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As a cost-cutting measure, executives say the move to three-days-a-week home delivery met their goals and helped stabilize their journalistic efforts. The company says the delivery change enabled it to trim its overall costs by 15 percent. “It ensured our survival,” says Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Free Press. Joyce Jenereaux, executive vice president of the Detroit Media Partnership, adds, “If we hadn’t done it, we’d be putting out horrible products.” But the bleeding hasn’t entirely stopped. In November 2010, unions representing 900 employees got to look at internal financial data for the papers; after doing so, they agreed to pay cuts, a two-year wage freeze, and increased health insurance payments.
One thing that isn’t clear is whether the Detroit strategy was successful in getting readers to move from print to digital platforms. As executives expected, circulation of the Detroit papers declined. In the months before the delivery change, the papers’ combined weekday circulation was 436,238; in early 2011, that circulation was 230,876. Neither of those figures includes the e-edition, which has weekly traffic of more than 100,000. But the weekly e-edition number doesn’t represent that many individual readers; someone who logs on five days in a row would be counted five times. Daily figures show that about 20,000 people visit the e-edition on each of the four days the paper isn’t delivered, and that a third that many use it on days when the paper is delivered. Engagement is substantial, as e-edition users spend about eighteen minutes per visit. But the e-edition doesn’t reach nearly as many people as used to get home delivery on the days that have been eliminated.
As for the papers’ websites, they had significant growth in 2008—a year before the change in home delivery. That was a big news year which included the collapse of the auto industry, the historic Obama election and a scandal involving Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s affair with his chief of staff. (The Free Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the mayor’s woes.) The papers’ grew 31 percent in unique users. After the cuts in home delivery, the number of users on the sites continued to grow, but more slowly: by 6 percent in 2009 and 10 percent in 2010.
Similarly, the year of big increases in time spent per visit on the web was 2008, when it went from about eight minutes to more than thirteen minutes. Why? One reason, executives say, is that 2008 was the year that reader commenting was enabled on the site. “There was not a discernible bump when we made the model [delivery] change,” says Patricia Kelly, senior vice president at Detroit Media Partnership. Kelly also notes that digital ad revenue is up 65 percent since 2005. Print advertising, meanwhile, is down 50 percent in the same period. As a result, digital is expected to represent an estimated 19 percent of total ad revenue in 2011.
The changes in the delivery model have affected the culture of the newsrooms to some extent. The papers’ news staffs are designed to operate daily, just as before, without paying much attention to whether they are publishing in print or online on a particular day. Anger says, “It’s everyone’s responsibility to be invested in digital publication.” But, says another editor, “There’s still a feeling that, if you want people to see something, you’re going to shoot for Thursday, Friday, or Sunday. We haven’t divorced ourselves from the idea that the big story should run on a day we publish a paper.”
The deep cost-cutting measures by Detroit’s dailies illustrate the challenge legacy news providers face as they adapt to the economics of online media. The strategy worked as a survival mechanism in a tough market; the damage from cutting home delivery was checked by the fact that print revenue is falling so quickly anyway. But it hasn’t transformed a great number of print readers into new digital users. The sites’ main growth occurred before the delivery change, and appears to have been fueled by big, well-covered stories, and improved functionality that got readers more involved.