Over the years, the newspaper became an unstoppable monopoly universally hated and loved.
After 200 Years, Future of Newspapers in Michigan is Uncertain
Bay City Times Among Papers Suspending Daily Publication
May 15, 2009
By: Dave Rogers
The largest manufacturing enterprise in the world, newspaper publishing, is undergoing a historic contraction.
Among newspapers published daily for nearly a century and a half, The Detroit Free Press and The Bay City Times, are suspending daily publication and coming out only two or three times a week.
Interestingly, the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University recently published a newsletter, "Reflections from the Clarke," headlined "Celebrating 200 Years of Newspapers in Michigan."
The Clarke newsletter pointed out "on August 31, 1809 the Michigan Essay; or, The Impartial Observer," appeared on the streets of Detroit.
The Times began publishing in 1873, its run of daily papers thus spanning 136 years and ending June 4 when it will print only Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Reports are the Friday publication may also fall away soon, restricting the paper to two days a week. As with any other business decision, that may depend on the revenue generated with the three-day-a-week format.
The Saginaw News and The Flint Journal are following suit, casting a cloud over the "sunrise side" of Michigan. Michigan's primary market, Detroit, will not be unscathed. The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News will continue home delivery only three days a week. Both will deliver on Thursdays and Fridays, and The Free Press will hit the porches on Sundays, when The News is dark.
We will be infinitely better off here than Ann Arbor, which is suspending its print editions entirely in July and switching to online annarbor.com. However, a two-day-a-week publication will continue under the online banner.
Long gone are the glory days of The Times, 30-40 years ago when it covered about 18 counties in northeast Michigan. Reporters based in Midland, Bad Axe, Tawas, Grayling, Alpena and other regional centers, and part-time correspondents in almost every village and burg provided coverage of about one-fourth of the area of the state. The Bay City daily claimed 95 percent "penetration" of the home market, and aggressive circulators laid bundles of the paper on the porch of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and points in between, every day.
"Newspapers are the first draft of history," the Clarke noted about one of journalism's most important functions.
Those of us who have transitioned from reporting daily news to studying and writing about history are, of course, distraught about the turn of events affecting newspapers.
Reporters and editors for decades have bemoaned the dedication of publishers to "the bottom line," but in the end it was the bottom line that dictated the fate of newspapers.
"Newspapers are a peculiar institution because although they often assume a public function they are, nevertheless, privately owned, commercial enterprises," the Clark sagely noted.
Could newspapers in communities like Detroit, Saginaw, Flint and Bay City survive as non-profit, community service publications? That is a format some towns are trying and its success is very much in doubt.
Even politicians who have felt the lash of inquisitive reporters are wondering who will keep the crooks among them from looting the municipal treasuries of the nation. Without the scrutiny of gumshoeing reporters, they fear, unscrupulous pols may run wild.
The Internet, a much more transitory medium, cannot do as well what newspapers have traditionally done: sue to open books, campaign for public causes, attack abuses, investigate budgets and spending accounts and bring brigands to bay.
Certainly newspapers will find that out as they enter the "twilight zone" of the Internet, with its myriad maze of "news" and opinion perplexing and dividing readers. It is an unknown region of the mind that transcends the old certainty of print and paper. You can't fold the Internet or clip it and paste it in a scrapbook. It's a communication medium that defies description and would no doubt bamboozle Marshall McLuhan with his undying pronouncement "the medium is the message."
If the medium is the message, the message of today is like the smoke of the Native American's signal fire -- it is blown away by the wind before you can wrap the fish in it, or even smoke the fish.
Over the years, the newspaper became an unstoppable monopoly universally hated and loved. It was something we couldn't do without but always thought we could.
Delegations of well-meaning citizens on a mission periodically would descend on the editor's office at the Bay City Times, bound to bring the house down because of some political disagreement. Company bosses faraway were often bombarded with pleas, threats and demands to fire this or that reporter or editorial writer for their outrageous ideas, yours truly among them.
What the rampaging citizen groups never knew was that publishing bosses were immune to such attacks, knowing that to bow to one was to become the tool of the loudest protesters.
The best way to diffuse an issue raised by a complainer, I found as the last person to hold the title of "City Editor" at The Times, was to offer to repair the damage by conducting a further interview into the issue. "We will put a camera on it and talk to everyone involved," was my usual ploy. Of course, more scrutiny and ink was the last thing the accused culprit wanted, and the complaint died aborning.
Local editors had a sure-fire device to cool the jets of protest: the "firing reporter." Imagine this scene, with a captain of industry, lets say, on the muscle and in the house. "Get in here Jones; you wrote that story that made this solid citizen look bad -- you're fired!" Jones would meekly admit to his sins but plead, "boss, I've got six kids, what about them?" The editor would retort, "I don't care, your errors are unpardonable, you're outta here!" pointing to the door.
As the errant ink stained wretch slunk out the door, the tycoon would inevitably take pity and relent: "Gee, you don't need to do that, Milt (or Glenn, or Tom, or whoever was on the green carpet). Let the poor guy keep his job."
So the crisis was over, and the conned tycoon never realized he'd been had -- the "firing reporter" had struck again.
There is no institution quite like a daily newspaper, and it seems there never will be again. That is the history we unfortunately have to write, without the newspaper to document the course its demise will take.###
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On May 27, 2009
at 06:23 PM
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Alison A. Hicks
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Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at email@example.com)
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