A little blitz of good press for local news hit the blogs not so long ago: the Birmingham Eccentric, a 131-year-old newspaper based in suburban Detroit, was living up to its name. Owned by Gannett since 2005, the paper was slated for shutdown last spring. But local residents, shocked at the idea of losing a touchstone of their community, began an ongoing effort to save the paper. So far, they have succeeded.
More than two months after its original drop-dead date of May 31, the Eccentric is still publishing. Citizens immediately organized following the announcement in April that the paper would cease to print. A Web site was set up, a town hall meeting held, business and political leaders mobilized, and the case made to Gannett. The efforts have resulted in over 1,700 new yearly subscriptions to date, with a total goal of 3,000 by October. “As everyone knows newspapers are closing around the country,” local resident David Bloom wrote at savetheeccentric.com. “Here in Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Bingham Farms and Beverly Hills we are pulling together to say ‘not here!’”
The Eccentric’s story has spread throughout regional media—the most recent local TV broadcast has been credited with a nearly 33 percent increase in new subscriptions over the course of one week—and is beginning to draw national attention. ABC World News Tonight is planning to run a short clip on the movement in Birmingham (co-anchor Bob Woodruff grew up in Birmingham); The New York Times blogged briefly about the story. Local resident Linda Solomon, a nationally published photojournalist, has been volunteering full time to drive coverage of the Eccentric’s plight.
It is easy—and tempting—to sentimentalize a story like this: “Small town newspaper fights back against corporate shutdown!” And this small town, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the nation, has a bit more going for it than most. Yet it is just as easy to ignore the good news, and the lessons that can be learned from the Eccentric’s example. So, here’s the bigger picture.
What Happened in Birmingham
Previously an independent newspaper with a single owner, the Eccentric was sold to Gannett in 2005. Long published as a twice-weekly broadsheet covering local news, sports, business, jobs, classifieds, and community events, the paper is now published only on Sundays, with a circulation of approximately 7,000. It has a full textual but limited graphic Web presence.
Earlier this year, Susan Rosiek, executive editor of the Eccentric and several other local papers owned by Gannett, faced the unenviable task of examining her portfolio of publications to determine which papers had the potential to turn a profit and which were too far gone. In April, Rosiek announced that the Birmingham Eccentric and four papers in surrounding communities would close by May 31, 2009, resulting in the loss of forty-four jobs.
“All I did was say let’s do something about it,” says David Bloom, a Ford Raw Materials buyer and the chairman of the Citizens to Save the Eccentric Committee. Bloom contacted the Eccentric, Gannett, the mayor, and city business leaders in an attempt to find a way to keep the paper printing. Bolstered by significant community support, Bloom traveled to Washington, D.C. and met with Gannett executives to plead the paper’s case.
“It really wasn’t a hard sell at all,” says Bloom. “They were very supportive.” Gannett agreed to allow the paper to continue publishing for the rest of the year, and told its Detroit-based management team and Rosiek to work out the hard details of fortifying the paper’s business model. “Gannett has been extremely patient with us,” says Rosiek. “They have said you have to find a way to be profitable, which is what any business needs to do to carry on. The decisions that were made have all been local.”
The Eccentric set a target of 3,000 new subscriptions by July 1 and 5,000 by October 1, as well as a 20 percent rise in advertising revenue. “We didn’t get 3,000 but we did get 1,000 in the slow summer months, which is very good,” says Rosiek. The subscription efforts will continue into the fall; Rosiek is optimistic that the paper will hit its targets once the school year begins.
The newly formed Citizens Committee set up a Web site and sent city officials and Chamber of Commerce leaders out with the Eccentric subscription team. Bloom and other supporters have spent their summer weekends at local farmers markets and other local venues: signing up subscribers, soliciting feedback on the Eccentric’s content, and holding a raffle for gifts donated by local merchants.