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Originally published Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 2:20 PM

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Detroit papers drop home delivery to 3 days a week

Fighting to stay in business, Detroit's two daily newspapers will radically change their relationship with readers by slashing home delivery to three days a week, printing small editions on other days and encouraging people to get information online.

Associated Press Writer

DETROIT —

Fighting to stay in business, Detroit's two daily newspapers will radically change their relationship with readers by slashing home delivery to three days a week, printing small editions on other days and encouraging people to get information online.

The Detroit market is the largest in the country to undergo that transformation. But it reflects a calculation facing newspapers across the country, with print circulation dropping as readers increasingly get their news on the Internet.

By curtailing home delivery on certain days, the papers reduce printing, fuel and labor expenses for editions that tend to attract fewer advertisements.

The chief executive of Detroit Media Partnership, which runs the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, said the move announced Tuesday was not an experiment. He predicted it would succeed in keeping two papers alive.

"I don't think we're ever going back," said David Hunke, who also is publisher of the Free Press.

If it fails, "I'm fired and I may have led two great institutions down the wrong path," he said. "It's a huge risk. It's disruptive to folks. I understand that."

But the newspapers, he said, can't afford to wait. Detroit Media Partnership is losing millions of dollars this year, and Michigan has been hammered by home foreclosures, high unemployment and the near-collapse of the auto industry.

"We're here because we're fighting for our survival. ... But we're not doing this with our heads down," Hunke said.

After the change, which takes effect in March, for $12 a month, home subscribers will be able to get the Free Press delivered Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Or for that price a subscriber could get the News on Thursday and Friday, plus the Free Press on Sunday. The News does not publish a Sunday edition.

That subscription package - which is $1 to $2 less than current monthly rates - will also give people access to an online replica of the roughly 32-page editions of both papers that will be sold each day at newsstands. Both papers also will regularly update the news on their free Web sites, freep.com and detnews.com.

"Americans are reading with their feet. They're walking over to the computer screen," said Jonathan Wolman, the editor and publisher of the News, which is owned by MediaNews Group Inc. The Free Press is owned by Gannett Co.

Newsrooms will be spared layoffs but Detroit Media Partnership still expects to cut 9 percent of its work force of 2,151 employees, "hopefully" less, Hunke said.

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Ron Renaud, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 372, said he fears drivers and other delivery personnel will be hit the hardest. Talks with unions will start in January.

Detroit has company in making major changes, but the other papers are in smaller towns.

The Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb, recently cut its print edition to four days a week from six. In Arizona, the East Valley Tribune near Phoenix next year plans to have print editions on four days instead of seven. The afternoon newspaper in Madison, Wis., shifted to being an Internet publication this year, except for twice-weekly free print editions.

The Christian Science Monitor recently said it would become the first national newspaper to drop its daily print edition and focus on publishing online.

Ken Doctor, media analyst with Outsell Inc., said the Detroit papers' decision will "significantly reduce costs. It gets them ready for a bad 2009." But he added: "The biggest risk is it breaks the daily newspaper habit for readers and marketers. Newspapers are accelerating their own print demise."

Indeed, Marianne Nagrant of Farmington Hills recently marked a milestone: 40 years of marriage to husband Nick and 40 years of subscribing to the News.

"While I'm reading one section, he's reading another," said Nagrant, 64, who pores over the puzzles, comics and opinion page at breakfast. "If you're (reading it) online, one of us is going to be at the computer a long time."

A key question for newspapers is whether the cost savings from stopping home delivery are worth the resulting reductions in print advertising on those days. Significant ad revenue online is not easy to come by.

"There's less money in online advertising and no significant reader revenue online," Doctor said.

The Free Press is the nation's 20th-largest daily newspaper, with a weekday circulation of 298,243; sixth-largest on Sunday at 605,369. The News had circulation of 178,280 at the end of September. The News saw a 10 percent reduction in circulation over the past year, while the Free Press had a 6.8 percent slide.

The changes create uncertainty for businesses such as Art Van Furniture Inc., which advertises in the papers several days a week and considers itself a key supporter of the News and Free Press.

"We'll have to take a step back and wait and see," spokeswoman Chris Morrisroe said. "The number of (advertising) avenues that are out there ... has increased dramatically. But your marketing budget didn't double. It's already been kind of a tightrope. Where do you put the money you have?"

Charlie LeDuff, a former New York Times reporter who joined the News in March, said he's excited about telling stories in different ways, especially with multimedia on detnews.com.

"The owner didn't decide to shrink the paper. The reader decided to shrink the paper," he said. "Journalism is not dead. We just need to reconfigure what we're doing."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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