Will the Courier print its own obit?

ypsicourierIt’s been a long time coming, but the Ypsilanti Courier is now officially dead. Or, to be more accurate, it’s being reported that Washtenaw Now – the print publication that was created about a year ago when Digital First Media decided to consolidate the Saline Reporter, Milan News Leader, Chelsea Standard, Dexter Leader, Ypsilanti Courier, Manchester Enterprise, Ann Arbor Journal, and Belleville View – would be publishing its last issue June 25. To their credit, I never thought that they’d make it this far. Personally, I didn’t think they’d make it through 2010.

I wrote the following in December, 2006, just after I got word that the Courier would be closing its Ypsilanti office.

A little bird tells me that the “Ypsi Courier,” as of the end of this month, will no longer have a physical presence in Ypsilanti, the town it is supposed to be dedicated to covering. While I’m assured that the paper will continue to be published, I have my doubts that an editor in Bellville (where the operation will be retreating to) can really know, care about, and ultimately cover the news of our town in any meaningful, substantive way.

Of course, it was just a matter of time.

Local papers — real local papers — are disappearing in America. They’re being bought up by larger entities in the same way that local radio stations, over the course of the past decade, have almost all been rolled up by the likes of Clear Channel. It’s incredibly efficient, in that you don’t actually need to operate multiple news bureaus, etc, but it means that there’s very little in the way of local news, especially that which could be considered investigative. Generally, due to the economies of scale, ad revenues rise and costs drop, but they do so at a cost to the local community. (So, consolidation is good for shareholders, but not necessarily stakeholders.)

When the “Courier” was first acquired by Heritage Newspapers, it’s my understanding that they began by severely slashing staff. They hired EMU students and other part-timers to cover the absolute minimum of local meetings and events, they supplemented that bare-bones coverage with generic content from elsewhere, and they focused on ad sales. What we’re seeing now is just the next logical step…

And, since then, things have just gotten worse as the paper has continued to change hands, with each subsequent owner looking to extract a little more value by cutting more jobs and forcing those that remained to do more with less.

I may not have my history exactly right, but, from what I understand, the Ypsilanti Courier was created in 1994, after the Ypsilanti Press was sold to the Ann Arbor News, renamed the Ypsi Community News, and reborn as a Sunday insert. At that point, from what I’m told, former Mayor Cheryl Farmer, Dave Melchior, and others decided to launch their own weekly – the Ypsilanti Courier. The Courier published until 2004, at which time it was acquired by Heritage Newspapers. Heritage shortly thereafter sold its holdings to the Journal Register Company, which, not long after, went bankrupt. And, from there, the Courier went to 21st Century Media, which was eventually absorbed by Digital First Media, which also went bankrupt. And, according to the Saline Post, the handoffs many well have continued, if not for the fact that, a few weeks ago, predatory leveraged buyout firm Apollo Global Management backed out of a deal to purchase some, if not all, of Digital First Media’s “more than 800 multi-platform products.” And, with that, the Courier’s long death march has officially come to an end.

For what it’s worth, I don’t blame the employees of the Courier for anything that’s happened. As I discussed not too long ago with former Courier reporter Krystal Elliott on The Saturday Six Pack, I think all the blame lies with ownership, who, contemplating decreasing ad revenues in the internet era, chose not to invest in their papers, but instead to slash costs as much as possible in hopes of siphoning off a few more years of revenue. [Some of you may recall that the Courier attempted in 2012 to transition to a business model in which unpaid community members would produce content for them.] Owners essentially made the decision long ago to ride the horse they were on until it died, and today’s the day it finally collapsed beneath them.

Speaking of Krystal, I reached out to her today to see if she had any thoughts on the death of the Courier. Here’s her response.

What has me the most upset is that Washtenaw Now was the culmination of an entire county’s worth of community newspapers. The thing that made Heritage Newspapers and then Washtenaw Now strong was that it gave voice to these smaller towns so often ignored by the larger local outlets (until tragedy struck, of course). There was always a ton of competition in covering the news for Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, but for Manchester, Milan, Saline, Chelsea, Dexter and all the surrounding townships, these community newspapers were it. Who is going to be sitting in on those school board and city council meetings now? Who’s going to report on those wonderful community events? Who is going to be keeping tabs when election season rolls around?

I know people often like to complain about their local news coverage, but there was (and is) a lot of potential in DFM’s reporting staff. I’m incredibly grateful of the time I spent there- I learned a lot about local news. But it’s really hard to consistently put out a good product with solid, hard-hitting news when you’re not supported or given the proper resources to do so. I’m really sad to see it go and I hope these great (and very hardworking) journalists are able to find alternative outlets where they can do what they do best: report the news.

As for the question I posed in the headline, I just visited the Courier’s website and I didn’t see any mention of the pending closure. [While the eight local papers were folded into one print publication, the Courier, and some of the others, still maintain independent web presences.] One would hope that employees would be given an opportunity to wrap things up in a way that allows them some semblance of closure, but my guess is that corporate ownership won’t allow that to happen.

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12 Comments

  1. Posted June 11, 2015 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    What are our next steps?

  2. Tran
    Posted June 11, 2015 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Corporate news gave up on Main Street a long time ago. At the same time, open up issues of the local papers before they folded into Washtenaw Now… I’d be willing to bet that you won’t see nearly as many advertisements as some might expect – in part because the Wal-Marts and Meijers and 5th/3rd banks and McDonalds and Home Depots put the local stores out of business.
    These papers were sustained for years by classified ads and legal advertisements. Internet made classifieds pretty pointless and it’s only a matter of time before the legals are gone too.

  3. anonymous
    Posted June 12, 2015 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    The next step is for the Koch brothers to start buying up our nation’s remaining papers.

  4. Elviscostello
    Posted June 12, 2015 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    The saddest part of the loss of real local newspapers is the loss of muckrakers. You could depend on the Ypsilanti Press in the 1970’s to expose and stir shit. They had reporters who could spend the time investigating local stories. I miss Jim Kise, Susan Oppat, Will Stewart and the editorials of Joe Matasich. Our community lost when the Ann Arbor news eliminated the Ypsilanti Press.

  5. Angela Barbash
    Posted June 12, 2015 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Mark, what do you think is the answer for local news reporting today? Do you think the business model needs to change, or local businesses need to commit to ads, or the community needs to fill the gap with blogs and radio shows like yours? I’m curious on your take of the future of community reporting.

  6. XXX
    Posted June 12, 2015 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    The Courier was never a good paper. It’s not like we lost the New York Times. I will not mourn their passing.

  7. Posted June 12, 2015 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    That string of bankruptcies and acquisitions is amazing. “…so I built a third castle. That one burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp.”

    If they don’t print an obit, thanks for providing this one.

  8. Jcp2
    Posted June 13, 2015 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Isn’t this more of a business model problem rather than an ownership problem? Papers sell advertising but readers buy information and entertainment. The Internet reduced the cost of price of both, but there are certain costs that cannot be reduced. Even the Ann Arbor Chronicle, a locally owned and operated online paper with no legacy costs, couldn’t make a sustained run, despite its excellent articles. Only large scale news operations can survive in this business model.

  9. Brainless
    Posted June 13, 2015 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    DFM was owned by one venture capital firm and was recently sold to another venture capital firm. No actual humans need apply. Michigan management can only charitably be described as “worse than Mlive” (but maybe slightly better than Hitler). They are a clusterfuck of back-stabbing incompetent twats.

    Washtenaw Now maybe printed 9,000 copies at best and was DOA upon its creation – just the final gasps of moron local managers who love spending other people’s money and leave nothing to show for it. This death is a mercy killing.

    DFM and MLive and the whole lot of them were (monopoly) newspapers only until very recently. Their sales staffs sat back, opened the door and money fell into the office. They had not a fucking clue what they were doing. It was just a gravy train and they got lucky. Along comes the web and *poof*, these skill-free salespeople are now DIGITAL FULL-SERVICE MARKETERS. Never mind that not one of them has a single clue how to do this; they are just because some fucker in NYC said they are. If you have any marketing people working for you and they suggest spending one penny with these frauds, fire their ass right on the spot.

  10. Tony
    Posted June 14, 2015 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Local print can’t survive based on today’s content consumption models. Hopefully, a new business model rises from the ashes as people start demanding local news (and are willing to pay for it). Unfortunately, between now and that future state, we’ll have to deal with no news at all or subpar journalism from people willing to work for nothing.

  11. Gillian
    Posted June 16, 2015 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been wanting to comment on this for a while but it makes me too mad/sad. I also just heard today that the online space is ending, not just the print. Most of the editors have already left and the remaining skeleton crew of reporters in Washtenaw County are going to be laid off.

    I’m frustrated because the local paper was the best way to access a huge swath of our community–especially older people who are not getting their news from facebook (a dangerous habit at any age.) How are we supposed to tell people about library resources and programs? We’ve already had to cut back to 2 newsletters instead of 3, we can only spend so much time making flyers and bringing them to every coffee shop and senior center in town hoping someone *might* pick one up. Every other business and nonprofit organization is having the same problem figuring out how to get the word out about things. If only there were some centralized source that put all the new information together and distributed it to everyone in the community so everyone had equal access, perhaps with an editor… you could call it… “news”

    seriously, though, all mlive will report on is crime and gossip about a business maybe opening somewhere. no one will cover local news. wtf do we do now?

  12. Gillian
    Posted June 16, 2015 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Also, Columbia Journalism Review just published an article suggesting “Report for America”–basically using a Teach for America/Americorps model for investigative reporting. I’d rather have seasoned long term reporting professionals, of course, but maybe this could be a start..

    http://www.cjr.org/innovations/its_hard_to_know_which.php?utm_content=buffer3657c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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