Habits of a lifetime


DETROIT'S two newspapers, the Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, now owned by the Denver-based Media News Group, are trying something unique: Ending home delivery four days a week, and attempting to drive their subscribers to the Internet.

What they are about to find out is whether their core readership is willing to change the habits of a lifetime.

Starting sometime in March, the Detroit papers, whose business operations were combined in a controversial joint operating agreement in 1989, will deliver one or both morning papers to subscribers on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. On other days, readers who pay for a subscription will be able to call up a "virtual paper" on the Internet and click on their mouse to page through it. Thin editions of the papers will be printed and put in newspaper boxes, or available by delivery through the mail - at least for a while.

What the companies want to do is drive readers to cyberspace to save the cost of delivery and newsprint. In fact, when the experiment starts, Detroit Newspaper Inc. plans to lay off 9 percent of its workforce, eliminating about 300 jobs.

Newspaper publishers across the nation will be watching this experiment intently. All have been plagued with rising costs and dwindling revenues. If this gamble works, it may revolutionize the way in which America regards newspapers although The Blade has no plans to stop home delivery in the foreseeable future.

Still, there are serious concerns about the Detroit gamble. Older Americans are the most dedicated newspaper readers of all - and the least tech-savvy. They are used to starting their day with coffee and the morning paper, and pulling out a pencil to do the crossword puzzle. It is hard to imagine many of them carrying around laptops and learning how to download PDF files, or trying to work the puzzles online.

A speech pathologist who works at senior centers says that her clients "understand one thing about this, that they aren't going to be able to get their paper delivered, and they are mad."

There is also a sense of unease, in that the partnership that runs the Detroit newspapers has a long history of getting it wrong. Twenty years ago, when Gannett and the Knight-Ridder chain, which then owned the Free Press, first asked the government for permission to combine forces, they predicted huge profits and more readers. Since then, circulation in Detroit has fallen from 1.3 million to 478,000, and the dominant Free Press was the only Gannett paper in America to lose money last year.

Moving newspapers to the Internet may be the thing to do in 2028, by which time we will have a nation reared on the World Wide Web. The Detroit experiment may yet surprise us. But indications are that it may be an idea a few years ahead of its time.