One alternate strategy for newspaper profitability was found in the development of suburban newspaper chains. After World War II suburbs began to ring larger cities. Although not a completely new phenomena, the growth of suburbs exploded in the post-war era. Suburbanization created a unique environment for newspapers. In some cases long established “rural” newspapers found their community transformed by commuters who lived but did not work in their town. In other cases rural areas that had no real center of population suddenly became the location for newly built subdivisions.
Plymouth, in western Wayne county, exemplifies how a rural community could be swallowed up as a suburb. Plymouth had a long history as an isolated farming community. For much of its history, the community was served by the Plymouth Mail
, a paper founded in 1878 that focused on local news. After World War II, however, the Mail
increasingly documented the suburbanization of Plymouth. In contrast residents of Livonia Township, also in western Wayne County, found themselves without any community history but with ten geographically divided neighborhoods that were beginning to blossom just before the beginning of World War II. Concerned about the need for some way to unify these disparate subdivisions, residents approached the owner of the nearby Plymouth Mail
and asked if he would consider founding a paper in their township, with the expressed purpose of bringing together the township’s neighborhoods into a single community. Out of this meeting the Livonian
was born in 1940.
Entrepreneurs had long known from observations of men like Booth that a market was developing in the suburbs that the major metropolitan papers, with their focus on the core city, were not filling. The suburbs wanted local news that was either too difficult for the major dailies to gather or in some cases considered by the dailies to parochial to merit publication. These same entrepreneurs realized that the desire for local news could be paired with some advertisers desire to target their marketing more carefully. The large daily papers, like radio and television, tended to deliver to an advertiser a large but not very focused audience. In contrast community papers could offer, at a much reduced cost, a more focused audience. This audience was sometimes differentiated simply by geography but in other cases certain community demographic characteristics, such as an economically upscale community audience, made the audience ideal for certain types of promotions. This ability to deliver a targeted audience was enhanced when many local papers abandoned subscriptions in favor of “saturation” distribution – giving a free copy of the weekly to every home in the community where the owner would accept it. Advertising opportunities were also enhanced when many weeklies changed to a twice weekly publication schedule; most commonly on Wednesdays and weekends. Suburban newspaper chains added to these many advantages could be added economies of
An example of how successful this approach could be was found in Detroit’s Suburban Communications Corporation. The corporation began in 1965 by Philip Powers when he purchased an existing group of six suburban Detroit. Powers vision for success was relatively straightforward. Concentrate intensively on local news, obtain saturation coverage within the area, create a large enough group of papers so that advertisers could be offered a variety of packages to reach their target audience, and employ the most modern printing techniques to obtain economies of scale.
Powers quickly bought out competing papers, one of which was the Plymouth Mail
, and began to expand the company’s holdings. Competition between rival papers in the suburban market could be brutal. Powers, for example, in 1967 laid plans to launch a paper in Southfield, then one of the fastest growing areas in the state. Various issues, however, delayed the launch of the paper until 1970 when the new publication faced not only three already established weeklies but also another new paper that a nearby competitor, seeing the same opportunity in Southfield as Powers had identified, launched.
Competition could also be responded to by carving out new niche markets. Aggressively marketed classified ads, particularly for real estate, automobiles, and “help wanted” was a mainstay of the Suburban Communications Groups bottom line. Although the competition was tough, successful editors like Powers and his Suburban Communications Co. could make a substantial profit.
The danger in the weeklies, however, was often that they would abandon reporting and become nothing more than advertising sheets. Because the suburban newspapers were distributed without cost to each home in the community, the necessarily carried more advertising than papers which charged for their paper. Already heavy with advertising, it was often tempting for weekly publishers to step completely away from the newsgathering business. Even an organization as dedicated to local news as the Suburban Communication Co. began to publish papers lacking any editorial content. IN 1985 SCC began to publish several successful “shopper guides” and in the late 19x0s, SCC’s successful classified business had led to a stand-alone 32 page newspaper consisting solely of classifieds distributed to 160,000 households twice a week.