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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

The Ann Arbor Precedent   

Three years before it announced it was taking a digital-first approach and cutting back on print publishing at papers in New Orleans and five other cities, Newhouse’s Advance Publications adopted a similar MO in Ann Arbor, Michigan. How has it worked out? Tues., August 28, 2012.


By Lindsay Kalter
Lindsay Kalter (lindsay.kalter@gmail.com) is an Ann Arbor-based writer.      

Nearly 1,000 bundled Ann Arborites lined the city's downtown sidewalks during a snowstorm in February 1985, waiting to enter a three-story Art Deco office building on East Huron Street. The residents weren't waiting to see a politician speak or to watch a well-known musician play, two events that might draw such a crowd in a college town like Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. Instead, they were waiting to attend an open house to celebrate their community newspaper's 150th anniversary.

Longtime staff members recounted this day in the final print edition of the Ann Arbor News on July 23, 2009, when the city became the first to lose its only daily newspaper. The next day, AnnArbor.com was launched as the community's main news source, with a print edition on Thursday and Sunday.

Three years later, the Ann Arbor News is just one in a growing collection of newspapers owned by Newhouse's Advance Publications that are shedding production costs by transitioning from daily print to primarily digital operations. In May, New Orleans' Times-Picayune announced that it would print only three days a week, as did Advance's three Alabama papers. In late August, Advance disclosed similar plans for papers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, New York. Six hundred staffers were laid off at the papers. Publication schedules have also been reduced at other Advance Michigan properties.

With just 13 reporters listed on its staff page, AnnArbor.com has a much smaller news team than the News did, and the journalists are working for far less pay. So what impact has the transition from Ann Arbor News to AnnArbor.com had on the city? How good is the journalism at the digital-first news outlet? Does the demise of local print newspapers have a fracturing effect on communities, as many in New Orleans fear?

Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellows in journalism at the University of Michigan, says that although the News "was never the New York Times" and had been on the decline for some time, it was an adequate, serviceable local daily. But AnnArbor.com, he says, has proven to be an insufficient substitute and has had "a terrible effect" on the city.

"If you pay people a third of what they were paid before, and you have a third as many of them, the results aren't exactly rocket science," Eisendrath says. More specifically, he says, the result has been anemic coverage. "If this is the model for the future of traditional news organizations, they need to begin calling themselves something else. Not news organizations."

Dan Gaydou, president of Ann Arbor.com's parent, MLive Media Group, turned down AJR's request to visit the newsroom and discuss the operation. "We've decided to decline your request to visit with our employees or release information about reporters, but I'm glad to give you current circulation and audience data," Gaydou wrote in an e-mail.

Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the digital division of Advance Publications, and Randy Siegel, president of local digital strategy at Advance, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

In an August 3 column published on poynter.org, Newhouse depicted the Ann Arbor transition as a great success. "AnnArbor.com scaled nicely; it exceeded our expectations for audience growth and performed well by increasing our digital revenue," he wrote. "The website has consistently ranked #1 in the United States for having the highest local market penetration (54.9 percent) among consumers of any local newspaper site in America, according to Media Audit.

"The reason for AnnArbor.com's strong readership is the high quality of its journalism. In the past two years, the site won 21 awards in the Michigan Associated Press Editorial Association's news-writing contest, including first place awards in investigative reporting, breaking news and column writing, and second place in community service. Those 21 awards, in 2011 and 2010, represented the highest total of any newspaper in its circulation category."

In March 2009, Ann Arbor News higher-ups informed a shocked roomful of newspaper staffers that the paper would be rebranded as a Web site. Reporters were welcome to apply for positions with the new site, they said – the only catch was that they'd be making a third as much money. In all, 55 staffers lost their jobs.

Michigan native David Jesse, now a higher education reporter for the Detroit Free Press, was one of the reporters who accepted a reduced salary and moved from the paper to AnnArbor.com. Jesse was among the Web-savvy staff members at the paper – the K-12 team, of which he was a part before covering higher education, wrote a blog called Study Hall.

"There were ongoing conversations at the News about how to conduct a Web site," Jesse says. "At the dotcom, there wasn't a ton of difference in day-to-day things. The delivery method was just different. It was focused on the Web, on speed, on how to present things digitally."

Many of the News' reporters had no choice but to look elsewhere for job opportunities. Geoff Larcom, who was a reporter, local columnist and editor with the News for 25 years, says that he could have been enticed to accept the online challenge, had it not come with a $17,000 pay cut.

Larcom says the most jolting change for local news consumers is the absence of a consistent, tangible product. The reliability of a newspaper makes people feel like connected members of a community, he says. "The biggest difference is simply a physical one," says Larcom, who now works as executive director of media relations at Eastern Michigan University.

"A newspaper is a physical presence that daily reestablishes and reinforces your identity as a town. Even if you don't always partake of it, you do sometimes, and it's that enduring presence."

Media consultant Alan Mutter calls the switch from the News to AnnArbor.com a "triple-whammy." "There are three levels of the problem," Mutter says. "The first is that there are fewer reporters, the second is that the people left can't look at stories as intensely or thoroughly as they had in the past and the third is that stories become less ambitious." Mutter contends that if each reporter is expected to tweet, take pictures, post to Facebook, produce video or infographics and mine databases in addition to meeting deadlines, there is inevitably less time to delve deeply into any given issue.

"It's not what's there in front of me that I worry about," says Mutter of AnnArbor.com. "It's the stuff that's not there because they weren't able to get it."

On its face, Ann Arbor seems like the kind of town that would have a robust news presence. Since it's the home of the University of Michigan, it's no surprise that 72 percent of its residents 25 and older have bachelor's degrees, and 43 percent of its population hold advanced degrees, according to a 2011 analysis conducted by the Business Journals. "It's an intelligent, highly literate, very self-important and fun town," Larcom says. "Being the first town in the country to lose its only daily paper is an odd tag for it to wear."

Perhaps these characteristics have contributed to the backlash. Many Ann Arbor residents miss the paper, and not just out of love for the inky, crinkly intimacy of traditional news consumption that newspaper enthusiasts share. Comments criticizing the Web site for limited or nonexistent coverage – sometimes malicious in nature – have been posted by readers since the Web site went live. Some residents have opted to ignore the site altogether, while others have adapted to the new medium.

Lois Yarmain, a 78-year-old retired teacher, subscribed to the News for 50 years and now visits AnnArbor.com every morning. "I read it religiously," Yarmain says.

But even as a reader who has made the transition, she still laments the loss of her daily. "I miss having a newspaper. When I didn't work, I read it in the morning, and when I worked, I read it in the evening. It was something that I kind of just looked forward to. I never was without the Ann Arbor News." Yarmain adds that the newspaper's content was more comprehensive than the Web site's. "It gave me more information than I get online," she says. "It gave me a better idea of what was going on."

Ann Pearlman, 70-year-old local therapist and author, subscribed to the Ann Arbor News from the time she moved to the area in 1976. She relied on it for information about community politics, businesses and real estate, new shopping opportunities, construction projects and alternative routes – and recipes. It was her broader, old-school version of a Facebook newsfeed, alerting her of who was having babies, who was dying, who was getting married.

"I read it in its entirety every single day," she says. "I mean, for me, it was about all of those functions that a local newspaper provides. It was so important to have the pulse on my community."

AnnArbor.com possesses many of these same features, just to a lesser degree and in a different format. The Web site has a fairly comprehensive collection of sections, including News, Business Review, Restaurants, Real Estate and Lifestyles. Information is presented using a social media-style layout. Stories are listed primarily in chronological order rather than ranked on newsworthiness, which some residents consider a detriment to its navigability. Efforts to increase community involvement and interactivity can be seen in features like the Community Wall, which allows readers to post potential news items.

Micheline Maynard, a former New York Times reporter living in Ann Arbor, wrote in a May 24 Forbes column titled "What New Orleans Can Expect When Its Newspaper Goes Away" that AnnArbor.com has "less gravitas than its predecessor." "No offense to its staff, but AnnArbor.com, online at least, is a constantly updated blog, which gives equal play to impaled cyclists and rabid skunks as it does to politics and crime," she wrote.

Perceptions of AnnArbor.com among the younger crowd – which, in a college town, is hefty – seem to be mixed. Responses range from "I've never looked at it" to "I look at it for random comings and goings." The native Generation Nexters have a soft spot for the News. They share vivid memories of parents reading the paper while lounging in La-Z-Boy chairs after work, or the day after its delivery at the breakfast table.

But aside from the sentimental value the News maintains, "The Sunday and Thursday print editions of AnnArbor.com are just skinnier, and not the same at all," says Kristen Lake, 28, a recent nursing graduate who began reading the News regularly as a junior in high school. "They could also make the Web site a little more user-friendly in how it's laid out. There's a lot of ads and a lot less writing."

Aston Gonzalez, a history graduate student at the University of Michigan, says he generally follows links posted to his Facebook friends' pages from AnnArbor.com about local nightlife and crime on campus. "I think the coverage is pretty good," he says. "The topics that I read, anyway, that are linked by my friends, are very diverse. If they're exceptionally thorough, I'm not sure, but the topics are definitely diverse."

But the 26-year-old from San Antonio concedes that he sees the site through different eyes than long-term Ann Arbor residents. "I completely respect and understand that people who live and work here for a long period of time miss it," he says.

According to Gaydou, the print edition of AnnArbor.com has a Sunday circulation of 37,003 and a Thursday circulation of 30,422, compared with 49,000 on Sunday and 39,000 daily just before the News closed. In June the Web site had 557,000 unique visitors, Gaydou says. Print subscriptions are $9 a month, and were $12 for the News.

Of course, there's no telling to what extent Ann Arbor's collective nostalgia for its print paper will fade as time progresses. Eventually, digital natives – that is, those who aren't old enough to remember anything different – will replace the generation of residents who still have fond memories of the News.

AnnArbor.com is still in its infancy; comparing it to a publication that had 174 years to garner a loyal readership may not be entirely fair. The site's staff has been knocked for being young and inexperienced, without the historical or geographic perspective of the News' reporters. But Larcom says although the site may not have as much of a local feel to it, it has a hard-working, efficient staff, and particularly good entertainment coverage.

Although it generates some arguably superficial reporting, AnnArbor.com seemed doomed to face withering criticism from its birth. Not unlike a child resenting a new stepparent for infringing on cherished territory, Ann Arbor residents were still reeling from the loss of its predecessor when the Web site entered their lives. The consequence is that residents may miss whatever solid community reporting it might provide. After a twister tore through the Michigan town of Dexter, AnnArbor.com published several articles on the aftermath, calling for local volunteers and relief backup. Its stories on the topic may have ceased sooner than they would have in the News, and they may not have offered the same depth. But at some point, the Web site's successes – however intermittent they may be – will need to be acknowledged without speculation on what may or may not have graced the pages of the News.

While residents are still warming to the idea of AnnArbor.com, other startups are reaping the benefits. Eisendrath says many are turning to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, an online newspaper launched in 2008 that reports mainly on local government and civic issues, and The Ann, a monthly magazine started in 2010 that sticks mostly to human interest features, with a tagline of "Inform, critique, amuse, inspire." The Michigan Daily, the university's student newspaper, also serves as a news source for political and social developments.

Jesse says that although there is a vocal group of Ann Arborites who still long for the News, "There are definitely people reading the dotcom in this town." He adds that, ultimately, the medium does not determine a publication's success.

"In all this conversation about the dotcom, New Orleans, all of these changes, it isn't necessarily about the delivery model – it's about content," he says. "It's about whether the owners of the various papers are willing to still invest in quality journalists, even as the model changes."