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How long can newspapers keep delivering the news?

This might go down as the week that they took paper out of the newspaper business.

Detroit’s two daily newspapers announced Tuesday that they plan to reduce home delivery to just three days a week. And the trade organization for newspaper editors scheduled an April vote on whether to drop “paper” from its name.

The idea in both cases is to fully embrace the shift of many readers and advertisers to the Internet, where many news executives believe the business must stake its future, and to finally begin to break away from a 400-year-old delivery system.

Bosses at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News said they will save millions of dollars they would have spent to print and deliver their newspapers, which have been steadily losing circulation.

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Better to alter the delivery system, they argued, than to further cut the news staffs.

Tuesday’s announcement followed recent news that the Christian Science Monitor would go online-only and that suburban papers near Detroit and Phoenix would cut home delivery.

But I worry that the news organizations hacking away their paper editions may also be cutting the cord with one of their most powerful assets -- the old and faithful readers who still covet the printed word and who would sooner turn on “Wheel of Fortune” than look to a dot-com for their news.

I hear from readers all the time who say how much they still love the printed paper. “I can’t start the day without it,” many say.

These paper loyalists are not all ancient or technophobes. They had, after all, e-mailed their thoughts to me. They simply said they had a visceral connection to print, often attached to the cup of coffee or loved one they share the paper with.

The Detroit papers are gambling that these core readers will stick with them at least to receive the paper on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, the days it will still land on the doorstep.

They would like to believe the readers will keep up the remainder of the week by picking up a paper at the corner store or by navigating to the papers’ two websites, which are supposed to be expanded and improved.

“People are nervous,” said investigative reporter Jim Schaefer. “This is something that would be hard to reverse. This is not like a magazine or neighborhood news sections, those tricks we have tried for years and then reversed them. This is viewed as something you live or die with.

“And, boy, everyone is really hoping we can live with it.”

Newspaper people tend to be that way these days -- hoping something can be worked out, because they still love doing jobs that they consider important.

Schaefer and his reporting partner, M.L. Elrick, broke the story of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s text-message affair with his chief of staff.

“I just hope this kind of change helps allow us to keep doing our job,” Schaefer said.

Dave Hunke, chief executive of the Detroit Media Partnership, which oversees operations that the papers run jointly, called the curtailed delivery schedule a necessity, saying the papers were “fighting for our survival.”

“We don’t think it’s sustainable anymore to put two newspapers out,” Hunke added, “drive in excess of 300,000 miles a night delivering newspapers every day of the week and keep our pricing where it is. . . . If we did that, we would be slashing content and never take a step forward toward advancing our digital initiatives.”

He conceded that the change, though “energizing,” provoked a range of emotions that included “remorse” and “a little bit of sadness.”

The nation’s newspaper editors will have a chance to signal how ready they are for such changes in April, when they meet in Chicago to consider whether to rename the organization that has been known for more than 80 years as the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

By changing to the American Society of News Editors, the organization would embrace online publications, since “more and more news is being produced only for the Web,” as the group’s president, Charlotte Hall, explained in an e-mail to members Tuesday.

The name change won’t hurt a thing. If it brings a few more people into the journalism tent, fine.

But I share the same concern expressed by Alan Mutter, a former newspaperman who will soon be teaching a course at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism on how news continues in an age of “disruptive technology.”

“I don’t understand why the Detroit papers would cut out their best readers and hope other people would go out and try to buy papers,” Mutter told me. “I just don’t get it.”

More than 300 people had commented on the proposed shift on the Free Press website by Tuesday evening and many said they thought they could support a change if it would help the papers survive.

Others complained online, like the man who said his wife reads fast and would scroll too quickly if they tried to share the same computer screen.

“The Internet will NEVER replace the newspaper,” he said, in part. “I can easily take my newspaper with me and read it anyplace. Reading a printed newspaper will be around forever.”

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james.rainey@latimes.com


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