Here's a headline for you: Citizens save newspaper.
Over the past six months, a group of devoted readers of the Birmingham Eccentric have been trying to preserve their favorite hometown news rag. And, by golly, they're doing it.
Maybe they're old-fashioned; they like receiving a paper with local stories in it. Maybe they're stubborn and don't want the economy to ruin yet another area business. Maybe they wanted to prove that David can still take on Goliath, even in this modern age.
For those outside of the area, the Birmingham Eccentric is the newspaper for Birmingham, Michigan and the neighboring communities of Bloomfield Hills and Township, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms, and Franklin.
It has been publishing stories about the area for more than 130 years. They're articles about pie contests, high-school football games and what's happening at city halls. They're the kind of stories your mom cuts out and hangs on the fridge until they yellow and curl up.
(There are other dailies in the area, but cuts in staff and publication schedules have some feeling more loyal to the smaller papers like the Eccentric.)
Birmingham, one of the main coverage areas, ranks among the country's most prosperous cities. It is in the heart of Oakland County, one of the most affluent areas in the United States. The houses are stunning. The shops are quaint. The kids are well behaved. It's Michigan's version of Lake Wobegon.
David Bloom is a Birmingham resident and chair of the Citizens to Save the Eccentric Committee. He works for Ford Motor Co. More importantly, he is a local guy with a love for his newspaper.
Bloom is involved in the community and is familiar with the value of the press. So when he heard that Gannett was going to close the Eccentric, he got fired up. He got involved.
“I didn't know what would replace it,” Bloom said.
Birmingham Mayor Stuart Sherman agreed.
“The only way our residents can really see what's going on is through the newspaper,” Sherman said. “This situation highlights the importance of the media as the community watchdog. We need their help.
“It gives us as elected officials that system of checks and balances,” Sherman continued. “In a lot of communities, the media is what keeps officials honest.”
Bloom called friends. He called government officials, including Sherman. He talked to the newspaper. Then he started sending letters to Gannett.
Then, Gannett called on him. The executive editor, now publisher, agreed to meet with Bloom and the rest of the committee. He also went to Washington and met with Gannett's USA Today publisher Dave Hunke. The newspaper company gave them six weeks to raise subscriptions by 3,000. Plus, they had to get 2,000 more by the end of October.
Bloom and Co. held a town hall meeting that got about 100 people to show up; it ran on local cable access as well. They sold subscriptions at the local Farmers Market by giving away newspapers and chocolate-chip cookies. The paper agreed to put in more local and reader-driven content, including articles and photographs by area schoolchildren.
Noted photographer Linda Solomon also got involved and began to contribute to the cause. Solomon went out and shot some pictures for the paper and encouraged other famous locals – including baseball great Al Kaline – to write pieces for the Eccentric. Nationally known Dr. Sonya Freedman, another friend of Solomon, is doing a regular advice column about relationships and managing life's issues.
“It's been a full-court press,” Bloom said.
Subscriptions are more than half of the way there, but Gannett has vowed so far to keep the presses going. The Eccentric was included in Gannett's 2010 budget. Advertising is up, thanks to local folks and joint sales calls with Birmingham Principal Shopping District Director John Heiney and Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Zarotney. People are reading it again. There were even article in major media outlets like the Columbia Journalism Review.
Still, they need another 1,500 subscriptions at least to keep the momentum going.
I'm amazed at their success so far. And I'm glad it's making news in this classic newspaper town. It's kind of like that old adage about what makes news: Dog bites man…who cares? Man bites dog…Film at 11.
The Federal Trade Commission also wants to hear from the Save the Eccentric team at an upcoming workshop – “How will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” – in Washington D.C. The focus is on the current state of newspapers, business models and reader participation (even Rupert Murdoch will be there!)
Bloom says it best on the Save the Birmingham Eccentric web site:
“Local newspapers like the Birmingham Eccentric chronicle our history, connect us, and keep us informed about our community. They also play a critical role in protecting and fostering the democracy which makes our communities and country great.”