The Onion’s Ann Arbor franchise collapses

Word hit the street today that The Onion’s local satellite operation, the Ann Arbor A.V. Club, would be closing up shop, after just three months in business. According to Michigan Radio, Bobby Mitchell, the franchisee running the publication, has said that “lawyers” are involved. As Mitchell has been described in the press as a “lifelong printer,” I’m guessing that he wasn’t just caught off-guard by the costs associated with the printing of 20,000 issues a month, and the fact that ad dollars are hard to come by in this economy. You’d think that someone in the industry would have known that.

I suppose, being from Chicago, Mitchell may not have understood just how bad the economy here in Michigan really was. Even if that was the case, though, calling it quits after just getting launched seems odd to me. In even the most optimistic of business plans, after all, you plan to lose money for a while. But, maybe he thought that they’d enter the market with a lot of hype, and that ad sales would be easy, with every restaurant and bar signing on for year-long engagements. And, when that didn’t happen, maybe he sought to get out of the deal. Or, maybe there was something else going on. I suspect, however, that the contracts with the Onion were pretty clear as to the responsibilities of each party. At any rate, I thought it was worth noting… Three months ago, when I heard that The Onion was coming to town, not only did I think that Ann Arbor had finally made it as a college town, but I thought that The Current was sure to fold. Now, though, who knows? I still think the Current, which is published out of Ohio these days, is vulnerable to an attack. If I were a younger man, and didn’t have another kid on the way, I might have even given it a shot myself.

An overview of the Onion’s franchising terms, should anyone be interested in picking things up where Mitchell and his crew left them, can be found here.

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  1. Posted December 1, 2011 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    nailed it.

    folks think they get
    how it is here. hope

    it’s not so hard
    a lesson that other business

    ideas recoil.

  2. Posted December 1, 2011 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    I like Current — didn’t even realize The Onion was trying to compete. Saw their papers around, but never picked one up. Before reading this post, I had no idea that the print runs were anything other than reprints of satire I could just as easily read online. In other words, branding is the problem, not something about ypsi-arbor.

  3. Jiggs
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    So AV Club headlines like “Drug debt collection, Ypsi style”,63806

    and “Parkour, Ypsi style (It was hard to resist the temptation to use the headline “PARKOUR FAIL”)”,63060/

    Both written by someone named Patrick Dunn.

    … those didn’t work around here.

    Hmm. Too bad.

  4. Edward
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    The satirical content, was developed 100% by Onion Central in Chicago. The event listings and ad sales were handled in Ann Arbor. According to NPR, there were three full time staff. I feel bad for them, losing their jobs at this time.

  5. Bob Krzewinski
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Every year we have our Veterans For Peace John Lennon birthday benefit concert at the Corner Brewery in Ypsi to raise funds for our Peace Scholarship program. In 2010 I sent Current a press release on the event by email, mail, fax and added the event in their online calendar. That year it only appeared in the online calendar (not the print version) and had the event listed at Arbor Brewing in Ann Arbor.

    For the 2011 John Lennon concert, well, well before the event, I again sent Current a press release on the event by email, mail, fax and added the event in their online calendar. This time there was nothing, anywhere. Gee, thanks Current for all you support of some veterans trying to get some students some scholarships! But then too, for the past four years, the Ann Arbor Observer refuses to list the event also.

  6. Eel
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Here’s the thing. Something like this reflects poorly on the the Onion. And they know that. So, when they assess franchisees, they make sure that they have the financial wherewithal to get their publications off the ground. This guy, I think it’s pretty clear, thought that it was going to be a home run out of the gate. When that wasn’t the case, he wanted out. I don’t see what else it could be, as everything else in the relationship would have been spelled out ahead of time. He knew exactly what the Onion was going to provide, and how much it would cost him. This is about getting out of something that didn’t turn out to be the cash cow that he had hoped.

  7. Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I never knew the Ann Arbor Onion existed.

  8. wetdolphinmissile
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I quit enjoying Current. First they dissed the sidetrack burger and now they rarely list anything in Ypsi anymore and the Observer is even worse about this. Both used to be very comprehensive…there is Ispy

  9. Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Are print weeklies even relevant anymore? The current has gotten smaller and smaller as time has gone on, I’m convinced that it will be just a one page flyer soon….

  10. Mr. X
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    It’s conceivable to me that the Onion had an inflated idea as to what the Ann Arbor market was worth. I’m not sure how they go about valuing their markets, but, for instance, I’m thinking that maybe they just look at population, not taking into account other factors. What could have happened is that the local franchisee got in, saw what the economy in Michigan was really like, and then tried to renegotiate based on those factors. Either way, it would seem to be a failure on the franchisee’s part to understand the market dynamics at play in Ann Arbor.

  11. Peters Lawson
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    What, my friends, is an “onion”?

    I’ve never heard of it.

  12. TeacherPatti
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry to hear this. I like the Current, but this past month they spelled Bob Seger, Bob SegAr…seriously?

    Sorry! I’m usually not like that re: spelling :)

  13. anonymous
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    The Current was bought by a company in Ohio. Their site is down at the moment, but I think they’re from Toledo. They sucked before, but now they super-suck. They need to be put out of their misery. No one wants to get into print nowadays though, with the cost of printing going up and the costs of ads going down.

  14. Lars Peterson
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Where’s Ann Arbor?

  15. Forest
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    How could an Ann Arbor Onion survive after this:

    Months before an issue went to print, Bobby hit up every downtown store scoping for potential advertisers. I imagine he would have developed *some* idea of how bad the economy is while walking past closed storefronts & failing franchises on State St. The advertising revenue well is small & dry. My heart goes out to the employees, some of which moved to Ann Arbor for what seemed like a pretty exciting gig. Here’s hoping they transition to something else quickly.

  16. someone
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    The Onion doesn’t seem to be suited to print anyway. The headlines are often funny, but I never saw the point in reading the ‘articles.’

  17. someone
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I like the new ads but hope to see the real banner back some day.

  18. Steve Pickard
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    What a bummer. I was really enjoying the reading with dinner and at lunch time. Lord knows we don’t have ANY local paper worth reading anymore and The Onion filled the gap well. I try to make due with the Metro Times, but they are so obsessed with medical marijuana and so filled with ads for medical pot (I’m not against either, but since I can’t smoke, it’s just a tease and thus highly (er…) annoying ).


  19. Andrew Jason Clock
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    So, there is another alternative that’s been doing quite well. Ispy is based right here in Ypsilanti, has an easier to use events calander, and does a great job covering Ypsilanti and A2.

  20. TeacherPatti
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Oh yeah! Ispy is cool! I love the A2 Observer, except for the “only in Ann Arbor” mention at the very back…I mean, seriously?

  21. Posted December 1, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry they’re going for selfish reasons. I just checked my stats and almost 3% of my referred traffic was coming from their website… Speaking of web traffic, I’ve been hitting about 1,000 readers a day pretty consistently these past few weeks. A lot has been coming from Facebook. Thanks to all of you who have started to “like” and share my posts.

  22. TeacherPatti
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    ROCK ON! That means thousands have seen my “I f*** on the first date” comment! I WAS BEING FACETIOUS!!! :) :)
    Seriously. Mom, if you’re reading this…I was only kidding.

    Seriously Mark, congrats! I’m sorry that I haven’t clicked “like” on your articles and now I feel like I should go back and click “like” on them all!

  23. Tim
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I first found out the Onion was in trouble about a month ago. I spoke at the Main Street Area Association’s member meeting about iSPY and what we’ve been up to, how we can help, etc…blah blah, and Bobby and Matt (the sales rep) both approached me afterwords to see if I could try and lend a hand. I met with them afterwards and I could tell by the look on Bobby’s face, they were in trouble, financially. I tried to offer as much help as I could…considering they were a direct competitor of ours, competing not only for ad dollars, but readers as well. Bobby seemed like a nice guy, however, trying to run a “local” business from Chicago didn’t seem to make much sense to me, and in the end I feel that’s why they ran into trouble.

    The Observer and the Current just don’t talk to me. I’ve got nothing in common with either publication, that’s specifically why we started iSPY. I’m a young guy looking for cool shit to do and I’d like those things coming from a source that can actually tell me what the kid smelled like next to him at the Black Jake show at the Blind Pig…because they were there. Not someone telling me what they think I want read. I’ve got nothing against them, I’m sure all are good people, but the Observer talks to an older, more mature me and I don’t even hear the Current. Why anyone in Ann Arbor would support an Ohio based company is kind of beyond me. GO BLUE

    We’re still growing and trying new things, making mistakes, making some noise and having a blast. I’m always up for any feedback, things we could do better, or things you’d like to see. iSPY is just a platform to promote things happening in the area, use and abuse us; print, online at, facebook, twitter, foursquare, youtube, if you’ve got something going on let us know about it.

    Mark, congrats on the new addition to the fam! And while, you’re no longer a young buck, we’d have you anytime if you wanted to work with us.

  24. Eel
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    We could have a whole thread here about what Black Jake’s fans smell like.

One Trackback

  1. By Shadow Art Fair 2012 (part two) on July 23, 2012 at 11:13 am

    […] Ben Connor Barrie (the man behind the website Damn Arbor), Patrick Dunn (the former editor of Ann Arbor’s ill-fated version of The Onion), and lots of friends, former co-workers and the like. Unfortunately, most of the conversations […]

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