Thursday, June 14, 2012

Detroit | The worst-kept secret of December 2008

There's a bit of revisionist history telling by a Gannett executive in Adrienne LaFrance's new story for Nieman Journalism Lab about Detroit's switch to three-day-a-week delivery in 2008.

It involves Rich Harshbarger, vice president of marketing and communications for the Detroit Media Partnership. That's the joint operating agency handling ad sales and other business for the GCI-owned Detroit Free Press and MediaNews Group's Detroit News.

Harshbarger compares Detroit's December 2008 announcement to that of the The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, which recently disclosed plans to curtail printing to three days a week.

He says the Times-Picayune made (in LaFrance's paraphrasing) "an enormous miscalculation" by keeping staffers out of the loop, allowing them to hear about their paper’s restructuring first from The New York TimesDavid Carr, who broke the story, rather than from their supervisors.

'It never leaked'
LaFrance quotes Harshbarger saying: "There were about 200 employees from the Detroit News, from the Free Press, and the JOA partnership that knew about what we were going to announce in the December press conference, and it never leaked.”

He continues: "That’s how much buy-in and support we had from our employees. I mean, especially with newsrooms, right? I think that understanding that the employees are having this announcement in New Orleans, and they’re hearing it from a third-party media outlet -- that couldn’t have been more different.”

In fact, the situation in Detroit was quite the same as in New Orleans in the run-up to when DMP CEO Dave Hunke finally announced details at a Dec. 16 press conference. What follows is a timeline of all the news and speculation that came first.

Code name 'Project Griffon'
Gannett Blog readers starting learning about the Detroit plans more than a week before from leaks to the news media. "Big meeting Dec. 16 with all employees,'' I wrote in a Dec. 7 comment here, citing a reader's e-mail.

Three days later, alternative weekly MetroTimes said a "momentous decision" was in the works to deliver the Freep only two or three days a week, soon after the first of the year.

On Dec. 11, I reported that under a purported plan code-named Project Griffon, "one or both Detroit papers would end home delivery entirely, except for perhaps two or three days a week -- the more-lucrative Thursday, Friday and Sunday editions."

In a memo to employees later that day, Hunke addressed the leaks, saying management was "exploring various scenarios."

Here's the NYT and WSJ
The next day, Dec. 12, the New York Times -- yes, the Times -- reported: "The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News are planning to stop home delivery most days of the week and print a pared-down version of their papers for newsstands on those days, according to people briefed on the plans."

Then, Dec. 13, The Wall Street Journal also published a story.

Finally, Dec. 16, Hunke announced details of what by then had become the industry's worst-kept secret.

[Photo: Citybizlist]


  1. Hunke? Worst pub ever. Usa Today will be digging out from the mess he created for years.

  2. Someone needs to put a muzzle on Harshbarger. He's once again proving he's just not cut out for this job.

  3. And nearly every employee at USAT knew what Hunke's history in Detroit was, once it was announced that Hunke would be publisher.

    And we got exactly what we expected: incompetence, distortion and manipulation, all while he was serving the masters in Gannett be it Dubow or Martore. It's clear that his charge was to "Gannettize" USAT and he certainly achieved that objective.

  4. Don't hang this on Hunke. It was all Craig Moon's doing. Or has Harshbarger covered up that history as well?

  5. Did other media speculate on the story, yes. But in Harshberger's credit none of them had it right. He was only the puppet of Hunke. Why blame the messenger?

  6. I thinkthepoint he was trying to make was that no media outlet had the entire story. Give the puppet a chance.


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