Detroit Free Press Shifts Lens towards Digital, Away from Print

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.

“Our new emphasis on digital media will give you even more options for getting your advertising message out in a variety of timely, cost-effective and targeted ways,” Detroit Media Partnership noted in a message to advertisers on a Web site dedicated to the shift. The partnership manages business operations for the two papers.

Within Q1 of next year, 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. The company also aims to place more emphasis on digital audio and video and mobile offerings.

The Gannett-owned papers follow in the footsteps of the Christian Science Monitor, which also plans to shutter its print operation altogether in favor of the Web next year.

The company chalked up what it called a “bold” decision to economics and a steady decrease in ad dollars, including classifieds. “In anticipation of this change we spoke with national and local advertisers,” stated the Detroit Media Partnership “transformation” site. “Most applauded this transformative effort, which puts us in the forefront of our industry’s plans to meet the changing needs of our customers.”

“They flipped the switch halfway [from print to digital],” said Ken Doctor, newspaper industry pundit and lead news analyst at media market research firm Outsell. “We know if they flipped the switch the whole way they’d have lost 87 to 90 percent of their revenue,” he added, noting that print revenue still accounts for the majority of the publisher’s ad revenue.

Exactly how the sales force will operate in a less-print-centric environment is unclear. “The sell is going to be very different,” said Doctor. “They’ll have to re-jigger the sales process. How flexible will the sales force be?”

Digital revenues for the firm have been growing at a higher rate than what’s average for other newspapers, said Detroit Media Partnership spokesperson Michelle Bassett. The company expects digital growth to continue, she added.

As part of Gannett’s broader online initiatives, digital publications associated with The Detroit Free Press include local entertainment site Detroit.metromix.com, a local version of its MomsLikeMe social sites, and content from Highschoolsports.net. Detnews.com has created new content areas on its site, including its kid’s health blog, Ask the Pediatrician, and The Green Life, a section featuring energy and environmental related news and content.

Anticipated growth for those niche properties “will allow [the news sites] to place more resources on selling and marketing even more of those offerings,” said Bassett.

This niche content approach exemplifies Gannett’s strategy for creating content that speaks to specific audiences, especially those advertisers want to reach — moms, and high school students and their parents, for instance.

“They are gaining some understanding that niche products are gong to be more important, and they are clearly more important in their sales strategy. That’s where higher CPMs are going to be,” said Doctor. However, he’s not convinced the company has a well-developed digital strategy in general, or when it comes to reaching audiences that attract premium advertising dollars. The Metromix and MomsLikeMe sites, for instance, are Gannett initiatives that are localized for Detroit, along with several other cities and towns.

“What we saw basically was a reiteration of current programs rather than innovation on the online side,” he said.

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