The news about the news has been truly horrific this week. Massive bloodletting from coast to shaking coast. Staff cuts, furloughs everywhere.
Amid the doom, gloom and cutting, let's keep our eye on what is turning into ground zero for what's next. Michigan.
Michigan of course is synonymous with cars and old steel. Lately, it's been trying climb a seemingly insurmountable mountain, proclaiming its hybrid future. Hybrids, you know, a little bit of the old business, some of the new world. Fusions, Escapes and Escalades and more to come.
Well, maybe, those will work.
Next week, Michigan certainly, though will take a big step in another kind of hybrid experiment. On March 30, The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News flip the hybrid switch. (Good interview with Dave Hunke, Detroit JOA head, by Poynter's Bill Mitchell.) They are becoming the first metro newspapers to leave daily home delivery behind, delivering only three days a week. They'll put out a newsstand edition -- smaller than the home-delivered day papers -- the other days, for those newspaper junkies willing to make a point of becoming their own delivery people or take advantage of a new same-day postal delivery option in the works. You can see how the Detroit News is preparing its readers for the changes, and the new pricing.
Then, coming this summer, we see Newhouse's Michigan papers, flipping switches of their own.
The Ann Arbor News made the biggest splash, grandly announcing its own demise and "online-only" rebirth, then stuck in the release news of two print editions plus a total market circulation product each week.
Three other Newhouse "Booth" papers simultaneously said they are moving from seven-day dailies (there, again the oxymoronic need to define) to three-day dailies in Flint, Saginaw and Bay City. They also promised lots of web-first and web special content.
Those announcements made the same day both certified Michigan's leading role -- of course helped along by its leadership in overall economic decline -- in redefining the daily press.
They also cause head-scratching.
Wait a minute. What's the difference between an "online-only" product, with two or three weekly editions and three-day-a-week "daily" newspapers with stronger online presence?
That distinction confused many of us, and it may well confuse those charged with making the transitional moves.
No one knows exactly how to describe this new Hybrid Age of News(papers) we're moving into.
On the business side, the goal is clear: hang on to as much print advertising as possible, while making a transition to mainly digital business. That means pushing, shoving, cajoling, bundling and pricing advertisers into which print days are left, your basic Sundays, Fridays, maybe a Wednesday or Thursday. Monday, Tuesday?; holy Jupiter, never liked those days anyway.
On the news side, the goals are mushier. Newspaper editors are figuring out how much to blog/how much to story-write. How much to reach out to bloggers in the community, and how to separate the brightest from the dim. How much to link to "competitive" online news sites. How much AP to use and pretend its your own. How much to define and re-define, local and regional?
The danger: half-hearted embrace of what makes the web different than print, with limp aggregation and community reach-out efforts. The fiction: in the absence of a reporting staff, just expecting the community to cover itself.
In fact, this is an age that calls for activist editors and marketers, people who see a future and can run toward it. For editors, that means knitting together the a new Pro-Am way, a new community ecosystem of people, technologies and rules. For marketers, that means deep consultative selling, letting go the order-taking mentality once and for all.
They'll all be largely doing it on the fly, no matter how many months of prep time they have. Jim Carty's Q and A with new "online-only" AnnArbor.com editor Tony Dearing sheds some good light on these issues and the thinking very much in progress. For instance:
DEARING: ... there are so many papers right now doing different things. Look at what we're doing in Michigan - there is a different strategy in Grand Rapids, in Flint, Detroit, Seattle, Denver - everybody's trying something different. We made a pretty conscious decision early on, that we were going to start completely new from the ground up.
I think that's a great intention, though ironically you can see from the comments on Carty's blog that the immediate reaction is predictably more negative than positive. (Related side note: great series on On the Media on Internet Culture, in which as Brooke Gladstone notes, "Everyone's a critic, and no one's accountable.")
That seems to be the difference between Ann Arbor and the changes in Flint, Saginaw and Bay City. It's one of intention. It's one of seeing the world through a new lens -- the way it is, rather than the way it was, newspaper-filtered and newspaper-mediated.
You hear the same intent, dressed in different Houston clothes, from Chronicle Editor Jeff Cohen. The Chronicle is laying off 90 newsroom people, or 12% of the staff. Many editors are now well beyond the "we'll do more with less," talks. In Houston, Cohen's words speak to the clay carvings of the new hybrids taking shape:
"With the job eliminations, we are making a number of alterations to the way we cover the city and produce the newspaper and Web site. We'll combine many beats, reduce our daily photos and graphics assignments and we will make adjustments to the way we produce chron.com."
I pick out the Chron, from among the many cutback announcements of the week, because it's made online inroads many of us its brethren haven't. Scott Clark, the executive producer of Chron.com, has told me that the site sports more than 130 blogs, about half of them staff-done and half-community-generated. Those blogs aren't an island, as they are on many sites. They've been an engine of growth. More than 5% of site traffic is attributable to the blogs. In addition, they've helped with an online audience, rethinking. Blogs have helped create new channels -- pets, gardening, belief and travel, among others -- helping redefine the print "A, metro, sports, business" metaphor.
We need more innovation like that. We need less innovation like stringing together papers that cover wide geographic stretches -- 50 or 75 miles or more -- and redefining the "local" as covered in print newspaper metro sections. I've seen that phenomenon first hand, living in San Jose. The Metro section is now filled with little crime and community news from Walnut Creek, Danville and Santa Cruz. It's not "local," and my friends and neighbors are noticing. What it is is a newspaper-centric model of shoveling what one company -- MediaNews' Bay Area News Group -- produces into convenient boxes in newsprint. Filling space. It won't fool newspaper readers, who are voting with their defections, and it won't redefine the local space in ways that such companies as Outside In are attempting.
That kind of "fill" is what the new hybrid dailies in Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City have to avoid, as they seek cut budgets and try to innovate simultaneously.
What is unmistakable is that just as the automakers have had a hell of a time getting the successful hybrid model right, newspaper companies will find it a bedeviling process. Clearly, though, they don't now have the time Detroit (once) had.