National Press Club

Colliding Auto, Media Crises Challenge Michigan News Outlets

December 5, 2008 | By Gil Klein

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Despite cutbacks in news staff and a sharp decline in revenue, Detroit news leaders told a National Press Club forum they are rallying staffs to cover the automobile industry crisis with all they have.

Changes in technology are providing new ways to reach people, they said, but the demands the technology is putting on reporters are burning them out. And, the panelists said, they worry about which news organizations can survive a long-term economic downturn.

“Does it cause a strain? You know it does,” said Jonathan Wolman, editor and publisher of the Detroit News, said of covering the automobile industry crisis with a smaller staff. “The dominance this story has for our community can hardly be exaggerated. So we just keep throwing our folks into the fray.”

Wolman was speaking Wednesday at one of the Club’s forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” the Club is holding around the country to mark its 100th anniversary. At each forum, the Club gathers a panel of leading local journalists to talk about where the news business is going and how to protect its core values.

This forum was held at the Gerald Ford Library in Ann Arbor, which co-sponsored the event. As one of the few presidents who actually liked reporters, Ford had spoken at the Club at least 17 times, and the Club chose his library to hold its Michigan forum. Richard Ryan, the 2001 Club president who covered Washington for nearly 40 years for the Detroit News, spoke about Ford’s relationship with the Club and with the news media.

The automobile industry crisis is drawing more people to mainstream news media, the panelists said, but they also are demanding faster information.

“There’s an expectation from our readership that we give them news as we learn it,” said Omari Gardner, news editor for digital media at the Detroit Free Press. “It’s instantaneous, and it’s constant. We have never had better access to our community than we have now. And they have never had better access to us.”

More people are watching Detroit’s over-the-air television stations now – as many as 15 percent more since the start of the crisis, said Marla Drutz, vice president and general manager of WDIV-TV.

“We have an opportunity to bring back some of the lost viewers,” she said.

But that is not translating into higher revenue, Drutz said.

When the station cut into Jeopardy, the popular game show, to cover a press conference by UAW President Ron Gettlefinger, it lost that advertising revenue. Also, automobile advertising accounts for nearly a quarter of television revenue, she said. With sales slumping, that advertising is disappearing.

Drutz noted that former President Clinton predicted the economy may not turn around for three years. If it takes that long, she said, “the face of the media is going to change pretty dramatically.”

Vincent Duffy, news director for Michigan Public Radio, said he is fortunate not to have to depend on advertising, and the station's audience is up significantly. But the challenge of making the radio Web site viable while providing quality news is becoming overwhelming, he said.

“In the electronic media, every time there’s a new technological ability to do something, our bosses say, ‘That’s great. Do that, too,' ” Duffy said. “What happens is you have reporters that are running ragged with no more resources, no more time and no more pay.”

The reporting suffers, he said, because there is less time to do the fact checking, calling sources and updating information.

The Free Press’ Gardner said the same thing is true in the newspaper industry.

“You have reporters who become absolutely burned out,” he said. “We need to strategically pick our battles on what we do, what will attract eyeballs.”

In addition, he said, newspapers are offering buyouts to experienced reporters. That leaves them staffed by young reporters with no veterans for guidance.

The News’ Wolman said advertisers are as confused about the transformation of the media as anyone else. They are excited about the potential of digital news, yet the going rate for online advertising is about one-eighth of what print advertising is.

Newspapers provide the anchor for news in any community, he said. If the recession lasts a long time, some of those newspapers are going to disappear.

“I know lots of people who are working lots of hours to get this business model tucked away, and I have a certain amount of optimism that will happen,” he said. “But the days do tick off.”

Details and highlights of these forums can be found at the National Press Club’s Web site: