My hometown no longer has a newspaper.
Ann Arbor, Mich., is a town not unlike Columbia — the population hovers around 115,000, and the city is the home of a flagship public university. The main employers are the University of Michigan and two hospitals. Located about a 45-minute drive west of Detroit, Ann Arbor has seemed to weather the economic troubles that plague the rest of the state. Time described the town as Michigan’s “beauty queen.”
And yet, the Ann Arbor News published its last edition July 23. The paper had a circulation of about 45,000. Two hundred seventy-two people lost their jobs.
While the Ann Arbor News was beset by the same problems that pretty much every paper in the industry is currently suffering, the shock is that Booth Newspapers, a subsidiary of Advance Publications, decided not to cut the number of print publications and furlough journalists to maintain profits, but to abolish the News altogether and start fresh.
And now, my beloved hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., is the first major U.S. municipality to be completely without a newspaper.
In the News' place now exists AnnArbor.com — a site that deliberately feels more like Twitter than a traditional newspaper site. There are now 32 journalists on staff, along with 22 staffers working the advertising side of the site. To my personal dismay, only two people on the staff list are described as a photojournalists. AnnArbor.com also uses 70 community bloggers, who are mostly unpaid, to produce supplementary content.
In a letter to readers, Publisher Laurel Champion justified the switch to online with the Ann Arbor population’s high education and technology use rates: “92 percent of the community has the skills and technology set-up for online news. And we're committed to working with everyone in the community, especially those who have limited online access and familiarity,” Champion wrote. I think, perhaps, that the eight percent who don’t have the online news skills are those who need the news the most.
I’m sure the lower overhead costs of drastically reducing the workforce and eliminating printing were appealing as well.
But my cynicism about the motives for the destruction of a venerable paper with a 175-year history in Ann Arbor is tempered by the stark realization that for journalism to survive in America, a new business model must be found. The New York Times lost $74.5 million in the first quarter of 2009, and like it or not, that is America’s newspaper of record we are talking about. Advertising revenue and circulations are down across the board among newspapers, and between the demise of the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, it has seemed like the Newspaper Apocalypse in the past year.
But Seattle and Denver, despite the catastrophic loss of a newspaper each, had other newspapers to keep the light alive. It has even been reported that the Seattle Times is benefiting from the end of the Post-Intelligencer by gaining its former rival’s market share.
I know it’s only a few weeks old, but AnnArbor.com seems like an experiment in buzzwords gone terribly wrong. The mix of professional journalism and amateur blogging is confusing, and any hierarchy of news value is completely abandoned in favor of the most recent post.
Until I moved to Columbia to attend the University of Missouri five years ago, I read the Ann Arbor News almost every day since I could read (along with every other publication I could get my hands on). My childhood friends almost all had their first job delivering the News after school. The News chronicled all my swim meets and water polo matches in high school — it was an accomplishment to have my time in the 500-yard freestyle listed in the results. I adored the News' building on the corner of Huron and Division streets. Maybe it's misplaced nostalgia, but I lament the end of the Ann Arbor News.
Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is a graduate of the Huron High School class of 2004 in Ann Arbor. Go River Rats!