Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Rotating the tires in Motown

When Dean Singleton gets the keys to the Detroit News, he ought to consider dusting off the secret plan for a rock ’em, sock ’em tabloid put together by his old pal, the legendary editor Dave Burgin. He ought to consider making it free, too.

The News, a struggling afternoon newspaper now owned by Gannett, got a new lease on life in a rare three-party shuffle of newspaper assets that will turn it from a five-day-a-week afternoon product to a six-day morning paper. As discussed previously here, the prognosis is grim for evening papers in competitive markets.

In the Motown swap, Knight Ridder sold its interest in the Detroit Free Press to Gannett, which now will operate the morning paper and the newspaper agency that prints both the Freep and the News. Because the U.S. Justice Department looks unfavorably on one company owning both papers in a town, Mr. Singleton’s MediaNews Group was recruited as the junior partner in the agency and thus became the new proprietor of the News.

As luck would have it, MediaNews already has a plan for a jazzy tab so innovative and exciting that “it would have been a paper that you couldn’t possibly have conceived," according to no less an authority than its creator, Dave Burgin.

Bluff and bombastic, Dave not only is a legend in his own mind but also among those who marvel at an action-packed career in which he worked at more newspapers than most people will read in a lifetime. If there is one definitive Dave story, it was a banner in the old San Francisco Examiner reporting someone’s suspicion that Soviet submarines were secretly spying in San Francisco Bay. “Soviet Sub Tracks in Bay,” screamed the eight-column screamer. Clearly, this is a guy with tabloid ink in his veins.

As Dave recently told Michael Stoll of Grade the News, the estimable online Bay Area media watchdog, the proposed tab “would have looked more like America Online's home page than any newspaper now printed – lots of colorful graphics, bold headlines and an ‘interactive,’ conversational feel.” The working title was “The Daily Flash,“ an allusion – likely to go over the head of anyone under 50 – to the paper that employed the ancient comic-strip character Brenda Starr.

From editorial cartoons on the front page to strongly expressed points of view in the articles, Dave's Daily Flash would have challenged most journalistic conventions. Conceived as a free tab, which most certainly challenges journalistic conventions, the paper was in the planning stages for 1½ years until it was shelved, owing to competition from the new free Bay Area tabs published by Clarity Media and Knight Ridder.

Now that MediaNews is setting up shop in Detroit, it ought to dust off Dave’s plan and give the Motor City more than a choice between vanilla and plain-vanilla newspapers. Free distribution would be the cherry on top.


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