MY TURN: This news war made international waves

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Small town and big city newspaper skirmishes are nothing new to the media landscape in America. The pitched battles for print supremacy have been fought in cities across the country over the past century, long before rivals decided to smoke the peace pipe of profits with a J.O.A. (Joint Operating Agreement).

The newspaper industry, of course, has taken more than a few body blows over the past decade as it bobs and weaves around an increasingly digital-driven world where readers have turned to phones and tablets to whet their news appetite. Declining ad revenue and dwindling circulation have forced staff cuts at many of the nation's leading publishing companies, which in turn have shrunk news coverage while trimming the physical size of the paper to save on newsprint cost.

In short, it has been a tough place to turn a profit, yet that hasn't dissuaded such financial heavyweights as Warren Buffett, the so-called "Oracle from Omaha," and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos from investing hundreds of millions of dollars in metro dailies over the past 5 years.

On a smaller scale, a story last year chronicled the "blood, sweat, and financial tears" that have been invested in the town of Crawfordsville, Ind., a community of some 16,000 located an hour northwest of Indianapolis.

There, two daily newspapers The Journal Review and The Paper of Montgomery County do battle, vying for news, readers, and ad dollars in spirited competition that has drawn attention from its media brethren in the print and broadcast fields. One of the papers is locally owned while the other is part of an out-of-state chain with greater resources.

While it remains a mystery if there is enough dough to feed two hungry newspapers in one small town, what seems certain is that the forces of competition will keep both dailies on their journalistic toes in the days ahead.

Such was the case on an even smaller scale more than two decades ago when three weekly newspapers took a stab at profitability in Milan, a town of approximately 6,000 residents that straddles Washtenaw and Monroe counties.

Milan is home to a federal prison, a dragway, and a former Ford Motor Co. plant, and the combination must have offered a strange allure for those with an interest in small town newspapering.

My former father-in-law, Paul Tull, who built a successful weekly newspaper enterprise in neighboring Saline, was among those who were involved in the publishing fray. It would be the second time during a publishing career that spanned more than 50 years that he was a major player in a small town newspaper scrap.

In the 1950s, he founded a paper in Saline, The Reporter, that took on a long-established weekly, The Observer, eventually prevailing after years of hard work.

Some 20 years later, he would take his winning formula to Milan, butting up against the venerable Milan Leader in a contest for readership and advertising dollars that would last more than a decade. Several years into the two-paper battle, two more Milan-based weeklies took abbreviated turns in the publishing ring, discovering in short order that a newspaper pie can be cut only so many ways.

The three-front battle in the two-county town attracted attention from the Detroit media, sending off signals to worldwide CNN as well. Within days, a CNN camera crew descended upon the Michigan town, interviewing the publishing principals for broadcast around the globe.

The late Allan Grossman, who was Saline's city attorney at the time, was Moscow-bound with his wife Natalie at the time of the 1992 hullabaloo.

"We were part of a People-to-People delegation that was going to visit three cities Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev," Grossman recalled a few years later.

"We had just arrived at our hotel in Moscow after a long flight from Helsinki and New York. We got up to our room on the 15th floor and I noticed there was a Gold Star TV set on our dresser and I wondered aloud whether it worked."

A flick of the TV switch and Grossman began to wonder if his eyes were still in good order.

"I turned on the TV and lo and behold there was Paul Tull, talking in English about some newspaper war going on in Milan," Grossman said. "Now I've heard a lot about jet lag, but I said to myself this is very, very strange.

"I hollered to Natalie to come take a look and I asked, 'Am I losing it or do you see the same thing that I see?'"

Her eyes also did a double take, as husband and wife looked at each other in amazement.

"After flying those many hours, I really thought I was in deep trouble," Grossman said with a smile. "When Natalie confirmed that it really was Paul there on the screen, I began to feel so much better."

Published: Fri, May 19, 2017

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