Innovation: Big Changes at Detroit Newspapers in Print and Online

The big news today is the decision by the Detroit Newspapers to drop daily home delivery of their newspapers. It’s a radical, scary step for journalists. There is a lot of emotion and identity tied up in the physical edition of what we do. It’s the thing that we grew up with, and drew most of us into this business.

But dramatic change is what we need going forward. No more tinkering around the edges. The problems are too severe. I can’t say that Detroit is making the right decision. And we’ll have to wait and see the results, and the reaction from the community. I suspect this will be difficult for long-time subscribers. Getting the newspaper is a daily habit, ingrained over decades. It will be tough to lose that. As one long-time reader posted on the Free Press Web site:

“I have no idea what I will read in the bathroom. The paper has been a part of my daily habit for nearly 40 years, and I am saddened by the loss. Also, the online version will not work with my morning routine, and I would struggle to page through the articles while attempting not to spill coffee on my laptop. This is a very bleak day indeed. If the paper thinks they will get my online subscription, they are mistaken, as I will simply take delivery of local papers during the week.”

Let me offer some insight into part of the news. Detroit has been working with a Palo-Alto-based firm called IDEO to help rethink its process. While I’ve never worked directly with IDEO, we used their methods last year in a project called “Rethinking the Mercury News.” IDEO uses a method called “human-centered design.” The process begins with expansive interviews and observations of how people lead their lives, approaching research more like a sociologist rather than pure market research. These widespread observations are reviewed to identify themes or ideas that then drive the creation of prototypes. The goal is to design products that fit the way people use products in their lives.

Sound crazy? Perhaps. But it’s an increasingly common design-driven process used through other industries. IDEO has a strong reputation for helping other industries innovate and meet customers needs. Of course, thinking about the newspaper as a product is problematic for many journalists. But that’s what it is.

There’s a lot of chatter out there about the news. Let me recommend a Q&A posted by my former boss, Matt Mansfied, who spoke with Steve Dorsey, the deputy managing editor for presentation and innovation at the Free Press.

Also, check out:

The Detroit Free Press story on the announcement.

the Detroit Media Partnership transformation site.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter crunches the numbers on the changes.

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10 Responses

  1. Plenty of folks are not going to receive papers from Detroit newspapers. The economy has definitely created financial chaos causing the Detroit newspapers to cut out their home delivery. It doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur or a plumber; you are going to feel some of the economic tension one way or another. Even two major Detroit newspapers, The News and the Free Press, are in need of extra cash and have significantly cut back on their daily home delivery. Just like any other business, the newspaper industry is dependent on the economy and advertising dollars. However, we are all aware of the importance of newspapers. Therefore, there must be away to keep the industry above water. Find out what one writer thinks and how she manages to make some extra cash at personalmoneystore.com

  2. The thing about internet technology and branding folks is that they have a blind spot for how print works in the communication ecology. Thanks for pointing out that IDEO’s involvement. It makes another wise really dumb decision more understandable. And especially thanks for the quote. It demonstrates exactly the place the Print plays in people’s real lives.Is the unique value prop of the paper the content? Not in my opinion. The unique value is exactly the printing presses and the delivery logistics. Any business that Google can’t compete in, is a good business.I would have thought that the Free Press could have figured out that they could leverage their defensible advantage by printing a 24 page issue and delivering only to subscribers, with links to deeper stories on the web. Given that cell phones are now able to point at a printed page and be taken directly to a web site, and that the growth of web enabled cell phones is exploding, it should have been an easy decision.Oliver,just want to quibble with “Just like any other business, the newspaper industry is dependent on the economy and advertising dollars”. Any business that sells stuff/service is not dependent on advertising dollars. And that’s most businesses. It’s only the mainstream media since about 1890, that lives by advertising. If you keep following the advertising dollar, the only alternative is to get expenses in line with revenue. But eliminating the presses and delivery trucks is just getting into competition with the internet. Not the place I would want to be.

  3. Thanks both to Michael and Oliver to sharing your thoughts here. The economy is definitely going to cause the industry additional suffering this year. But I’d also like to see us find a way to get away from an ad-supported business model. It seems the conversation about the way forward always comes back to advertising. And Michael’s right, I think, that a lot of folks still miss the value of print. I keep hearing folks over and over say we should stop the presses, but there’s still a lot of life, and money, left there.

  4. Not only is there a lot of life left in them, but the presses and the delivery is what newspapers can do that is very hard for anyone else to do. Gathering and telling the news is easier and faster outside the walls of the newspaper organization. All this business about going to the web just puts the newspapers into competition with everyone else. Already newspaper sites have a huge numbers of hits. But hits don’t pay the bills.The idea that newspapers will be able to make enough money to support their operations through hits doesn’t scale, in my opinion. So..newspapers can outsource gathering the news to community blogs, to investigative non profits, to Congressional committees. Then they can concentrate on their real defnesible advantage- printing and delivering stuff. At first it could be a way slimmed down version of the print. 3-3-10. Three pages of briefs with links to their site, 3 pages for a longer story in print, 10 pages of local advertising.Then they could use their excess print capacity to use the long tail of content they already have to print specialized newspapers for K-12 education. Science writers/editors replacing sciencfe textbooks. Economy/ business writers/editors replacing economic textbooks. Political reporters teaching kids civics, which is no longer taught in schools any more.re the money: School systems already waste a huge amount of money with the big three textbook publishers. Why not replace that with a much lower cost, more effective, series of subscriptions to a news, you can use in the service of education. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kid’s parents would want to subscribe to a “teaching’ version of the Paper, themselves.

  5. Chris,I think there was an important detail left out of the original post that changes my opinion about IDEO. I pulled this off the website:The other four days – Monday through Wednesday, and Saturday – we will produce innovative, newly-designed single copy editions. Both newspapers are finalizing their plans with input from readers. They will be available at 18,000 stores and coin boxes across Michigan in the first quarter of 2009.So the issue is NOT giving up the Print edition. It is doing something new with it, and eliminating subscribers.Very different, IMHO.

  6. Given that they made the decision to work with IDEO I have a feeling everyone is going to be very surprised with what is going to happen in Detroit. I think it’s going to be very, very good. Should be interesting to watch.From what I read, the plastic logic ereader is also the tech that Hearst is using to do an e platform for Hearst.

  7. Detroit intends to be one of the first test markets in the nation for the Plastic Logic e-reader, with content provided by the Free Press and The News. Plastic Logic is the developer of a groundbreaking e-reader device, differentiated by its unique and industry-leading plastic display. British Columbia payday loans

  8. Detroit industry hasn’t exactly been perceived as innovative lately, but the city’s newspapers are poised for some big changes. The Detroit News and the 170-year-old Detroit Free Press are cutting print editions in favor of digital media, putting more resources in support of their digital efforts. The newspapers will add digital news channels and offer subscription-based electronic editions, while reducing frequency of its print products. Home delivery of the papers will be limited to Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays, and print editions — some just single sections — will be sold on newsstands every day. Alberta Payday Loans

  9. Michael and Helen: Thanks for keeping this thread going. I’m familiar with IDEO, and I think there has been some confusion about their role and the decision to cut back daily home delivery. From the start, this struck me as a very un-IDEO like decision. They are about creating new things and finding new growth and new markets. When I asked IDEO to talk, their reps said they weren’t involved in this decision.I think what happened is this: Detroit needed to make an emergency cut to save money. This was their solution. But they dressed it up with the fact they are working with IDEO. I think that was a bit misleading on the part of the Detroit papers.I am a fan of IDEO and “design thinking.” And I think we may yet see something exciting emerge from the Detroit/IDEO work. Whether that’s print, or digital, we’ll see.Also worth noting: Gannett is working with IDEO across it’s whole company, not just Detroit. They’ve really embraced the IDEO process.

  10. Thanks for the “working across the whole company” data. If the real problem is a product that no longer fits users lives, the design thinking approach could be the real secret sauce. Based on years of working with designers and clients, I’ve often been told that to make great work, you need a great client. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. It would be great if a reporter could be asked to focus on this story as it develops.

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