Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Mysterious Deaths, Part II

This month, Gannett announced it would make major changes to what anyone who worked in southeast lower Michigan journalism knows as the O&E. What were once the heart of the chain, the Birmingham Eccentric and its West Bloomfield edition, are being closed -- in fact, anything with the moniker "Eccentric" will disappear. The footprint of the Observer papers, which I think began as a chain in Livonia -- it might have been Farmington -- and were merged with the Eccentrics when Phil Power owned the group, will continue to be supported. This was western Wayne and the South Oakland suburbs -- Southfield, Pleasant Ridge, Berkeley. But the Eccentric heartland -- oh-so-upscale Birmingham and Bloomfield, along with less-hoity but still well off Rochester and Troy -- will be abandoned, according to this story by the Detroit News, which should know, as it also is owned by Gannett. No papers, no Web site, nada.

This twice-a-week operation was once a gold mine. Coming on the heels of the end of the Ann Arbor News, the end of 7-day home delivery in Detroit, the end of 7-day publication up I-75, it says once again that recovery for Detroit is years away, if ever. One can spin the Ann Arbor News closure as a proper response to a young, hypereducated, hyperhyperlinked town. One can't spin that for Flint, Saginaw or Bay City, and the spin on Detroit is creaky. All one can do is pull out empty pockets in the manner of the Monopoly card. And unless Birmingham and Bloomfield have changed into Seattle overnight, one couldn't say it about them either -- which is probably why there was no "we're going to be making the Eccentric into" or something. Just goodbye, unless I'm totally missing something in this story as well as Editor & Publisher's.

I went to Topix and looked for local news about Birmingham, Mich., assuming that since I lived there, some other competitor had come into the market and cleaned the Eccentric clock. But the stories there were from something called Hometown, which turned out to be the soon-to-be-abandoned Web site of the Birmingham Eccentric. I googled "local news Birmingham MI" and didn't find anything relevant at the top of the list either. So much for a local online news site devastating these papers. Or maybe everyone in Birmingham tweets each other all the local news.

Now, I've heard anecdotally that Birmingham is no longer the destination it once was in Detroit terms -- the young and trendy go to Royal Oak, and the closure of Jacobson's had to hurt badly. (One of the things that made Michigan a special place to live in the 1970s was Jacobson's, a department store chain that was once equal parts Penney's, Lord & Taylor, and Lily Pulitzer. Its answer to the Michigan Malaise of the 1980s was to throw out the Penney's element and try to become a national upscale chain. That didn't work.) And the O&E is a union shop, although something nags at the back of my brain that says there was some sort of distinction between Observer people and Eccentric people. But that may be completely off base.

One main reason the Birmingham Eccentric in the 1970s and 1980s was such a gold mine -- and had journalistic talent and standards comparable to any midsize daily newspaper, including a real copy desk -- was real estate advertising. Page after page of real estate ads, not the crabbed little print of the typical daily but large photo displays for each trophy property. Birmingham and Bloomfield are, with Grosse Pointe, the home of Detroit's elite -- Bloomfield having some reputation as where you lived if you were a GM executive. The market for executive homes in Detroit is probably not going to be good for many years to come (although perhaps some Fiat executives will be looking), so union pay levels are probably unsupportable. (Goodbye Turin, hello Detroit -- I wonder how many euros as a bonus that move would have to entail.)

But still. People read print newspapers in Pittsburgh, in Milwaukee, in Rochester -- like Detroit, not cutting-edge markets for the young, hip and wired. (People of every age read them everywhere, but let's just not get into that one today.) So Detroit is becoming Ground Zero for newspaper reinvention not because the market is demanding it, but apparently because there simply is no advertising market. For those of us who can remember B. Siegel, Himelhoch's, Winkelman's, Tuttle & Clark, Grinnell Bros., the Good Housekeeping Shops, Hughes Hatcher Suffrin, Louis the Hatter, Adler-Schnee and Annis Furs, let alone Hudson's, Crowley's and Federal's, it's too sad. Any rate, if anyone has more concrete information about the Eccentric's end, please add to this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, these days Gannett owns the Free Press, not the Detroit News.