Most people might not consider being hospitalized with an unexpected heart condition a stroke of good luck, but Frank Shepherd, former owner of 21st Century Newspapers and The Oakland Press, said a three-day stint at a cardiac unit near the end of 2003 was just that.
At 62 years of age, Shepherd had amassed one of the largest newspaper companies in the country, buying 129 newspapers in five years, starting with The Oakland Press, which had a daily circulation of about 90,000 and was making nearly $20 million a year in profits. He had successfully battled The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press for advertising dominance in Oakland and Macomb counties, but Shepherd, like few in the newspaper business, could foresee the impending recession and how it would decimate ad revenues. Nor were they aware how the online and digital revolution would eat into their subscriptions and swallow their classified sections. But in October of 2003, while being treated for a heart issue at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Shepherd read a book his wife had bought him from the gift shop that put the writing on the wall.
"It was written by a woman who was an auto writer for The Ann Arbor News. I still have the book and underlined parts. Basically, her thesis was that the auto industry was going away, and the Japanese were taking it over, and it would go to Mexico and the South, and business would go in the shitter," he said. "I said, 'I think she's right.'"
Faced with health concerns and convinced his business would be facing a major downturn, Shepherd decided to sell his publications and retire. That November, he went to New York City to tell his creditors he wanted to put the company up for sale. In the spring, 21st Century Newspapers was on the auction block and sold to the Journal Register Company for $415 million.
"At the end of the day, I wasn't that good – I was lucky," Shepherd said of his decision to get out of the business. "The timing of my heart problem was lucky. I was only 62 and wasn't ready to retire. I was looking to expand. The health problem and the book triggered it. I got lucky.
"When we closed the deal in 2004, and they closed the books in September, it was the first time that 21st Century Newspapers and The Oakland Press missed their revenue estimates. I don't think they ever recovered."
About four years after the sale of the business – which included The Oakland Press, The Macomb Daily, The Royal Oak Daily Tribune, The Morning Sun in Mount Pleasant, and more than 100 other newspapers across Michigan – the Journal Register Company declared bankruptcy for the first time. In 2012, the owners of The Oakland Press filed for bankruptcy a second time, eventually merging with Denver-based MediaNews Group, owner of The Detroit News. Today, the company is operated by Digital First Media, which became the business name of MediaNews Group, which had also filed for bankruptcy protection in the past.
Once considered the dominant paper of Oakland County in sales, circulation and news coverage, The Oakland Press has witnessed a steady decline, with daily circulation plummeting to slightly more than 23,000, according to the most recent figures from The Alliance for Audited Media.
As print circulation continues to plummet, so goes its associated revenue from the sale of papers and advertising. Faced with declining profits, the paper has been forced to slash employees, leaving its sports and news departments with a skeleton crew of editorial staff.
A review of one week's worth of editions of the Oakland Press reveals that advertising by local retailers is weak at best and some weekdays, nonexistent. The Sunday edition is still beefy, in large part thanks to advertising from auto dealers and preprints or advertising inserts, a huge profit item for most newspapers, numbering from 12-15. The classified want ad section, which in its heyday ran 40 pages or considerably more, is now down to just several pages.
"That is just sad. That is just very sad," Jack Lessenberry, head of journalism faculty at Wayne State University and senior news analyst for Michigan Public Radio, said about the paper's circulation number. "They have had a lot of good people and reporters that are now scattered around."
While Lessenberry credited many of the paper's staff for its quality of work, including current local news editor Julie Jacobson-Hines, he said The Oakland Press has become a "sort of wretched" paper that employs "huge headlines and no content, with some reporters working out of their homes rather than coming into the newsroom.
"They clearly don't have money to add staff," he said.
Requests for comment from the current executive editor and the publisher of The Oakland Press weren't returned. However, interviews by Downtown newsmagazine with several previous editors, publishers and Detroit-area newspaper veterans since the paper was sold from ownership of the Fitzgerald family in 1969 tell a story of a once strong paper in a state of decline.
"This was a very good paper, and the staff was moving into the southern part of the county. Then disaster happened," Lessenberry said. "All newspapers have been in trouble, and a lot of their problems might have happened anyway, but it was exacerbated by corporate greed and people that didn't have an interest in journalism."
Once employing more than 100 people in its newsroom, today The Oakland Press has less than 20 editors, reporters and multimedia journalists listed on its editorial staff. Those that remain must find ways to do more, while new hires must focus on ways to increase digital content, which includes finding and promoting news that will bring traffic to its website and mobile platforms.
Industrywide, the trend has many journalists tracking web statistics in order to meet production and readership quotas to help drive digital profits in the face of declining print revenue. Regardless of increasing gains in digital revenue, income from the printed product remains the largest source of revenue for newspapers, industrywide.
Declines aren't necessarily unique to The Oakland Press. Daily newspapers across the country have all witnessed their print circulation wither since the 1990s. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press have both lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers. In 2015 alone, the average weekday newspaper circulation, including print and digital readership combined, fell seven percent from the previous year, the greatest decline since 2010, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Likewise, the trend of cutting staff in order to achieve profitability has emptied newsrooms throughout the nation, with staffing losses of about 39 percent over the past 20 years, or about 20,000 positions. Today, there are an estimated 33,000 employees working in newsrooms across the nation.
The most recent assessment of the industry found that print advertising losses are falling much faster than expected, which is likely to spur even more cuts to already struggling newsrooms, according to Ken Doctor, a national news analyst and author of Newsonomics.
"Almost all reported double-digit losses in print advertising this quarter compared to the third quarter of 2015," Doctor said of the three largest publicly-owned newspaper companies and those private companies that shared information. “That's swamping any other progress these companies have made. Digital First Media is in that same place. They have done steady reductions of staff over time, and I anticipate more of those in 2017."
Despite the industrywide trends, some former publishers, editors and newspaper veterans say the demise of The Oakland Press has been accelerated by various corporate ownerships over the years. Particularly, the former Journal Register Company, which has a reputation for practicing what Forbes once labeled "cheapskate journalism," as well as the current Digital First Media, which some media experts say is in the process of bleeding its papers of profits until they can be sold to the highest bidder.
Denver-based Digital First Media, which owns both The Oakland Press and The Detroit News, is among the three largest newspaper companies in the industry, behind Virginia-based Gannett, which owns the Detroit Free Press, and New York-based GateHouse Media. Digital First Media is owned by Alden Global Capital LLC, a New York-based hedge fund that invests heavily into distressed businesses and property.
Digital First Media previously invested heavily into digital expansion of its newspapers under former CEO John Paton – including the creation of Project Thunderdome, a high tech, national newsroom in Manhattan that could output digital content to the company's papers across 15 states, which was closed in 2014 as part of a cost-cutting initiative to save more than $100 million,
In May of 2015, Alden Global Capital ended talks with Apollo Global Management to purchase Digital First Media for a reported $400 million. Former Digital First CEO John Paton left the company after the deal floundered. Today, the company holds 67 daily newspapers and 180 non-daily publications. In Michigan, Digital First Media owns five daily newspapers, including The Detroit News, The Macomb Daily, The Morning Sun, The Oakland Press and The Royal Oak Daily Tribune. It also owns The Source in Clinton Township; The Press & Guide in Dearborn; The Voice News in New Baltimore; MI Prep Zone; Go & Do Michigan; The News Herald in Southgate; and Morning Star Publications in Traverse City.
"I haven't heard that they are actively shopping it as they were before, but there's no doubt for the right offer that Alden would sell in a heartbeat," Doctor said of Digital First Media's holdings. "It's a financial investment. What they are calculating, just as they did when they let the Apollo deal go, is that 'if we hold on for three years and cut as needed, how much can we take out of these papers for the next three years versus selling them.'"
Meanwhile, Doctor said Digital First Media is in "milking mode," or working to squeeze profits without making significant investment in its newspaper products.
"They are very much in milking mode, more so than others," he said. "On a curve, it's an affliction for the whole industry, but they have done it longer and deeper than others, and it doesn't show any sign of slowing up."
As Digital First Media and others in the industry continue to make cuts in an attempt to stay profitable, those in the industry say the quality of many newspapers, including The Oakland Press, have dwindled, which in turn hurts the value of the product.
Michigan State University journalism professor Stephen Lacy said that diminished quality at a paper also contributes to declines in circulation.
"Part of the problem is, and there's plenty of documentation on this, is that circulation is a function of the quality, and the investment in the newsroom," he said. "Over time, you cut your newsroom and your circulation. And as you reduce circulation, you're less of an advertising target. Now that print is declining as a percent of revenue, digital revenue goes up, but it's not at the pace to keep up with those losses.
"The smart newspapers are trying to squeeze as much revenue out of their print products that they can until it becomes cost prohibitive."
Lacy said quality and accuracy also impacts readership, overall.
"One problem is that when you reduce the quality, which can be as simple as spelling words correctly and getting names right, is that you lose credibility. As quality declines, and I mean that broadly, you're losing your credibility, as well as running off readers. People stop trusting their local paper.
"Twenty years ago, surveys found people didn't like the media, as defined by Washington D.C., and New York City, but they liked their local newspaper and news station. Today, we find that applies to local as well. This disinvestment had an impact on circulation and content."
Retired newspaper man Bill Thomas, who served as managing editor of The Oakland Press from 1985 to 1998, said the decline of the paper began years before it was sold to The Journal Register Company, but that the severe cuts to the newsroom's senior staff and corporate influence of how to provide local news coverage essentially destroyed the paper.
"The downfall of the news side was under Journal Register Company, and whatever else it started to call itself," Thomas said. "One of the things that (former owner) Capital Cities did was that they let their papers run autonomously. There was no central control. In today's newspaper industry, corporate decides. They tell you what the paper is going to look like. When that happens, everything starts to fall apart because there isn't one cookie-cutter approach to journalism."
When major cuts started hitting the newsroom, the staff that was let go took with them decades of journalism history. Today, Thomas said he's disenchanted with much of what is happening in the newspaper industry and infuriated about what has happened to his former newspaper and its staff.
"It's not endemic to The Oakland Press, but I think it's a case study in what happens when you pay too much for an organization, for a newspaper, and you don't have the resources or ability to make sure its success continues," Thomas said. "I think that's what happened under the Journal Register Company with The Oakland Press."
The origin of The Oakland Press dates back to the mid-19th century, when J. Dowd Coleman established the Pontiac and Oakland Gazette in 1843, according to the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. In 1854, the newspaper was acquired by ZB Knight, who renamed the paper The Pontiac Gazette. In 1906, the paper was absorbed by The Press, which was formed in 1900, and renamed The Press Gazette. Finally, in October of 1914, the paper was sold to Howard Fitzgerald, George Gardner and Harry Fitzgerald, of Flint, who expanded the paper and later renamed it The Pontiac Daily Press. In 1953, the paper was renamed The Pontiac Press.
The Fitzgerald family continued to own and operate the paper until 1969, a year after Capital Cities Broadcasting entered the publishing industry and purchased The Pontiac Press as its first daily newspaper and published the paper as a six-days per week daily. The paper didn't change its name to The Oakland Press until 1972.
About the time of the sale of the paper by the Fitzgerald family, Capital Cities appointed Dan Burke, former head of Detroit radio station WJR, as president of the company. Burke, who spearheaded the purchase of the paper, then appointed Phil Meek as publisher of the paper, who had previously worked in Ford's central finance department. In 1971, Meek released the paper's editor and replaced him with Bruce McIntyre, who was made publisher in 1977 and remained at the paper until 1995.
From his start, McIntyre said the paper quickly earned a reputation as an essential news source for Oakland County.
"The first thing we ran into was the busing crisis," McIntyre said, recounting some of the coverage that earned the paper its solid reputation. "Unless you were there, you can't understand what it was like. The Ku Klux Klan came in and bombed the school buses a week before school opened. It was a nasty period."
With less than eight months on the job, McIntyre sent the entire news staff into the field to cover the first day of school in Pontiac. The coverage gained national attention and the staff became a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
"We cleaned the building out of people," he said. "By that, I mean we sent everyone in the editorial department, except for someone to answer the phones, on the streets. Sports writers. Everybody. All over town. All the schools. Every school that we could get to, to report what was going on. It was quite a day."
As the county seat, Pontiac at the time was the largest city in the county. The surrounding communities hadn't yet gained their current stature, and in 1972, The Oakland Press was the only daily newspaper in the county, albeit six days a week, without a Sunday paper.
As the events of 1971 influenced residents to leave Pontiac, many settled in the surrounding communities, causing the paper's circulation to spread into much of the northern part of Oakland County. As new residents moved into the growing municipalities, so did the newspaper's circulation.
Throughout his time at The Oakland Press, McIntyre said daily circulation peaked at about 75,000 to 80,000. When two of the labor unions went on strike at the paper in 1977, McIntyre said The Oakland Press continued to publish by bringing in outside help, allowing the paper to add a Sunday edition to its publishing schedule.
"We had been negotiating with the unions back in 1976 on the renewal of contracts. Those negotiations stalled and we weren't getting anywhere," McIntyre said. "In 1977, right after the time I became publisher, we brought in some outside pressmen."
Initially brought in to assist with problems happening with the paper's pressroom, where the paper is printed, the move caused issues with the union members that were already working there. On December 29, 1977, the pressman's union went on strike.
"That's an odd time to strike," McIntyre said. "The Christmas business is over. The heaviest advertising time of the year is over, and it's the middle of winter. So, when they walked out, the newspaper guild, which was the editorial department, walked out in support of them. The other unions didn't, so we continued to publish the paper."
In order to continue publishing, the newspaper hired new editorial staff and brought in people from their other papers to run the presses. With publication of the paper still going strong, and a Sunday edition added to the mix, the company was able to rid the two unions from the newspaper.
"The aftermath, and this wasn't our choice, but what happened, but none of the people that struck, in either union, ever came back to work," McIntyre said. "There wasn't any prohibition to them coming back. Technically, the strike is still there, but a substantial number of them were replaced. We had to replace 90 percent of the people in the newsroom."
By 1979, CapCities had become one of the most profitable publicly-owned media companies in the country. It had also earned a reputation for breaking unions at other papers, the same as it did at The Oakland Press, by bringing in outside workers to cross picket lines.
"For a year, we had to move trucks through the picket line, and sometimes it got pretty nasty. People who worked there and continued to work there took a lot of abuse. I don't mean physical abuse, they just took constant abuse going to work," McIntyre said. "There were efforts to try to cut our circulation, but we never lost any substantial circulation. We never lost any substantial advertising. And, while the strike was still going on, we started the Sunday paper."
On the inside, McIntyre said Capital Cities executives left their editors to operate on their own. As publisher, he said the paper was always profitable, and budgets to corporate were simply submitted and approved. Neither Burke nor Meek had any interest in inserting themselves into the journalism process, McIntyre said.
"They wanted someone who knew what they were doing, and they wanted to stay out of their hair," he said.
In 1985, Capital Cities made a huge play in the media business and purchased the much larger American Broadcasting Company (ABC) for $3.5 billion. The resulting company was known as Capital Cities/ABC, which was roughly five times the size of the original CapCites. Despite the size, McIntyre said, management at ABC adopted the CapCities style of management, allowing The Oakland Press to operate with a large degree of autonomy.
From an editorial standpoint, McIntyre said his philosophy was to create a complete newspaper that provided complete local coverage, as well as what was going on in the world. At the same time, he said coverage and circulation was focused on areas where they already had a stronghold, rather than attempting to expand into other areas of the county.
"Our advertisers don't care if we have 10 percent of the houses in Novi or Farmington Hills. What they care about is if we have 60 percent of the houses in Waterford," McIntyre said about where he chose to focus circulation. "If we dilute our obligation by chasing circulation in places where we are never going to achieve a sufficient majority, then it's a waste of time,"
Traditionally, he said, the paper had its strongest circulation in Waterford, Lake Orion, Pontiac, Rochester and West Bloomfield, with some in other locations like Birmingham, but not in high concentrations. The Oakland Press, McIntyre said, never had any significant circulation in southern Oakland County, with its reach being diminished south of Square Lake Road. It's strength, he said, lay in the northern and western parts of the county.
Today, McIntyre, who has served on his hometown city council in Orchard Lake Village since his retirement in 1998, said cuts instituted at The Oakland Press by the Journal Register Company have hurt the quality of the newspaper and its coverage.
"There are probably six to eight local stories in the whole paper, including some that were written by people in Macomb and Royal Oak," McIntyre said, holding up a Monday edition of the paper. "There's not much in there."
Worse, he said, are the cuts to some of the longtime newsroom staff that were hired on his watch, which included the firing one day in 2006 of former managing editor Susan Hood, assistant managing editor Dolly Moiseeff and editorial page editor Neil Munro, who had each been at the paper for more than 30 years.
"I keep telling people in my business, the way that you grow is that you start with readership. You start basically with the editorial side. You have to create a readership vehicle, and from that you sell circulation, and from that circulation you sell advertising," McIntyre said. "You can't do it in reverse. You can't avoid it. You can't get around it. You have to start with a product that people want to read, because if they don't, forget the rest of it.
"So, of course if you demolish the editorial side of the business, what do you expect?"
Bill Thomas, who was made executive editor of The Oakland Press in 1985, said he believes the beginnings of the paper's decline started about 1996, after the Walt Disney Company purchased CapCities/ABC for $19 billion. At the time, the purchase gave Disney an important distribution outlet for its programs through ABC's broadcast holdings.
"Disney didn't really want newspapers. (Disney CEO) Michael Eisner hated newspapers, and it was clear that he didn't want to soil his hands with the ink-stained wretches," Thomas said. "That was the beginning of the end of The Oakland Press, and what we had built into a phenomenal paper."
The following year, Disney sold its papers to Knight Ridder, which at the time owned the Detroit Free Press and was unable to acquire The Oakland Press.
Meanwhile, Frank Shepherd was wrapping up his work for Stauffer Communications in Topeka, Kansas, where he had increased increased profits of that family's papers to sell to Morris Communications. With a successful track record of increasing profits and flipping the holdings, Shepherd sprung at the opportunity to purchase The Oakland Press and develop a cluster of papers in his home state of Michigan.
"I called Disney and tried to talk to the CFO, Thomas Staggs," Shepherd said. "I talked to his assistant because he was out to lunch, and I told her I wanted to buy the paper. He called me back and said, 'I understand you want to buy The Oakland Press.' I said, 'Yes.' Staggs said, 'You and another 1,000 people. Get in line.'"
Playing his Michigan roots, Shepherd said he was able to bond with another executive who told him he vacationed in Traverse City. In the summer of 1997, Shepherd purchased The Oakland Press for $110 million. The deal, he said, also included the Lapeer County Press, "which was one of the nicest weeklies in Michigan." The sale also included a group of five other weekly newspapers in the southeastern area of Michigan's thumb region, with weekly circulations totaling about 59,000.
While he had retired from The Oakland Press in 1995, McIntyre remained with Capital Cities/ABC until it was purchased by Disney. When he left the paper, Capital Cities/ABC replaced McIntyre with one of his former reporters, Dale Duncan, who left the paper in 1980 and returned as publisher in 1995.
"The paper didn't change much," Duncan said about his time as publisher until 1997. "We gained a lot of readers and advertisers during the (Detroit newspaper) strike, and hung on to them for a while, which made it very attractive to Shepherd when he came in and bought it."
It was in July 1995 when six different unions began striking at The Detroit News. The strike, which also involved unions at the Detroit Free Press, including The Newspaper Guild, the Teamsters, pressmen, printers and distribution, lasted through early 1997. While the papers continued to publish during the strike, both lost significant circulation that they never fully recovered. However, the strike provided a boost in circulation for The Oakland Press.
From 1991 to 1997, newspaper circulation at The Oakland Press reached its peak number, going from 75,457 daily circulation and 82,644 on Sunday, to 85,672 daily and 101,364 on Sunday. In 2000, the numbers remained higher than any year prior to 1997, with daily circulation at 79,184 and Sunday at 96,867, according to audits by the Alliance for Audited Media.
Just prior to closing on The Oakland Press in 1997, Shepherd received a call from a bank that owned The Macomb Daily, the Royal Oak Daily Tribune and The Shopper, in Utica, inquiring if he was interested in purchasing the group. Shepherd said he closed on that group of papers and the others from Disney on the same day. Shepherd operated the group of papers under his own company, 21st Century Publications.
In 1998, former Oakland Press editor Bill Thomas left the paper to become publisher of The Macomb Daily. He was replaced by Garry Gilbert, who worked for the paper until 2006, when he joined the faculty at Oakland University, where he currently serves as the director of the journalism department.
"We were doing quality work," Gilbert said, who said he started with a newsroom staff of about 90 people. Under his watch, the paper won the Michigan Paper of the Year award six times, and a public service award from the Michigan Press Association. "We used to go by the expression: we cover every leaf that falls in Oakland County."
During the time that Shepherd owned the papers, the editorial side of the paper remained largely unfettered.
"I let the editors at each publication do what was important. I had good editors with Bill Thomas and Garry Gilbert," Shepherd said. "I let them do what they do best, and didn't interfere with what they did in the editorial process. I think they did a good job. I spent most of my time bringing in other papers and working on sales.
"The heart of a paper is editorial, and the life is the revenue, so I spent most of my time shoveling money in the front door."
When Shepherd purchased The Oakland Press in 1997, he said the paper was making about $10 million a year. By the time he sold it in 2004, he said he increased profits to about $18 million. The Lapeer paper was making about $4 million a year in profits.
"When I bought The Oakland Press, they only covered about half the county," he said about the paper's sales and circulation. "My first quote when I was interviewed was, 'I didn't buy half the county. We are going to expand into the whole county.' And I did that to get (sales) away from the Free Press and News.
"We were extremely successful in covering newspaper racks. Then we went after some of their editorial space and went after major accounts."
Shepherd said he increased profits by centralizing operations and sharing services among the papers. Printing became centralized in Lapeer, and two months after the purchase, he formed The Greater Detroit Newspaper Network. Operating as a separate business, the company focused on bringing in major national and regional advertising accounts, which brought in about $45 million in revenues each year in national accounts. Of that, he said about 70 percent of the revenue came from preprint ads, or inserts.
"The Oakland Press was the maraschino cherry on the sundae that drew the major accounts. It was the fifth largest daily in the state, and that got us in the door. Once we got in the door, we opened up our coat and there were all these other publications that would sell at a very low rate," he said. "That was our trick. It wasn't brain surgery."
While Shepherd said he hadn't considered selling 21st Century before 2003, Thomas said he believes his enthusiasm for owning the papers began to wane prior to then.
"He announced he was going to sell, and that took the wind out of everyone's sails. Then he came back and said he wasn't going to sell, so the staff that was excited got disenchanted," Thomas said. "Then, in fact, he did sell. So, the initial enthusiasm Frank (Shepherd) brought to it, in terms of staff, waned pretty quickly."
In 2004, Shepherd did sell 21st Century Media to the Journal Register Company for $415 million. At the time, the company had earnings of about $36 million, making the sale about 11.5 times its Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization (EBITDA). Analysts say newspapers today are typically valued about three to five times their EBITDA.
"Immediately after the Journal Register bought The Oakland Press, we were able to do some hiring and ramp up a little. They were pouring fresh money in. They just purchased it, and they wanted to be competitive," former editor Garry Gilbert said. "We hired some news and sports people, but shortly after we had to face decisions on how to contract the size of the staff."
At the same time, Journal Register was starting to tinker with expanding the company's digital capabilities. In the newsroom at The Oakland Press, Garry Gilbert said nobody was yet sure how to approach digital offerings.
"Our reaction was that 'we don't really understand this digital platform, let's shovel our content into this digital and see what happens," he said. "Unfortunately, some innovative things were happening, like Craigslist and Facebook, which came from creative people that weren't in the media."
As websites like Craigslist started taking classified advertisers from traditional newspapers, the Oakland Press and others entering the digital fray began giving away online content for free.
"Most people probably agree that was a mistake," Gilbert said. "If content has value, if it's proprietary and accurate, and has value to the audience, they are willing to pay for it."
In 2006, Garry Gilbert ended up leaving The Oakland Press for Oakland University. He was replaced by Glenn Gilbert (no relation), who served as executive editor until 2014. About a month after Glenn Gilbert was hired, the paper fired managing editor Susan Hood, assistant managing editor Dolly Moiseeff, and editorial page editor Neil Munro. Together, the three editors had nearly a century of journalism experience.
"They wiped out the editorial history of the paper when they showed Neil Munro and several other key editors the door in a cost-cutting deal. They called them in and let them go in one day, and they had nobody left," Bill Thomas said. "Anyone with any historic journalism experience has left, except (local news editor) Julie Jacobson-Hines, and she's trying to keep The Titanic away from the iceberg."
Admittedly, such cost-cutting measures has left Thomas disenchanted and disillusioned with the newspaper industry today, which is one of the reasons that influenced his retirement after 40 years in the business.
"It infuriates me what these people did to a quality newspaper," he said. "If you're interested in chasing prostitutes on the street corner, then Journal Register is your company. If you're interested in quality journalism, then look elsewhere because they ruined The Oakland Press."
Glenn Gilbert, who was hired as executive editor by Journal Register Company, said staff reductions came at corporate directives, which were to be done by cutting from the top down, taking out the more experienced staff and replacing them with "multimedia journalists." And while he said he tried to place a greater emphasis on local news coverage, continued losses in the newsroom and a focus on digital content made coverage difficult.
"From the time I started in 2006 to the time I left in 2014, we eliminated 20 of our 60 positions, just in the newsroom. That was mandated from corporate," Glenn Gilbert said. "As our staff was reduced, we could no longer provide any comprehensive coverage of local government, and that was the thing that hurt us the most.
"There was a lot to it. Simultaneously, we talked about turning the newspaper over to the public and trying to bring the outside in. There was a great emphasis on citizen journalism, but in reality, it was more use of stringers and freelance. I was supportive in that effort because it was less expensive to present the same kind of story and it preserved our staff for more serious journalism."
Despite cuts, Journal Register Company struggled with profits and paying massive debt, much of which came from the purchase of 21st Century Communications. In 2008, the New York Stock Exchange announced it was planning to suspend trading of the company's stock. In April of that year, it was delisted.
In 2009, Journal Register Company declared bankruptcy for the first time.
"After Journal Register went into bankruptcy, it emerged and had a new CEO, John Paton, who had a digital emphasis," Glenn Gilbert said. "It was a totally different attitude. We began treating print as an afterthought. I would frequently joke about it and say, 'Do we still have a print edition?'”
The emphasis on digital did earned the paper some accolades. In 2010, The Oakland Press was named as one of the newspapers in the country that is "doing it right," by Editor & Publisher magazine.
"Few other media companies have set out to tackle digital initiatives the way the Journal Register Company has, so it's no surprise that this category features two Journal Register titles," the magazine stated in 2010.
Despite the efforts and recognition, the company remained unable to cope with its financial debt and Journal Register declared bankruptcy for a second time in 2012. The company was purchased by an arm of Alden Global Capital and renamed 21st Century Media. That company was merged with MediaNews Group. Both are managed today by Digital First Media, which was formed in 2010, drawing on Paton's digital emphasis.
Print circulation at The Oakland Press in 2005 had started slipping, with audit figures showing daily circulations at about 65,000 Monday through Wednesday, and Friday and Saturday; 77,000 on Thursdays; and about 79,000 on Sundays. Daily circulations in 2010 held relatively close. By 2015, after Glenn Gilbert left the paper, print circulation dropped to 37,824 for daily editions and 49,626 on Sunday. One year later, in 2016, daily circulation is down to 23,730 and the Sunday circulation has dropped to 36,349, according to AAM audits. Its sister publication, The Macomb Daily, has a Sunday edition circulation of 42,236.
As circulation and staff declined at The Oakland Press, so did its position in the local marketplace.
"In the past, they were certainly a competitor. They had many automotive ads, and the mom-and-pop shops. They might not have been thought of as a competitor, but anyone who takes a dollar is a competitor," said Jim Sherman, president of Sherman Publications, which operates a group of weekly newspapers that includes The Clarkston News, The Oxford Leader, The Citizen in Ortonville and Goodrich, and the Lake Orion Review. "Recently, they aren't a competitor. I'm not even sure they have sales reps that go to the north. I used to get excited about what is going on, but we aren't finding them out there in the marketplace."
The decline of the paper, Sherman said, isn't just bad for The Oakland Press and its staff, but can have a negative impact on his own business. Further, he said it's disappointing to see another paper struggling.
"It's not good for me for those guys to be small. People want to talk about the health of your product, and the health of my product is pretty healthy," Sherman said. "Those guys not being healthy makes us have to answer questions and listen to people talk about digital. Nobody has made money off of it."
Glenn Gilbert said the focus on digital was so overwhelming that he had stopped keeping track of circulation figures at all. When current editorial director Don Wyatt asked him about The Oakland Press circulation numbers as Gilbert was leaving in 2014, he said he had no answer for him. For the staff in the newsroom, their value too began to center on their digital capabilities.
"The people I hired needed to be multimedia journalists. The very position changed. I had, too. I felt that was the only way we could win. We needed to excel at whatever we did, and if it didn't, we had to stop," Glenn Gilbert said. "I would say that when I left, I had a different view. But while I was there, I tried to encourage the staff and believed it myself that we were just changing. We are no longer interested in counting the number of newspapers we sell, we are interested in counting page views. As far as digital went, we were a leader. We felt good about ourselves and what we were doing. But in reality, we continued to lose staff."
Since leaving the paper, Glenn Gilbert said the one-track focus on digital has hurt the newsroom and eliminated some work that he was proud to accomplish. For instance, The Oakland Press prep sports coverage has traditionally been a point of pride for the paper. However, Gilbert said the paper recently let go of their lead prep sports people.
While making forced reductions at the paper, Gilbert said he tried to rally the staff around the digital emphasis, which has been hailed as its salvation. However, as more cuts continue to hit the paper, he questions its viability.
"If you don't feel a sense of accomplishment in what you're doing, if you don't have a mountain to climb and get to the summit, then God help you. It's depressing," he said. "You reach a point that maybe we aren't viable. I don't think the staff is happy if they aren't viable at something and if they aren't, maybe it's time to close up."