The untimely (or timely) death of the Ann Arbor News

You wouldn’t know it if you read the front page of today’s Ann Arbor News, but the 174 year old paper is going out of business. The publisher of the paper, Laurel Champion, informed employees this morning that that local institution would cease publication come July.

As I understand it, the paper will stop publishing, the historic building will be sold, and, then, something new will rise up out of the ashes. And, from what we’re told, that new something will be called Ann Arbor dotcom.

There aren’t a lot of details at the moment, but it sounds like everyone from the Ann Arbor News will be fired, and a few may be hired back by the new corporate entity, which, in addition to operating an online news site, will publish two print editions a week – one on Thursday and one on Sunday. This, of course, will allow them to drop more costly senior employees, and keep the most profitable part of the paper, which is the weekend advertising. Assuming they can make the change gracefully, it’s probably a good business move. In a different time, with local ownership, I suspect they would have struggled to find a way to keep the old company alive, but I imagine it would have been hard to justify doing that in the New York boardroom of Advance Publications, the media company owned by billionaire S.I. Newhouse, which owns the paper. (Newhouse, you might be interested to know, is currently ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 26th richest American.)

While I’d like to grumble about it, truth is, the model was broken. With the cost of newsprint climbing, and advertising revenue being siphoned off by the likes of Craigslist, it was probably just a matter of time for the whole thing to come crashing down. In the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post Intelligencer announce similar moves. And everyone could see that the Ann Arbor News was in a death spiral. The paper had been getting smaller by the day, like a dying animal, just wasting away in front of us.

Did it have to happen like this? I don’t know. The paper, for years, had been out of touch with its readership – even going so far as to support Bush in his 2004 bid for reelection, when few other papers on this planet would. More importantly, however, they struggled making the transition to the web. Without any rival of note, they didn’t feel the need to stay competitive, and it showed. They took their readers for granted. Their web interface was awkward and their archives were a mess. To put it simply, they didn’t do what was necessary to cultivate a loyal audience that looked to them as a trusted source for information.

But, what’s done is done. They’ve made the decision to jump to the web in one giant leap, and they’ve brought on consultants like Jeff Jarvis to help them make the transition. I hope, for the good of our community, that they are successful in their endeavor. Democracy requires bright, tenacious journalists that make a living wage, and I hope that’s what they give us. I fear, however, they might have something else in mind. From what I’ve read thus far, it sounds like, to a great extent, they will be relying on “citizen reporters,” like yours truly, to do the heavy lifting. And, to be honest, I don’t think that’s sufficient.

As much as I love my fellow bloggers, and appreciate the things we’ve been able to accomplish, we’re not journalists. When we call politicians, they don’t tremble in fear. Sure, on occasion, we happen to do something good. We stir shit up – but things don’t typically change until the paper gets involved. That’s certainly the way things played out recently in relation to Ypsi’s Shovelgate mess. We made a lot of noise online, but it wasn’t until the Ann Arbor News started asking around that we saw real action on the part of the City Council. And, I’m afraid that this new online entity wouldn’t have the gravitas necessary to pull something like that off. Hopefully, that’s not the case.

Newspapers, when they function well, invest time and money in cultivating leads, checking facts and really digging into stories. They demand accountability. And, I don’t know that I’d want to live in a community that isn’t served by real journalists. If we learned anything during the Bush administration, it’s that, left to their own devices, people in power will abuse that power until such time that a healthy, vigorous press (or a fake news anchor on a comedy network) decides to ask serious, probing questions. And, yes, I do think that trickles all the way down to small communities like our own.

With that said, I imagine it could come to pass that AnnArbor.com is every bit the watchdog that the Ann Arbor News ever was. Its people could ask hard questions, and demand answers. And, just as importantly, people in power could take them seriously. I certainly hope that’s the case.

And, lest it be forgotten, it’s also worth pointing out that several in our community don’t have computer access, either because they can’t afford it, or because they live too rurally. We need to consider how this might affect them.

The management of AnnArbor.com have announced two public meetings to discuss the transition. They are:

• Thursday, April 2 (2:00 PM) at the Campus Inn
• Friday, April 3 (10:00 AM) at Weber’s Inn

Here’s to the men and women of the Ann Arbor News. Your service to the community has been appreciated, and we wish you the best of luck in the future.

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22 Comments

  1. Posted March 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to fuss, but it irritates me that the two meeting times are when most people are at work. I can’t tell my kiddos, “See ya!’ and jet off 30 miles for a meeting. That said, I can’t say for sure I’d go to an evening meeting, but I’d like the option.

    I also think there’s something to be said for the “thump” of the paper in the “morning” (and, in my case, by “thump” I mean gentle opening of my screen door followed by crazy dog barking and by “morning” I mean “after I get home from school”, but go with me here). It’s kinda dorky, but I grew up hearing the “thump” and there was something comforting about it.

  2. Posted March 23, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Mark! Snap out of this self-deprication spiral — not to say that your observations about the differences between blogging and news aren’t right, they are. But you’re temporarily failing to be a visionary here. This is an opportunity crisis! You’ve already broken the advertising hymen, now take this crisitunity, smack her on the ass and make her yours! Those desperate unemployed investigative reporters won’t stop being nosy and meddling just because they aren’t getting paid — work those leads, imply that they’ll get some vicarious form of righteousness by giving you free scoops. Sell more ad space! Use your creativity and natural Ypsi-cultivated do-it-your-own-wayishness to fill this void with your throbbing far-reaching, multi-headed Maynardosity!

    Your whole life has led up to this moment.

  3. Mark H.
    Posted March 23, 2009 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    This is sad news indeed. The newspaper business is obviously in deep crisis, far worse than the auto industry. The AA NEWS has been a fine local paper – not perfect, but serious and well written. The investigative work its reporters did on the two hor-rid EMU scandals of the last decade — which are the two largest scandals in the history of public higher education in Michigan — were outstanding. I will always remember those newsbreaking pieces. And the paper’s recent coverage of the UofM sports scandals – the near giving away of academic credits to jocks — is also notable and important.

    Good luck and godspeed to all members of the AA NEWS staff — editorial, production, distribution, everyone.

    Just a half century ago, American newspapers were more powerful than ever. Things have changed, and not for the better in many respects.

  4. Posted March 24, 2009 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    I was saddened to hear this morning of the Ann Arbor News closing up shop.

    Thanks for this well written and well thought out piece.
    I agree with so many aspects here, it is hard to select a couple.

    One aspect is that bloggers and/or citizen journalists are not professional journalists. I think it is the task of bloggers/citizen journalists to uncover areas that are not being covered and to help provide leads for the media, as well as a pulse on what segments of the public are thinking.

    But, without professional journalists, there is not the same incentive to provide the type of coverage you provided recently on the Light Rail meeting OR to provide fact checking services for items, such as what side of the tracks the train might pick up passengers. [Thanks by the way for providing such a detailed summary of the meeting. I know how busy you are and hope you know your ‘volunteer’ efforts are appreciated.]

    A second aspect you highlight is the need for locally-owned media and the challenge to find the right new revenue model. Unfortunately, my mind keeps going back to the Depot Town Rag and how many local advertisers found their way into the last issue. This is unfortunate because I don’t know that ‘advertising’ is the solution. I would, on the other hand, support a model, such as the public broadcasting/NPR one, where I could pledge support to a proper, local news entity. But, my hope is to find/ or figure out and advance alternative models.

    If you have any ideas on non-advertising, sustainable, revenue-generating models for media, please share them. [I wish we could do a bike-powered, local newspaper; or throw a huge rent party; or declare an Ypsilanti newspaper shovel ready.]

  5. Posted March 24, 2009 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Devestating. Been reading the News since I was a kid. It’s been published since 1835. Ann Arbor dot com seems cool, but not as a replacement. The Ann Arbor News is part of the city and surrounding areas, it’s part of the culture amd the community, it’s a connection that we all share…I can’t believe it. I especially feel for the employees who are out of a job.

  6. Meta
    Posted March 24, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    According to the New York Times, there will be two separate companies. One will handle the website, and the other will handle the print edition.

    All 272 employees at The News, which has weekday circulation of 45,000, will be laid off and invited to apply for jobs at the two new companies. Their staff size has not been determined, but “there will be by far fewer positions,” said Laurel Champion, publisher of The Ann Arbor News.

    AnnArbor.com will have some original reporting, and an emphasis on reader input and community forums. “This will be a new company built from the ground up,” said Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the Internet arm of the company.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/business/media/24paper.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=ann%20arbor%20news&st=cse

  7. Kat
    Posted March 24, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Also check out this piece in The Nation by the authors of the soon to be published book “Saving Journalism: The Soul of Democracy.”

    http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090406/nichols_mcchesney/print?rel=nofollow

  8. Kat
    Posted March 24, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    From the article –

    “In a nutshell, media corporations, after running journalism into the ground, have determined that news gathering and reporting are not profit-making propositions. So they’re jumping ship.”

  9. Mark H.
    Posted March 24, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Kat’s right, this NATION piece is quite good.

  10. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 24, 2009 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    For all the A2 News faults, real and/or perceived, the lack of a regional local paper to serve as a collective patrol freaks me out more than the financial crisis. Locally anyways, we are at risk of going from a flickering light to being completely in the dark.

  11. James
    Posted March 25, 2009 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    I’m not so sure that Annarbor.com is going to be, as Newhouse states, “a new company built from the ground up.” According to Jim Carty, Mr. Jarvis was also hired by Newhouse to consult on the transition of other Newhouse properties away from print, specifically the Cleveland Plain Dealer (www.cleveland.com) and the Trenton Times (www.nj.com).

    These websites look and feel just like the current Ann Arbor News website on mlive.com. In other words, they stink. The interface is cluttered. It’s difficult to find stories, especially archived ones as you mentioned. In short, there is nothing new about them.

  12. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 25, 2009 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    Another quote from Kat’s link: Journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States.

    I’ll agree with any of you who describe the failings of the A2 News and journalism, in general. But I think our collective criticisms where a recognition of the value of journalism and the need to make it better, not disappear.

    I could go on, and will if needed, but if snow removal gets a hundred comments, this deserves a thousand. It is, by my measure, a most serious threat.

  13. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 25, 2009 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Nevermind that owner of the A2 News, in our small world, also has big fingers in the New Yorker, Vogue, the Discovery Channel networks, and Time Warner, among others.

  14. Posted March 25, 2009 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Maybe this is an opportunity. I’m guessing what we’ll see is a lot of tiny, more nichey sites dedicated to various local aspects. The Ann Arbor Chronicle is a good example. I would love to start a site that only has in depth coverage of the area’s high school sports, where there is a huge interest but little press done the right way. Something like the Current could also be revived, like a local events site. Or maybe Ann Arbor dot com will be all those things and more, who knows?

  15. Posted March 25, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    This is actually a pretty huge opportunity—Now a whole bunch of folks who are great at their jobs are out of work, and thus available, and the AnnArbor.com folks will likely suck as much ass as the Mlive sites do/did. Which means this is a golden opportunity for folks like, say, The Ypsi Citizen to swoop in and kick their asses by proving that they understand web design and web sales. Current has been practically begging for years to have someone eat their lunch online, and now the Snooze will have to fight any newcomers on relatively equal ground.

    I feel bad for folks who lost their jobs, and frankly I have a fair number of friends there, but the management has been dickfors forever and it isn’t surprising that htey’ve finally gone under. Maybe someone can buy time off their presses and restart the Argus.

  16. Brackinald Achery
    Posted March 25, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    What’s a dickfor?

  17. Bob
    Posted March 25, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    I would even imagine a local backlash againt the “new” internet version of the News. I know one thing I found really repugnent was the photos in the Ann Arbor News of those two guys taking over the internet version of the News with these big huge smiles on their faces. And this was the same editon of the Ann Arbor New annoucing all those people were going to loose their jobs!

    And if I can rant even more, union-hating Ed Petykiewicz (he scabed at a Youngstown Ohio paper – http://www.michigandaily.com/content/a2-news-chief-works-scab) bailed out of the News just like so many other executives do, right before the ball drops. Lots of backbone there Ed!

  18. Posted March 26, 2009 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Two minor corrections:
    * Newsprint prices have dropped significantly in recent weeks.
    * Donald Newhouse oversees Advance newspapers. S.I. oversees Conde Nast. They are considered by Forbes to have equal fortunes.

  19. Marvin Face
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Bob, Thank You! I thought I was the only one skeeved by those photos. My immediate reaction was to think, “these two d-bags are going to be the ones running the show? Seriously?” Those photos were just goofy as hell.

  20. John on Forest
    Posted March 29, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I see two aspects to this story: 1) Printed vs. electronic news and 2) Professional vs. amateur journalism.

    Whether an electronic medium can supplant printed media will be the question answered by this experiment. However, I’m sure Ann Arbor (and Mark gives a couple other examples) is not the only place this experiment is being performed. This will only be a valid experiment, though, if the second aspect of this story is done properly:

    Ann Arbor dotcom will need professional journalists. Without them, I believe, as several have pointed on above, that this experiment will fail and we the community will be left in the dark. I am assuming that Ann Arbor dotcom is going to indeed hire/retain professional journalists. Given that assumption, then it simply a question of the first aspect: Electronic vs. Printed.

  21. Posted April 13, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone in my audience attended one of these community forums put on by the Ann Arbor News? There’s apparently another one coming up this Thursday at the Michigan Union (7:00-8:30PM) and I’m trying to decide whether or not to attend.

  22. rodneyn
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    “For all the A2 News faults, real and/or perceived, the lack of a regional local paper to serve as a collective patrol freaks me out more than the financial crisis. Locally anyways, we are at risk of going from a flickering light to being completely in the dark.”

    Locally, the AA News had no positive impact on Ypsilanti’s financial mess. They only began reporting on the disaster that Water Street became after the scope of it was so large as to consist of at least three proverbial elephants standing on their toes. AA News’ reporting on the city income tax scheme consisted primarily of press releases from City Hall.

    Worse yet (if that’s possible), the News had to be embarrassed into following up on their press release “story” on the Ypsi Schools’ bond proposal – by amateur reporting from Ypsi area blogs.

    The Ypsi Courier, Ypsi Citizen, YpsiNews, and local blogs do a better job of covering local news and issues than the AA News has done in recent memory. We will not be in the dark, and may even be better off without their brand of “reporting.”

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] The untimely (or timely) death of the Ann Arbor News [3/23/2009] […]

  2. […] Ann Arbor News to Lay-Off Employees: Just What We Need, Fewer Reporters [2/8/2007] The Untimely (or Timely) Death of the Ann Arbor News [3/23/2009] MarkMaynard.com, a Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy [6/21/2009] AnnArbor.com – […]

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