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Saving the newspaper, one community at a time

Much as the old adage goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a community to save a newspaper.

Like the rest of the country’s print media, the Gannett Company is struggling through rough times – papers have closed and merged, printing plants have been consolidated, and most recently, the company announced the layoffs of approximately 1,400 people company-wide. Despite these hardships, one small beacon of light casts some hope on the scheme of things: The Birmingham Eccentric outside Detroit is still printing after 131 years.

Birmingham Eccentric

Birmingham Eccentric

On May 31, five papers from Gannett’s Michigan-based Observer & Eccentric newspaper group were slated for closure. The Troy, West Bloomfield, Rochester and Southfield Eccentrics closed up shop on schedule, but the Birmingham Eccentric proved itself a survivor.

It all started when the bad news was announced in April. Faced with the demise of their community paper, the people of Birmingham quickly united and formed a committee dedicated to saving the paper. “When it was announced the paper would close, they (the community) galvanized into action in an amazing way. It was quite a sight to see,” said Birmingham editor Greg Kowalski in an e-mail interview.

Included in this diverse group are a number of the newspaper’s readers, the city manager, the mayor of Bloomfield Hills, the Bloomfield Township supervisor, and town councilman from surrounding communities. In addition, columnists, writers and photographers have offered their services for free, just because they wanted to help.

The committee’s efforts have included a Web site dedicated to generating new subscriptions, town meetings to rally support, and a trip to Gannett’s headquarters in Virginia for negotiations with David Hunke, who is also publisher of USA Today.

Despite having lost a day – the paper previously published twice a week but dropped to Sunday publication only – results of these efforts have been gratifying for the staff and community of Birmingham. Initially, Gannett officials wanted 3,000 new subscriptions generated by July 1. While that goal hasn’t been reached, the paper did add about 1,000 new subscribers in the past two months. Currently, the paper must obtain 5,000 new subscribers by Sept. 1 for it to survive. “I don’t know that we will reach that figure by that time, but as long as we can generate a steady stream of new subscribers, we will likely continue operating,” said Kowalski.

Alan Lenhoff is director of product development at the Detroit Media Partnership, which oversees the Eccentric’s business operations. Lenhoff, who has lived in Birmingham, said in a telephone interview that he respects the community’s dedication to its newspaper and its ability to accomplish tasks.

The Eccentric’s future remains unclear, however. Lenhoff noted that because two-thirds to three-fourths of newspaper revenue comes from advertising, increased ad revenue must also accompany the paper’s circulation growth. “We’re seeing some increase in advertising,” he said. “But is it something we can count on in the long haul?”

Perhaps the survival of the print newspaper depends on a community’s dedication to its continued existence. Kowalski said he has never heard of a community saving a newspaper in the same way. “It has boosted morale. It’s encouraging for everyone to see that a paper destined for extinction can come back.”

In his blog, Matt Friedman, co-founder of local public relations firm Tanner Friedman, calls it Birmingham’s second chance. “All residents who said they would miss their community newspaper must now agree to support it. It’s truly ‘use it or lose it.’”

How do we save the newspaper? The answer to this question is much sought after and the urgency grows with every newspaper’s passing. Media experts, bloggers and readers have suggested charging for online content and the American Press Institute recently laid out a five-point plan in May called the “Newspaper Economic Action Plan.” Among their suggestions were enforcing copyright laws, investing in new technologies and adapting to new devices that deliver digital content.

While in many communities, the local paper passes in silence, the value of the newspaper is apparent in Birmingham. “It is the oldest business in Birmingham,” said Kowalski. “Many people have been reading it throughout their lives. They cannot conceive of the town without the Eccentric.”

–Katrina M. Randall

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