before the new threshing machine arrives and it’s convenient to fire them. But fire some they will, and others will be driven off in various ways.

Incidentally, all of this should be stopped immediately by the Department of Justice. For those of you who, unlike me, haven’t been around since the dinosaurs, let me refresh your memory about the way the obscenity called the Joint Operating Agreement, or JOA, came about.

Twenty years ago, Gannett bought The Detroit News, and asked the government to permit it to form a JOA with the Detroit Free Press, in which they would combine their business functions, like circulation and delivery, but still put out two separate newspapers. Normally this would have been illegal.

For many years, the government has had a policy of encouraging competition, on the theory that this gives consumers better products and better prices. But in 1970, Congress passed something called the Newspaper Preservation Act, which allows two newspapers to combine forces when necessary to prevent the weaker newspaper from going out of business.

Congressmen feared they might otherwise be stuck in a district where there was only one newspaper, and that if it editorially opposed them, they couldn’t get their message out. They weren’t thinking about vast multimedia cities like Detroit, and they never imagined 24-hour cable news or the Internet.

Nevertheless, after a struggle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the JOA was approved. Immediately, the newspapers charged more for advertising and the paper. Editorial quality slowly declined, service deteriorated.

Free Press owner Knight Ridder said unless the JOA was approved, it would close the paper (an obvious lie; at worst they would have sold it) and leave one more vacant building in Detroit. After it was approved the company moved the Free Press into The Detroit News building, leaving their building vacant anyway. Before that was completed, came the strike.

Last week came the bugout. Knight Ridder, after two decades of making profits under a special agreement permitted by the government so it wouldn’t leave Detroit, abandoned the city.

Nobody is supposed to have been allowed to alter terms of the century-long JOA without Department of Justice approval. Not only did Gannett swap papers, and a new party — Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group — enter the JOA, the terms were rewritten. Gannett will no longer share the Sunday product, and both papers will publish in the morning, which may be a difficult feat.

The federal government should immediately issue an order stopping this transaction pending investigation and approval. And if someone other than Dick Cheney were president, there might even be a chance of this happening.

But don’t hold your breath. Knight Ridder rides out of town having managed to make a pile by selling the paper and swapping some other smaller ones, in what looked like an old baseball trade between the Pirates and the Cubs. Their own employees were, naturally, the last to know.

What happens now?

Ironically, not everything about this agreement is bad.

For one thing, two of the most spectacular doofuses in the history of Detroit journalism, Mark Silverman and Carole Leigh Hutton, were loaded on cattle cars and shipped back to corporate headquarters. Hutton will be remembered mostly for going to unethical lengths to protect Mitch Albom.

One has to wonder what Mitch thought as he watched Mama being led away. Will he want to work for Gannett, and what will happen next time he messes his pants in public? Best guess here is that he isn’t long for Detroit.

Odds are that the culture of dullness and mediocrity Gannett loves to foster will further dull down the Detroit Free Press, and we will all get to see how you manage to be boring and trivial at the same time.

However, the agreement does increase the chances that The News will be around for a while, though it is unlikely to look much like the present product in a couple of years. My guess is that it will become a tabloid, combine coarser stories with some lowbrow-style investigative stories, and gain circulation.

What’s worst about this agreement is that it allows Gannett to dominate the market in an unhealthy way. In March, Gannett bought Hometown Communications Network, giving it a vast number of suburban publications, including the Observer & Eccentric and Mirror Newspapers.

It also has weeklies in Novi, Northville, South Lyon and Milford, and owns all the papers in Lansing, small dailies in Howell and Port Huron, and has just added the dominant daily in the Detroit metropolitan area.

It covers the earth, in other words. Newspapers are mostly over, of course, especially now in this market, and to an extent it scarcely matters.

But there’s something I wish the government would do, something that wouldn’t cost its beloved corporations anything, but would be a tiny blow for truth in advertising. It should require the Detroit Free Press to stop using that august front-page slogan from the days when old John S. Knight made it a paper of integrity — “On Guard for 174 Years.”

Instead, the Freep should pay homage to its patron saint, Alfred E. Neuman, in words that used to grace the cover of every issue of Mad magazine. The flag of the Detroit Free Press should be changed to read: “50 Cents — Cheap!”


Heat Wave: Fans of the girl groups of the 1950s have to be thrilled that Martha Reeves, Ortheia Barnes and Monica Conyers survived the primary and seem to have an excellent chance of ending up on Detroit City Council. While it’s not true that lawyers are looking at whether the charter would permit changing the name of that body to the Vandellas — yet — it does seem increasingly likely that Lonnie Bates may soon be hearing some version of “Jailhouse Rock.”

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