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Commentary: Our newspapers, ourselves

Last weekend, when I was going to the North American International Auto Show, I walked by the Detroit News building.

It is an impressive structure, designed by legendary architect Albert Kahn nearly a century ago.  Carved along the top are inspirational sayings about the role of the press in a Democratic society. The News moved into that building in 1917, as the United States was moving into World War I.

Since then, presidents and would-be presidents have gone there to be interviewed, as has virtually every celebrity the nation has known. Some of the nation’s greatest journalists have worked in that building, where the editors ran the place from magnificent paneled offices and one of the world’s most beautiful newspaper libraries. In the years before radio, they set up billboards outside and crowds gathered to read the World Series scores and news bulletins.

For years, the paper was locked in an intense rivalry with the Detroit Free Press, which occupied its own building on the same street. But then the papers partially merged.

Fifteen years ago, the Free Press too moved into this giant building. And now, both papers are leaving it. Their circulations and staffs have dwindled to a small fraction of what they were.

Yesterday, the papers announced they would leave their magnificent building, and look for something smaller. They’ll try to sell their historic headquarters, but if they can’t, they’ll just abandon it.

Back in the 80's, when the government was deciding whether to allow the controversial merger of the News and Free Press’s business operations, the then-editor of the Free Press said if the merger wasn’t allowed, his paper would close and leave another abandoned building in downtown Detroit.

Well, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the merger. And now there will be two abandoned newspaper headquarters in downtown Detroit.

Media economics have changed drastically with the coming of the internet, and newspapers have seen declining circulations and revenues across the nation. But the decline has been especially drastic in Detroit, where Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, has managed to run first the News and now the Free Press into the ground.

That’s happened in part, I think, because for years they have tried to put out papers for people who mostly didn’t want to read, newspapers that more and more resemble television or glitzy internet graphics. But in general, people who don’t want to read, don’t want to read anything. They want to look at a screen.

My theory is that there is a place for newspapers, the place they occupied in the early years of our nation. They need to become a medium for intelligent educated readers who really want and need to know what’s happening and why. They will have to cost more, but I think people who pay for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal would pay for high-quality Michigan news.

In any event, what’s being tried by those who run what were once two of America’s best newspapers isn’t working. And that is both tragic and frightening. You can get lots of Jennifer Aniston news from TV and the internet.

But newspapers are still virtually the only medium capable of keeping a close eye on government and business.  And without them, democracy is flying blind.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.