Lessons from the Birmingham Eccentric

How one community is saving its newspaper

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.

The paper is working on other ways to increase revenue. “We had to make some tough decisions,” says Rosiek. “We had a circulation model that was a mix of paid and free, and printing and delivery was quite expensive. We could no longer afford to deliver it totally free. And we could not give away our content for free.” Thus, free delivery was cancelled, leaving the paper with a subscription-only model. Eventually, the paper also plans to limit the free content offered on its Web site.

Efforts to increase ad revenue have been largely successful. After acquiring the paper in 2005, Gannett raised the Eccentric’s advertising rates. Now, Gannett has allowed the paper to lower those rates in order to attract local advertisers. The paper’s ad sales staff has also been working with local business organizations in order to encourage merchants to advertise in the Eccentric.

Luckily, Birmingham-area merchants are firmly committed to print advertising. Principal Shopping District executive director John Heiney says he tries to get his members online, but “by and large the merchants in Birmingham remain aligned toward print,” and that’s where the “vast majority of dollars” are spent. When asked why this loyalty to paper, Heiney cites, in part, the older demographic of the area and an “old school mentality” that comes along with businesses passed down through families over generations.

“In general, merchants are cutting back on their advertising,” says Heiney. “However, in Birmingham, they want to support the Eccentric. They see it as another local business. They know the value of having a hometown paper and they want to support that with their advertising dollars.”

The Good News (With a Little Caveat)

The Eccentric staff, David Bloom, and others hope that their efforts in Birmingham can serve as a model for other communities hoping to save their own newspapers. But it might not be that simple.

The median—not average, median—income for the towns served by the Eccentric spans a range from $86,000 to $184,000. This makes it one of the wealthiest communities in Michigan. Susan Rosiek describes the area as “the most upscale in the metro Detroit area and, perhaps, in the entire country. The economy is going to recover sometime, and it’s going to recover here first.”

In that context, a $52 per year subscription rate is hardly a hardship for residents. Rosiek reports that a number of subscribers have even suggested raising the rate and, perhaps, that may be a future option for the Eccentric. This, obviously, is not an option for many small town papers with lower-income readers: there is only so much disposable cash to go around in most communities, and newspaper subscriptions usually aren’t high on struggling families’ priority lists.

John Heiney also stresses that “one of the things that makes Birmingham unique is that it is a very educated demographic of business leaders who have means and resources…. Key people can capture the imagination of other residents who have the resources.” Other communities aren’t always as lucky. In nearby Ann Arbor—a town dominated by the massive University of Michigan—the local Ann Arbor News folded its print edition and went entirely online. “The seven-day-a-week print model just is not sustainable here,” publisher Laurel Champion said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We have very low home ownership. The population is transient and young. Those demographics have worked against us.”

But while their demographics might not measure up to Birmingham’s, other communities can emulate several other aspects of the Eccentric’s multifaceted efforts to save itself. The Eccentric should be an example to communities and journalists alike: there is room for community newspapers, if the communities they serve find value in their product.

Here are some places to start.

Selling the Value of the Product

Raising awareness of the central role played by the community newspaper, its value, and what its loss would mean for individuals and businesses is a strategic theme that repeatedly arose in conversation with people involved in the Eccentric campaign.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing…is really an awareness thing…When you have it you don’t appreciate it, but when it’s gone you are kind of in limbo,” said Carrie Zarotney of the local Chamber of Commerce. “As soon as it was announced that this might be happening, there was a panic in the community.” Zarotney noted that many people tend to access the paper through their employers, at the library, at coffee shops, and so forth. Since they don’t pay for it, they simply do not realize how much they use the services provided by the paper.

“When you’re always there, people kind of forget about you,” notes Rosiek. She stresses the importance of selling this point to professionals in the community who rely on the paper for publicity. It needs to be made clear that, if the paper stopped publishing, their news would go unreported.

Find out What the Community Wants and is Willing to Pay For

“We have to go back to what makes the paper successful, emphasizes Rosiek. “People are realizing that they want a paper that is really their own.”

Toward that end, the Eccentric, the Citizens Committee, and the Chamber of Commerce have held a series of well-attended town hall and Committee meetings to ask what people want and the paper has incorporated many of those suggestions and requests, such as reducing regional and national coverage and expanding local community features. People have been signing up for new subscriptions at the weekly farmer’s market and leaving feedback with David Bloom and other volunteers, which makes its way to the Eccentric staff.

Even before the current crisis, the paper had hired design consultancy firm IDEO to conduct an extensive study of media usage habits. Interviews with merchants and consumers led to changes to the paper’s form and content. New features were added, such as weekly local business pages; Q&As with business owners; highlights of business special events; a special education section; and a public safety page.

While some of these features could, in theory, be covered by hyper-local online sources that rely on contributions from readers, Rosiek’s feedback suggests that readers want professional reporters to provide this coverage, and would only turn to alternative means after that option disappears.

Be the Cultural Centerpiece of the Community

“I find the Eccentric offers information you can’t find anywhere else,” wrote former Detroit Tigers great Al Kaline in a recent Eccentric article. “I enjoyed reading the story about my grandson when he was featured during his days as a high school ballplayer, and about all the kids who are playing sports in the area, whether it be baseball, or basketball, football or hockey.”

As a result of the Eccentric’s outreach efforts—town hall meeting, tabling at farmers markets, and direct contact with local residents—Rosiek learned that most readers agree with Kaline. They value the sense of community that the paper provides: society pages; coverage of high school graduations; marriages; listings of births, deaths, and community events. This material is what readers feel they cannot get anywhere else, and it is what they are willing to pay for.

As a result of this feedback, the Eccentric added a “Neighbors Page,” where community members’ personal announcements are featured editorially, rather than being relegated to paid notice status. “In many papers, readers pay to publish information about weddings, anniversaries, births, and graduations…We celebrate those things,” says Rosiek. “People told us that people want to know about these things. They want to feel connected to their community.”

Town officials, local celebrities like Kaline, and high school and middle school students will all be contributors to the new Eccentric; the goal being to further integrate the newspaper into all levels of the community, and to create a sustainable readership as the population ages. Linda Solomon is particularly focused on this goal. She has recruited several local students to contribute to her weekly column. Another student has agreed to use a designated internship time in school to recruit subscriptions.

Local, Local, Local

Keeping the Eccentric’s focus local is a sentiment echoed by the paper’s editors, advertisers, and readers.

Catering to local merchants in content, form, and community involvement is critical for financial success. “We used to sell [advertising] based on a regional model,” says Rosiek. “Now we sell on a strictly local model. It is something we got away from for a long time and now we are going back to our roots.”

Businesses in Birmingham believe that the local newspaper can be a strong factor in influencing potential customers to buy local. The Eccentric has also added a business section to highlight local merchants, and even incorporated editorial opportunities, including regular features and columns for officials who represent the Principal Shopping District and the Chamber of Commerce.

Local Media Can, and Must, Help Save Itself

The real lede of the Birmingham Eccentric’s story is that community commitment and activism on the part of citizens and the news media can change the fate of local newspapers, at least in some cases. David Bloom made it clear that “there was no shortage of discontent to fuel the effort. It just required one person to be the spark.” After that, it’s up to the community and the newspaper to grow that spark into a sustainable movement.

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Diana Dellamere is a former CJR staff writer.