A week after the Tribune Co went broke owing $US13 billion, one of America’s most powerful media companies has sanctioned a unprecedented move to protect itself. The importance of the changes can’t be under-emphasised — put simply, one of America’s largest newspaper groups is cutting back home delivery and boosting delivery online.

Gannett Co’s Detroit Free Press and its partner, the Detroit News revealed the rumoured move overnight in statements and splashes in both papers.

The News is owned by the Denver-based MediaNews Group and the Free Press is owned by Gannett through the Detroit Media Partnership, so the decisions had to have been supported by both parent companies. The changes will have wide-ranging ramifications for all newspapers, especially those in North America.

Starting in next year’s northern Spring, both the Free Press and the Detroit News will deliver their papers to homes only on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, the best days for advertising and the most popular papers for readers.

But the newspapers will remain available seven days a week at stores, newsstands and coin boxes across Michigan.

It’s making use of the fact that newspapers (and magazines) in the US have far higher subscription bases than do their peers in Australia and Britain and therefore depend less on newsstand sales. For that reason the non-home deliveries on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday will have much more of an impact on the finances of the partnership than any other move.

The Sunday edition of the Free Press is America’s sixth-largest Sunday paper in the nation, with a circulation of 605,000; the News does not publish a Sunday edition. On weekdays, the Free Press ranks 20th with 298,243 sales (making it larger than the Sydney Morning Herald), and the News ranks 49th (188,000, which is larger than The Australian in sales). When combined the two papers rank ninth in the country in total sales.

The papers say that since 2002, the Free Press has lost 19% of its print circulation, and the News 22%.

But the papers say their websites attract 1.5 million page views each day, and sometimes peak at close to 4 million. The Free Press‘ publisher David Hunke says the resources saved from the changes would be shifted to the website and allow both papers to maintain their news-gathering forces.

In an interview with the Free Press before the announcement, Hunke said: “There is a day of reckoning coming for newspapers, which in my mind don’t change and change rapidly. That is a way of life that is going to disappear (for some newspapers) as early as this coming year.”

Hunke said the strategy was driven less by declining advertising revenue and circulation in a dour Michigan economy than by soaring costs for newsprint, ink and fuel. The news comes amid a fresh batch of media cost-saving measures. Reports say Reuters newsagency will tie up with the Politico online and print group to offer coverage of US politics to cash-strapped newspapers wondering if they can afford to cover Washington.

Many US newspapers have cut DC staffing levels to try and accommodate the slump in sales and ad revenues. The LA Times has cut its reporting staff in the US capital from almost 50 to 20 in the last 18 months and now expects them also to file for other Tribune Company newspapers.

Reuters has 90 staff Washington staff, Politico has 30. This deal won’t be the last of its kind.