Gannett purchases Detroit Free Press

BY ANNE VANDERMEY
For the Daily
Published August 7, 2005

The subhead to a story that ran on Aug. 16 about Gannett Co. purchasing the Detroit Free Press should not have said that the purchase made Gannett the largest newspaper chain in the country. It already was the largest chain prior to the purchase.

The front-page story “Detroit Free Press is sold to giant Gannet” (8/8/05) about the Detroit Free Press should have been spelled with “Gannett” not “Gannet.”

The same article incorrectly labeled two professors at their universities.

Professor Steve Lacy works for Michigan State University, not Wayne State University.

Professor Ben Burns works for Wayne State University, not the University of Michigan.

 

The Knight Ridder publishing company sold the Detroit Free Press to media giant Gannett Co. last Thursday, prompting concerns from some that the quality of Michigan’s largest newspaper would suffer under the nation’s largest corporate publishing chain.

The Free Press was one of six papers that traded hands that day as Knight Ridder and Gannett upset the media market in four different states.

The Detroit News, Michigan’s second most widely circulated paper, formerly controlled by Gannett, was sold to a smaller private company called MediaNews Group.

The transaction will make the Free Press the crowned jewel of Gannett’s formidable collection of newspapers in southeastern Michigan. It already owns Hometown Communications Network Inc., a newspaper company that serves Detroit and neighboring counties, and Third Street Publications, which delivers magazines to the suburbs of Detroit.

All this did not come as good news to Jack Lessenberry, Wayne State University journalism professor and former foreign correspondent and executive national editor of the News.

“Some of us already had concerns that Gannett was too dominant,” he said Friday.

Lessenberry expressed fear that the editorial style of the Free Press was likely to change.

“Gannett tends to make papers dull and mediocre,” Lessenberry said.

Lessenberry is not the only one who is critical of Gannett’s track record in producing quality journalism.

Terry Foster, sports writer for the News under Gannett, felt the company was so preoccupied with turning a large profit that it shied away from good stories if it thought they might inflame customers or advertisers.

“If they felt that something was too offensive for the community, they didn’t want to report it,” Foster said.

As an example, Foster cited a story he wrote about a father involved in the Amateur Athletics Union Junior Olympics who wanted to pull his three children out of the games. According to Foster, Gannett held the story from print, because of a marketing agreement held with AAU that prohibited any coverage that might reflect poorly on the organization.

Alternatively, many people feel that Knight Ridder was as financially oriented as Gannett.

Former Free Press reporter Michael Betzold, who now works for the Ann Arbor Observer, believes editorial procedure is not likely to be significantly changed by the Gannett takeover.

When asked if he was worried about the developing corporate culture at the Free Press, Betzold said the Free Press’s credibility had already been compromised by the long and bitter labor dispute of the mid-1990s. “They made the deal with the devil long ago,” Betzold said.

In contrast, some believe the new arrangement with Gannett and MediaNews is a positive change. Since 1989 the two papers have published under a joint operating agreement, and although the owners split the profits equally, many felt the terms of the agreement left the News at a distinct disadvantage.

Under the revised agreement, the Detroit News will become a morning paper, putting it into direct competition with the Free Press, which had formerly controlled the more profitable morning market. But only the Free Press will be allowed to produce a Sunday paper.

Renewed competition between the News and the Free Press in the morning market should incite both papers to put more resources toward the newsrooms, Wayne State University communications professor Ben Burns said.

He added that, because the Detroit News now has the ability to distribute a morning paper, it has a fighting chance to compete.

Media analyst John Morton of Morton Research agreed. “As an afternoon paper, it wasn’t a question of if (the News would close down), it was a question of when,” he said. He also noted that an added advantage for the News will be the leadership of MediaNews Group CEO Dean Singleton, whom Morton praised for turning an underdog paper, the Denver Post, into a prominent statewide competitor.

In addition to new corporate leadership, there has been speculation about the News’s new editor-in-chief, David Butler, who, according to Foster, promises to avoid the cookie cutter-style stories that were published under Gannett.

“(David Butler) seems like a guy that’s going to allow you to be creative, to be a journalist ... I might be buying the holy water, but I like the guy,” Foster said.

Furthermore, many said, because MediaNews is a privately held company, it will be able to provide extra financing for the paper when necessary instead of being obligated to boost returns for stockholders.

But even with a new competitive edge and a fresh staff, some said, the News may only have succeeded in extending its life, not saving it. “The economics of the industry indicate that only one daily will be able to compete ... it would be extremely difficult for the News to win,” said Michigan State University professor Steve Lacy.

Lacy said there is uncertainty over what will happen to the industry in the distant future, but he predicts the News will either close or be swallowed by the Free Press within the next 10 to 20 years.

Newspaper circulation has been slumping nationwide, making the industry unpredictable. Detroit has been hit particularly hard; a strike in 1995, coupled with advertising loss due to a struggling auto industry, has crippled Detroit’s newspapers.

The circulation of the Free Press has fallen 45 percent since pre-strike highs and the News’s circulation has fallen 55 percent.

“It really is a question about the Detroit market,” Morton said.

In addition to local troubles, the national media environment will be crucial for the success of both Detroit papers. “Young people simply don’t read newspapers anymore,” Lacy said.

Newspapers are being forced to creatively adapt to an evolving media scene. Gannett already owns 60 different websites, indicating that it is diversifying away from print media. But the turmoil of the modern media market, analysts say,, may yield overall improvements for consumers.

“Truthfully, I think these are the most exciting times for media communication in the last 50 years,” Burns said.