My First Book Left Out the Best Part

Bryan Gruley
4 min readNov 25, 2023

Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t write about the hockey games. I mean, really, what the hell was I thinking?

Paper Losses, my first and only non-fiction book, was published 30 years ago this month. It told a tale of the long, savage, debilitating war for readers and advertisers at what were then two of the largest daily newspapers in the U.S.: the Detroit Free Press and the paper that employed me, The Detroit News. Characters included the country’s two largest newspaper companies, Gannett and Knight-Ridder; rival company executives Al Neuharth and Alvah Chapman; a handful of Detroit unions that stood up to the companies; the U.S. Supreme Court; and the scrappy, resourceful newsrooms of the Freep and The News.

It concluded with the newspapers striking an odd armistice called a JOA, or joint operating agency, which allowed them to join their circulation and ad operations — and fix prices — without running afoul of federal antitrust laws. The newsrooms remained separate. Today, some might label the arrangement socialist. I just think many avowed capitalists, despite what they say, don’t care much for raw, unregulated capitalism. Way too brutal. Way too risky.

Upon review today, Paper Losses holds up pretty well; at least I didn’t cringe while re-reading random passages as well as the opening and the ending. I’m confident I could improve the book by cutting 100 to 150 pages. It’s a bit of a tome, somewhat of a slog in parts. I think it sold 5,000 copies, no threat to bestseller lists, and it’s out of print now, though there are copies to be had online. One of mine happens to be one I signed for documentarian Ken Burns; a friend bought it for a couple of bucks off a bookstore remainder table some years ago (so glad you liked it, Ken!).

In the final chapter, I rendered some conclusions and predictions, some of which were on the mark, some not. I recall Neuharth giving the book an A-plus for reporting and a C-minus or worse for analysis. (I was delighted to stumble onto my description of the flashy Neuharth as “a Donald Trump for the staid, stuffy newspaper industry.”) The News has survived, albeit at a fraction of its 1980s circulation, despite my warnings that the JOA created incentives for the companies to close it. Both papers have continued to do some good work, winning a Pulitzer each in the JOA era.

For some reason, I was better at the big-picture stuff. Of the U.S. newspaper industry, I wrote, “there is no telling what new channels of communication will open in the next decade,” and, “New media will be launched as entrepreneurs and those with messages to communicate grasp the possibilities of electronic communications systems.”

Today, those assertions seem almost comically prescient. I say “comically” because when I wrote those words, I doubt I really knew what I was talking about. I certainly didn’t foresee how those new channels — i.e., the Internet — would gut daily newspapers across this country, leaving many communities, especially small ones, without an independent organization to document and hold to account the decisions of elected officials in charge of public safety, schools, roads, water, and sewage treatment.

But the most glaring admission in my re-reading of Paper Losses has to be the hockey. Three times in the late ’80s, The News and Free Press assembled teams that faced off at the old Jack Adams rink in northwest Detroit. As I recall, the Freep won the first, The News the next two. None were friendly, but the last was especially nasty, with top News editor Jim Gatti beating the shit out of a Freep copy boy and a bench-emptying brawl late in the News’s 12–4 win. Imagine a top Wall Street Journal editor pummeling a staffer from the Washington Post. Never happen. I love my hometown.

The fights were incited partly by a top Freep editor’s dismissal of The News as a serious competitor in a New York Times story about the JOA. A pair of skilled Teamster players who qualified to skate for either team chose The News because they disliked the way the Free Press went about JOA contract negotiations. (The News roster counted three future Pulitzer winners: Jim Mitzelfeld, Dave Kocieniewski, and me).

Whenever someone asks about the Detroit newspaper war, I always tell them about those games. Yet not a word about them appeared in Paper Losses. The record has now been corrected.



Bryan Gruley

Storyteller since 2nd grade at St. Gemma Elementary in Detroit. Pulitzer winner, Edgar finalist, lifelong journalist, author of 5 novels.