Flashback: The News is dead.
Long live the news.
Does the death of Ann Arbor’s daily newspaper presage the end of local journalism or a new golden era?
Story By Patrick Cliff | Photos by Benjamin Weatherston
Yellow and dusty, the newspaper was folded away in the back of Laura Rubin’s file cabinet. A special section of The Ann Arbor News, the paper looked as if it belonged in a museum – the result of a remote archaeological dig.
Everything about the October 1992 special report on the Huron River seemed archaic: the paper’s physical size, the length of the stories, the intense focus on a single topic. Its presence in Rubin’s office was a reminder of what Ann Arbor lost when it lost a daily newspaper.
Plenty of changes, and consequences, ride along with The News’ end. Some are physical, like no rolled-up paper each day in the driveway. Others, like a lack of investigative reporting, can be more abstract. Journalistic investigations supposedly keep the powerful in check, but how does a reader ever know if power is being abused when no one does that hard work? How to prove the negative? Or if that work is done by new outlets, how does one find and trust them?
Other outlets are certainly trying to fill the void, I came to find out.
I moved to Ann Arbor this summer after spending more than four years at a daily newspaper in Oregon. I’ve worked in journalism for nearly a decade and came to this story mourning the idea of The News’ end, never mind the death of papers in places like New Orleans and Seattle. Much of that feeling was tied up with sadness for dogged journalists who lost jobs though they had worked just as hard as journalists who thrived in more robust times. But for The News itself, I had no feelings. In my Michigan youth, I picked up fewer than a handful of issues.
Others who have lived here longer have stronger feelings. Not only do some regret the loss of their local daily and its physical presence, they now have to find their news another way. Ann Arborites must navigate the present and future of news.
“The whole transition has been difficult,” said Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council. “Maybe The News’ model doesn’t work. It’s still something I feel a little ashamed of, that we can’t support a newspaper.”
The final edition of The News ran on July 23, 2009, with the headline: “Farewell, Ann Arbor.” The bulk of the A section lays out the history of The News, an organization dating to 1835, when it was known as The Michigan Argus. There were scores of awards from news organizations over the years, separate editions published in surrounding communities and just six editors between 1935 and the paper’s closing.
The News took on its final name in 1937 and its history included the first game at Michigan Stadium, the tumultuous 1960s and the August 2003 blackout. That final event inspired the surprising nimbleness of a printed newspaper. Despite Ann Arbor losing power, along with a swath of the country reaching to New York City, the paper’s staff produced an edition the next day.
Geoff Larcom, the author of the final edition’s lead story, paraphrased Timothy White, the paper’s publisher, saying in 1985 “that we are but temporary caretakers in chronicling events in our town.” White’s modesty became ominous by 2009. The lead story ends with a quote by the last editor, Ed Petykiewicz: “I wish it didn’t have to end this way.”
A few days after that final issue, AnnArbor.com launched. Appearing the first Sunday after The News’ closure, the AnnArbor.com print edition continues to be published on Thursdays and Sundays.
In its 174 years, the paper took several names: The Ann Arbor Courier, The True Democrat and The Ann Arbor Daily News – among others. AnnArbor.com, though, was more than a name shift. The paper closed, with many of the staffers either losing or giving up their jobs. A daily’s connection to the community it covered vanished.
Jim Carty, a former sports columnist at The News and now a lawyer, recently estimated the entire reporting staff of AnnArbor.com now equals just the paper’s sports department when he joined it in 2001. Letting go much of the staff was one thing, but tossing away The Ann Arbor News name baffled Carty. That move, he said, meant whoever staffed the new operation would have to rebuild trust already endowed to The News.
“I think that it signalled some sort of fundamental break with the community,” Carty said.
I tried unsuccessfully to get comments for this story from Laurel Champion, The News’ last publisher and executive vice president of AnnArbor.com.
On a late-October Thursday morning, one of AnnArbor.com’s print days, downtown coffee shops were full of people. Almost none of them held newspapers.
Starbucks’ newsstand offered the free Michigan Daily alongside national papers like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Only a few people had bought copies. At nearby news boxes, AnnArbor.com’s print edition sat among the options. But not a single copy of Ann Arbor’s local paper was spread across a table inside that coffee shop, or any of the handful of others downtown.
A few people flipped through The Michigan Daily, a student publication that has the most frequent print run in the county. Others had a copy of the Times or the Journal. Beyond those, it was more common for someone to have an iPad, iPhone or laptop in front of them. Those devices, really, are AnnArbor.com’s home. And that’s part of the problem for Bob Keen, 64, a longtime Ann Arbor resident who also owns an area farm.
Keen was reading The Detroit Free Press sports page, with its coverage of the first game of the Detroit Tigers’ miserable World Series appearance. Everyone around him may have been doing the same, for all Keen knew, but he wasn’t about to steal a glance at their computer screens.
“A computer is so much more private,” Keen said. “There’s a privateness to it, as opposed to people sharing what’s in the paper.”
Keen shrugged off his insight, apologizing that he wasn’t adding something of more depth. But he was pointing to a fundamental shift in news, whether in a daily newspaper-less town like Ann Arbor or in New York City with its reams of daily coverage.
The sharing happens differently than with a left-behind paper, and it’s going on across networks nearly unimaginable until a few years ago. My wife’s family still mails clipped stories from magazines and (less frequently) newspapers. More common, though, is one of us picking up a story from Twitter or Facebook – from a friend in Oregon or, maybe, Kyrgyzstan.
With that shift, people have to learn an entirely new way of finding news, according to Christine Tracy, associate professor of English at Eastern Michigan University.
Tracy, a “media ecologist” who recently published “The Newsphere: Understanding the News and Information Environment,” said readers now are their own editors, responsible for collecting and spreading news. Ann Arbor no longer has the “comfort and tradition” of the daily, general interest print edition.
“While this feels like a crisis, this also feels like an opportunity to do journalism better,” Tracy said. “We have a responsibility to practice journalism in a different way.”
And the change continues, said Eastern Michigan journalism professor Carol Schlagheck.
Not long ago, a recent graduate returned to Schlagheck’s classroom to speak with her current students. The graduate, a former AnnArbor.com staffer, began describing his journalism, with its heavy dose of Facebook and Twitter, and Schlagheck was soon the one taking notes.
“I was literally rewriting my syllabus while he was in class,” she said.
One of the functions of a newspaper is to be a sort of community bulletin board. Library events, concerts, book readings, and on and on. That role has gradually been ceded to social networks. A few likes on Facebook, for instance, and a resident can follow most of his interests – along with event listings.
When The News announced its demise, local businesses and organizations had to look elsewhere, and that gaze often turned inward. The paper had been the key local source for all sorts of information, including advertising. It was the in-between point for residents (and their cash) and businesses (and their cash registers). A local paper with thriving advertising helps businesses thrive.
Reporters preview and cover events, teasing up interest. With fewer staffers, AnnArbor.com’s coverage necessarily had to shift.
The Ann Arbor District Library used to have a traditional public relations department, with staff maintaining contact with local reporters. Now, according to library Director Josie Parker, a press release goes to a general email at AnnArbor.com. It can be hard to know when something will be covered.
When The News shuttered in 2009, the library had already spruced up its website and begun listing and covering its own events. With the closure, the library accelerated that work and eventually reorganized its PR department. Staff members became responsible for the library’s website, for its pages on MySpace (a long time ago), Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Now, the PR staffers report to the IT director.
Things in Ann Arbor are not only upside down, they sometimes flow in entirely different channels.
At events, library staffers survey attendees to see how people learned about a reading or, maybe, Lego competition. Pre-2009, The Ann Arbor News was always the most common source, followed by The Ann Arbor Observer. The library’s website trailed in third. These days, the library’s website is the most common source, Parker said, followed by The Observer and then AnnArbor.com.
“Our goal (in 2009), and it remains our goal through all the changes, was to be on the web waiting for our patrons, to be there when they got there,” Parker said.
Traditional media outlets may also have benefited from The News’ closure. Advertising staffers at the five-day-a-week Michigan Daily now use its frequent publication schedule as a selling point, according to Rachel Greinetz, the paper’s business manager.
For several years now, the Bank of Ann Arbor has been shifting its budget toward online, including its website and social media, giving it a more direct route to its customers.
Last year, for instance, the bank ran a contest through Facebook. Nonprofits pitched the bank for thousands of donation dollars, and finalists were posted on the bank’s Facebook page. The nonprofits, seeking votes, drove their backers to the bank’s page. At the end of the contest, the bank had thousands of Facebook followers – up from a few hundred – and a few local nonprofits’ projects were funded, said Hans Maier, the bank’s senior vice president of specialty banking.
If the bank was already moving in that social direction – potential young customers were there, not buried in the paper – losing The News accelerated everything.
“One phrase I use is: ‘It is what it is, so you’d better get used to it,’” Maier said.
Before the fall chill hit, I was walking along South Seventh Street with my aunt who has lived in Ann Arbor three-plus decades. A subscriber to The News, she was a habitual reader of the paper and an equally active voter. She stayed informed on the issues by reading the paper.
Ann Arbor, probably like any other town, was dotted with lawn signs that September day. After seeing maybe a half dozen signs supporting the $65 million library bond, I asked my aunt to explain the issue. Was it a legitimate need? What was the money for?
More resigned than frustrated – but both – my aunt said something like, “I don’t know. I don’t get a paper anymore.” She would, she said, dig up the information on her own closer to the election.
According to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, closing a daily paper can have real effects on a population’s civic involvement. Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and Princeton University’s Miguel Garrido reviewed voting patterns after The Cincinnati Post closed on New Year’s Eve 2007. The authors found that in the city’s Kentucky suburbs, where the paper was strongest, voter participation dropped, incumbent candidates won re-election more often than in the past and fewer candidates joined races.
While the authors write that their study looks at just one newspaper and is “statistically insignificant,” the implications are clear.
“(If) voter turnout, a broad choice of candidates, and accountability for incumbents are important to democracy, we side with those who lament newspapers’ decline,” they write.
A daily paper has been the easiest place to find information about elections for generations. AnnArbor.com did publish a voting guide this year, but its website and smartphone app often displayed a confusing collection of letters-to-the-editor columns on the election and news stories jumbled up the screen. Rarely was it immediately clear who was writing what, never mind why. Still, there was plenty of election information there, it just took a different sort of parsing to understand it.
To Rubin and others, election issues sometimes seemed “boiled down to the lawn sign” since The News closed.
Without a daily paper, the challenge can be finding a way past the lawn sign.
Ellie Serras, who headed the pro-library bond campaign, said that beyond the lawn signs and some radio and TV ads, the campaign struggled to find a way to place ads. The News had been the signpost and without it the library bond campaign struggled to reach older voters, Serras said.
According to a 2012 Pew Internet & American Life Project study of local news habits, people younger than 40 who follow the news are more likely than older residents to get their news online than via print or television.
Of news followers younger than 40, 54 percent find news through search engines; among news followers 40 and older, search engines are a news source for 35 percent.
Twenty-one percent of younger folks get their news from newspaper websites and social networks, compared to only 7 percent of older news followers.
In that context, the library campaign’s generational struggles were clear.
“We have been hearing from people in that group, that I don’t go online to see the news,” Serras said. “That daily reference they used to have is just nonexistent. That’s been our toughest group to reach.” The bond failed.
Then there was the Ypsilanti School District, which sought voter approval for a proposed merger with the Willow Run School District. The News used to print a regular Ypsi edition, and that would have been the obvious place for ads or guest columns on the proposal, said Scott Menzel, superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District, which helped coordinate the consolidation effort.
AnnArbor.com covered the proposed consolidation, but Menzel worried it went unnoticed because of a lack of consistent daily coverage. Like Keen, the longtime Ann Arbor resident, Menzel wished there was more printed material left around town.
“When you had a daily in circulation, not everyone read it. But they might pick it up at a restaurant, just see the cover page in a vending machine at a gas station. You lose that kind of exposure,” Menzel said.
Voters approved the district consolidation. However they’re doing it, locals are still finding election information somewhere.
Where that leaves us
When Advance Publications killed The News, the city was one of the largest without a daily paper. Other cities have lost one of two, like Seattle and Denver, or suffered reduced publication, like Detroit. But the Ann Arbor model is now being recreated elsewhere; Advance earlier this year reduced print operations at The New Orleans Times-Picayune to three days a week.
If there is a general interest news source in Ann Arbor, it’s still AnnArbor.com. And in some ways, it has excelled. In interview after interview, people referred mostly to the website’s crime and tragedy coverage: murder, mugging and car crashes.
Tracy remembered a car crash west of Ann Arbor. Below the story posted on the website, various witnesses commented, adding to the whole picture of the scene. The news was of the community, and the community made the news in a way only journalists could have a decade ago.
Andrea Fischer Newman, a University of Michigan regent since 1994, praised AnnArbor.com for its maturation over the past three years. She travels often and so relies on the website and app for her Ann Arbor news. Still, she misses the investigative work, including some concerning the university, more prevalent in The News.
“That’s a huge difference. The Ann Arbor News had a regular investigative presence and had a regular interaction with the entire community,” Newman said.
Some say the beginning of the end for The News was evident well before the paper moved out of its landmark Huron Street headquarters.
Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, pointed to Arbor Update, a now inactive website that became a community news source years before The News’ end. Volunteer contributors posted a range of local issues, spurring conversations in the comments section. One of the final posts asked about the future of the Washtenaw Avenue corridor and drew more than 70 comments.
Arbor Update began periodically beating The News at its own game, even though the former wasn’t really intended as a breaking news website, said Mary Morgan, The Chronicle’s publisher and former editorial page editor at The News.
Now, three years later, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have a number of successful and failed media outlets.
The Chronicle, which covers government to a depth unique in the community and possibly across the nation, has pushed other outlets to cover government in a way that wouldn’t have happened if The News was the only show in town, said Askins.
“There was a lot just not being covered,” Morgan said. “We recognized people were into local government. People were clearly craving that kind of detail.”
Besides The Chronicle, MGoBlog covers University of Michigan sports deeply, A2Politico discusses everything from the local economy to arts and culture, and The ArborWeb (a division of The Ann Arbor Observer) publishes pieces from culture to millages on the November ballot. (Then, of course, there’s The Ann, a monthly news magazine.)
Askins maintains that the mixture means a healthier media. But it can also mean a more baffling one for the time being. Whether readers were happy or not with The Ann Arbor News when it closed, it was still a consistent and physical presence.
Even some younger locals who are more adept at gathering news socially and from a number of outlets yearn for a daily print edition sometimes. Jessica Deljevic, 20, has The New York Times, Detroit Free Press and AnnArbor.com apps on her phone. She follows links posted by friends on Facebook and Twitter. Basically, she is in what should be AnnArbor.com’s wheelhouse.
Still, as she sat in the downtown Espresso Royale Cafe, Deljevic wished she could see a daily print edition. “It’s right in our face, it’s in the streets, in our doorways,” she said.
That daily print presence is gone and apparently not on its way back to town. Locals, businesses, cultural centers and civic leaders are being forced to come to terms with Ann Arbor’s young media environment.
Askins believes it is everyone’s duty to find their own news, to figure out what can and cannot be trusted among the various news choices in town. No single resident’s daily news diet will look like the next.
“It might be that a certain generation may never find a way,” Askins said. “(But) this fractured nature works to your advantage. It’s just a lot of work and effort to sample that.”
Local news organizations are scrambling to redefine how news is produced and consumed in Ann Arbor. If these local outlets are to thrive, ultimately, readers must develop comfort as their own editors.
As advertisers adjust to their customers’ reading habits and find new ways to reach them, there should be real concern over the future of news in Ann Arbor – or anywhere.
Ann Arbor’s media environment is young and, in the way of the young, optimistic. The News had more than 170 years of legacy and trust behind it, while the new outlets have had a tiny fraction of that time. It seems like an impossibility that a three-year-old news organization could have the maturity of a newspaper – if that’s even a good thing. Local news may seem chaotic now, but the energy could inspire lasting innovation. If the kind of effects seen in the suburbs of Cincinnati are to remain blunted, Ann Arborites better hope both local innovation and optimism are well founded.