A closer look: how a Michigan suburb saved a newspaper and survived to tell the tale

OriginalIt’s become a familiar story. A local paper perched precariously on an economic limb before plunging into a roadside abyss, starved of local advertisers and hungry for readers.

But what happens when people don’t want their papers to fold? What happens when people still want to read their own local news? We asked, Birmingham answered.  And it’s something like this:

The Birmingham Eccentric hasn’t always been so popular.  But in this Detroit suburb where the auto industry is the backbone of employment, Birmingham and the surrounding communities of Bloomfield Hills and Township, Bingham Farms, Franklin and Beverly Hills have decided they will not let their newspaper die. And when many community papers are rolling over to big news corporations’ bottom lines, scrappy Birmingham and Bloomfield residents — led by David Bloom, a Ford employee and local activist, and Linda Solomon, a nationally recognized photojournalist — are fighting hard for the promise of local coverage and fair reporting.

Like many newspapers, the 131-year old Birmingham Eccentric was struggling. Along with absent advertisers, the paper had editorial conflicts. Reporters were endorsing political candidates who pandered to developers in the downtown area, Bloom said. But the editorial support riled Birmingham residents who objected to the cheap influx of sprawling new buildings, and many stopped reading the apparently biased paper. As an added insult, Bloom said the paper was “cannibalizing stories from other papers,” failing to provide local news despite the paper’s claim as a community organization. Readers had stopped reading.

But when Gannett announced they were shuttering the Eccentric in April — “They were running the thing into the ground,” Bloom said — people began writing to the Eccentric’s publisher. No one knew where the decision had been made, but Bloom and Solomon began leading separate campaigns to save their newspaper.

“I didn’t want to see the history lost,” Bloom said. “I didn’t want to see us leave our coverage in Birmingham.” Bloom met with the mayor, sent letters to Gannett and eventually met with USA Today president and publisher David Hunke, who previously was the publisher at the Detroit Free Press and in charge of many decisions at the Eccentric.

When Bloom met Hunke in Washington, Sue Rosiek, the Executive Editor based in Detroit, gave the Eccentric six weeks to secure 3000 new subscriptions and until the end of September to gain 2000 more. She wanted a 20 percent ad increase.

And that’s when Bloom and Solomon really started fighting. They set up a stall at a local farmers market and sent out mass e-mails. Solomon initiated weekly columns penned by celebrities who grew up in Birmingham. She got ABC’s Bob Woodruff, who is from nearby Bloomfield Hills, to write a column in the paper. To encourage younger readers to embrace the paper, she organized middle school students to take pictures and write columns, too.

The local radio station WXYZ ran an editorial about the Eccentric on their Web site this week. ABC World News Tonight plans to run a feature soon.

And the Eccentric became more “local-centric,” said Bloom, luring once-alienated readers back to the paper. They promised they would work on making the paper more relevant.

“People take pride in the community,” Bloom said. “People have roots here and we want it to succeed.”

But subscriptions — 1600 since the drive began —won’t be enough to save the paper, Bloom said. Even with the online site he and Solomon created called “Save the Eccentric.”

“I’ve been pushing for them to go to some format where content isn’t freely available on the Web,” said Bloom. That decision will impact more than the Birmingham community, Bloom said, adding that USA Today may use the Eccentric’s pay wall as a pilot program for their own pay-for-content program.

But given the snowballing local support, a move to paid online content will probably be welcomed by this dogged community, especially if Bloom and Solomon continue their fairy-tale push as the Eccentric’s knights in shining armor.

“I have very strong feelings about keeping a newspaper on the kitchen table,” said Solomon, whose prolific photojournalism career began on the Eccentric in the 1970s. “Our paper is the glue that holds our community together.”

Residents began to love their paper again. People around town are even wearing “Save the Eccentric” buttons.

And at one of the farmer’s market booths recently, someone came up to Solomon. “I want to be part of the magic,” he said.

If only all newspapers could wave their wands and summon this kind of support.

Or a profit.

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3 responses to “A closer look: how a Michigan suburb saved a newspaper and survived to tell the tale

  1. Pingback: A Weekly May Be Back from the Brink, After Fans Step Up - Media Decoder Blog - NYTimes.com

  2. Pingback: Another paper on the brink: Nichi Bei Times walks the plank « LedeObserver

  3. Pingback: Another paper on the brink: Nichi Bei Times walking the plank « LedeObserver

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