Thursday, December 11, 2008

Motown, Project Griffon -- and that secret PM code

Here's the Executive Summary of what anonymous readers and senders of e-mail to yours truly have been whispering about in comments here and here over the past week. (Who knows? Maybe some of what follows is even true!)

The Gannett-controlled publisher of the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News is working on something super-duper-secret called "Project Griffon." It would represent an enormous gamble by Gannett and its partner, MediaNews Group, to stanch multimillion-dollar losses in a city whose economy is cratering around the auto industry crisis. Hanging in the balance are the jobs of perhaps 2,000 employees.

Yet with nothing to lose but, well, more losses, the idea is to blow up the traditional newspaper business model in an especially dramatic way. A formal announcement could come as soon as Tuesday -- if you believe the speculation.

The concept explained
Under the purported plan, 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. Other days, there would be some sort of slimmed-down single-copy-only version. And everyone would be encouraged to subscribe to already-available electronic editions of the Freep and the News.

Stoking speculation: this widely circulating link to a special Freep subscription offer. When prompted for the two-digit access code, type MP and you get one offer; type PM, and you get the offer purportedly available under Project Griffon.

An adviser on all this, we are to believe, is a Silicon Valley consulting firm, IDEO, with a wild-and-crazy website (detail, left) to match its California-groovy About:

Based in Palo Alto, Calif., IDEO is "an innovation and design firm that uses a human-centered, design-based approach to help organizations in the business, government, education, health care, and social sectors innovate and grow in three ways" -- and it just keeps going on and on like that!

Is any of this true?
There are many things I don't understand about this -- like, whether any of it's even true. That said, Detroit Free Press editor Paul Anger wasn't very reassuring yesterday in this Metro Times column (second item) about Detroit's future. Or maybe Anger was just choosing words extra carefully when he said: "I think it's pretty safe to say we're going to print a newspaper."

Now, I can imagine lots of savings on newsprint, presstime and labor (depending on union contracts) for production, and delivery. But how would this affect ad sales, and the size of the ad sales staff? And what other savings would there be?

General Motors vs. Gannett
I've always thought San Francisco would be the first major American city to lose some or all of its traditional printed newspaper to the Internet; the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle has been on the ropes for years.

But that was before General Motors' stock lost 84% of its value -- in one year. Gannett shares, down 76%, aren't far behind.

(Confidential to FG: How'm I doing so far?)

[Image: yesterday's Freep, Newseum]


  1. Seeing as how the layoffs decimated Battle Creek, and Lansing, Livonia, Livingston and Port Huron didn't fare so well either, seems a 'bold initiative' would be to create MichiganTODAY and bureau-tize all our sites in the state at once.

    You build one edition for the 94-96 corridor and print it both in Detroit and Lansing, and you change two pages for a state edition and push that out of Lansing.

    Printing only a few days a week to serve a million-plus metro area reinforces how non-essential the newspapers are. This change will accelerate Detroit's transition into a no-newspaper town.

  2. A design firm is behind the changes? Oh good lord, your troll is going to be incredibly obnoxious, Jim.

  3. CLARIFICATION: It's Project Merv Griffin and all of us are in Jeopardy as we spin the Wheel of Fortune.

  4. Come on Jim - get your facts straight - the spelling is Griffon...8) fg

  5. Yes, you are on to something here. It has been put on hold by the efforts in Congress to come up with a bailout for Detroit. But as that effort is stalling, it is gaining new life. My belief is that if there is a bailout, plan appears next year. If no bailout, it appears this month. With a dismal Christmas ad season over (and it has been truly bad, according to ad salesmen I know), the attitude is that they have to do something.
    As for your comments about labor unions, when has GCI ever let a labor contract get between them and their financial plans?

  6. I wouldn't read too much into that "PM" offer -- it's pretty standard practice to sell various 2-3 day combos, and by offering free access to the digital edition the rest of the week, they can count this as a 7-day subscription under the ABC rules.

    But certainly a money-losing metro should be considering a conversion to digital-first publication combined with printing just 1-3 days per week (plus a commuter freebie where appropriate). This cuts a ton of expense while potentially retaining most of the ad revenue; and more importantly, it takes the right step into the future, while continued cost-cutting within the old model is a guaranteed dead end. The Tribune bankruptcy and Rocky Mountain News closing are going to stimulate a lot more of this kind of thinking.

  7. If the concept be even partially true, it would be a truly innovative approach -- and that's something the industry needs desperately. Go for it. Beats the heck out of dying from a thousand cuts. Kudos to the people with smarts who, instead of wandering around in a dumb daze, may actually forge ahead.

  8. I'm a non-Gannett reader of your blog (what goes on at Gannett goes on at all the other chains...). You just do a better, saner job of blogging on it.

    Anyway, that being said, the old copy editor in me hopes you change "staunch" to "stanch."

    Otherwise, great job. Keep it up.

  9. The Dec. 16 meeting is still true, and still going to happen. Someone obviously couldn't wait to leak more information on a plan that still isn't 100% ironed out yet, good job!

    Yes Griffon is real, kind of ironic that Griffon was a Great Lakes transport ship back in the 1670's, guess what, it sunk and took everyone down with the ship. Look it up.

    Yes it is a plan reworking the Freep Press and News, but it is entirely up to MediaNews to choose to layoff people, we all know Gannett will with the Freep, especially in the Press room, reporters, delivery, circulation etc.

    How are they going to be profitable, well with all the layoffs, and getting rid of the old dogs will present a great saving. The big wigs were meeting with the top national accounts to make sure they would still advertise before moving forward. The national accts obviously represent the largest revenue the DMP gets, if the big guys stay, the little guys will follow. Just expect the 3 days that are delivered to get bigger.

    It's a shame, but like I said a week ago. BIG changes are coming.

  10. Message from Dave Hunke:

    In the past 24 hours you have no doubt heard a lot of rumors and several news reports about significant changes at the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. Clearly, over the past months we have been exploring various scenarios to reposition the companies for growth and to ensure two strong newspaper voices in the community.

    We plan to share details early next week with you, as well as with readers, advertisers, unions and the community. In the meantime, let’s continue to focus on doing the best job we can and on building the strongest relationships we can among ourselves and with our customers.


  11. Has anyone else gotten the Hunke memo that 10:18 just posted?

  12. "Griffon" is worse than "Griffin"!

    Better to be focusing your business re-creation project on some mutant animal instead of a boat that sunk because of poor decision making by people desperate to make a profit.

    Oh, um. Never mind. Carry on!

  13. Yep. seems everyone at the News and Freep received Hunke's e-mail at 10:10 a.m.

    The funny thing is the first e-mail came at 8:25 a.m. from Janet Hasson, senior vp of Audience Development & Strategy (???) of the DMP simply telling employees that all media inquires should be directed to Susie Ellwood at (313) 222-2149.

    Hope this new super secret project is better organized than our half-arsed management.

  14. Jim - the memo was mass distributed

  15. Too bad Gannett laid off some of its best and most motivated outside-the-box thinkers.

    It's suspicious to me that the corporation hires -- at phenom expense -- other companies to innovate and to manage functions in some of the exact ways staffers were trying to persuade publishers to innovate. Gannett lays off its own idea people to pay a company to take the credit and muck it up (as we saw in the prime example of Pluck! -- their exclamation, not mine).

    I hope those still on staff see this and as a result stop sharing their ideas with management. You can sell your good ideas outside of Gannett, and speaking about them inside will just get you booted in the next round of layoffs.

  16. Yep, 11:16. I remember the Freep staff committees to re-invent the paper in summer, 2005 -- before Gannett came in and threw all the work out.

    Printing the paper once or twice a week, with digital-only editions the rest of the week, was discussed quite a bit in the committee I was on. We never got to present those recommendations to Gannett, though. They just weren't interested.

    Good to see we wasted three years.

  17. Oh please, 11:54 a.m. Are you talking about Carole Leigh Hutton's aborted attempt in 2005 to re-invent the Free Press? Didn't that attempt include devoting much of the front page one day to what turned out to be an incorrect story about Eminem's "retirement"? And isn't this same Hutton, the person who led this "reinvention," the one who whitewashed Mitch Albom's decision to put false sentences in a column? And isn't Hutton also the same person who threw out a negative review of one of Albom's books because Mitch threw a fit? And isn't Hutton the editor who ran the Free Press while it was getting hammered on auto industry coverage by the News? And isn't Hutton the editor who couldn't last even a year when she tried to "reinvent" the San Jose Mercury News?
    Yeah, those were the golden days at the Free Press.

  18. Wall Street Journal is out with an online story confirming the rumors. Says announcement will be next week.

  19. Not a newspaper person here, just a visitor via Atrios and the WSJ. In fact, I don't care much about newspapers one way or the other, considering how irresponsible most of them have been over the last ten years or so. But this much is obvious -- giving up physical newspapers is the end of the line for a long tradition going back to Addison, Ben Franklin, and the rest. Even the addled industry I work in (education) knows better than to give up their main franchise to boneheads on the Internet, no matter the temptations. Not talking about present company either, because this blog is more informative than USA Today.



Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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