Freep in Flux: Full List of Challenges, but Not Full Staff, Await Next Editor

Daunting challenges confront whoever fills the Detroit Free Press' newsroom leadership vacancy.

Crain's Detroit Business lists three hurdles in a subhead atop an overview by media reporter Bill Shea:

The next top editor of Detroit's largest paper will contend with declining audience, smaller newsroom — and a changing identity. 

Crain's index blurb for this week's issue.

Shea speaks with a half-dozen present and past Freep staffers (names withheld "because of fears of backlash) and with two parent company executives serving as interim editors.

The question now is if the replacement for executive editor Robert Huschka, who resigned on July 7 after less than two years in the job, will oversee the Free Press as a unique publication within the Gannett Co. Inc. media empire, or if the state's largest newspaper will become little more than a Detroit bureau of its USA Today Network of content and advertising shared across its 110 U.S. properties. . . .

One thing that is clear: unlike Huschka, who was a longtime page designer before becoming executive editor in August 2015, the new Free Press leader is expected to have a resume that includes newsroom management experience.

"We definitely want an experienced newsroom leader with hard news chops who understands digital transformation and metrics," said Amalie Nash, a regional executive editor for the USA Today Network and a former Free Press assistant managing editor. . . . "When you have a property the size of Detroit, you want someone that has run a newsroom or been a No. 2, and understands the complexities of a large organization." . . .

Whoever is hired will have to quickly deploy a plan to stem audience declines while cracking the code on how to do it with a shrinking newsroom.

Huschka was chosen by former Freep publisher Joyce Jenereaux, who left last August after just 16 months in that job. That role is eliminated here and at other Gannett papers, Shea explains in a far-reaching overview that exceeds 2,000 words:

Top editors now report to regional editors instead — creating a tension in which local editors often have to choose between local journalism and network projects, Freep insiders said.

The two acting editors won't discuss potential candidates to succeed Huschka. Prospects include Fox2 Detroit reporter M.L. Elrick, who shared a 2009 Pulitzer Prize at the paper and who says he's interested, Shea writes, adding: "He also interviewed for the job before Huschka was hired."

Facebook photo by Melody Malosh

The next executive editor will confront a stark reality of print journalism that Crain's documents:

The Free Press suffers from the same downward trend that's plagued the newspaper industry for more than a decade.

The paper's weekday average paid circulation has declined 63.3 percent over the past 10 years, from 329,579 in April 2007 to 120,757 during the week in March of this year. . . . The Free Press Sunday edition's circulation has fallen 60.5 percent over the same time, from 647,699 in 2007 to 255,569 now.

Such declines mean revenue has shrunk, and there's been a corresponding trend of newsroom job cuts to offset the declines — making an editor's job to build audience much harder. Fewer reporters and editors mean less content. . . .

The newspaper had about 300 newsroom employees in 2005, and now has less than half that.


Earlier coverage:

Read more:  Crain's Detroit Business

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