It was late on a Saturday night earlier this month when the Google alert showed up in my inbox: “Editor’s column: The Ann Arbor News is changing; you can help us,” by Ed Petykiewicz.
At last, I thought, Ed has finally written a column about what’s happening at The News. That’s great! So I clicked on the link, and pulled up … a blank page on MLive.
I groaned – the mess that is MLive strikes again! – and I put my head in my hands: This technical glitch reflects so much of what’s wrong with the News’ business model, and shows how far they have to go in addressing this and all the other challenges they face. Maybe, I thought, Ed’s column will confront some of these realities. I’d just have to wait for the newsprint version on Sunday morning to read it.
The timing of Ed’s column was interesting. It came about a month after The News had reported another round of buyouts, part of a statewide restructuring of publications owned by Advance Publications, a privately held Newhouse family company. The use of the word “reported” could be somewhat misleading – locally, the paper ran a 5-sentence news brief in the local section. I wrote about it here, as did former News sports columnist Jim Carty, writing on his blog, Paper Tiger No More. The news was picked up by various other sites that keep tabs on what’s happening in the industry nationwide, like Jim Romenesko’s column on the Poynter Institute website, and blogs like Newspaper Death Watch.
The situation has roiled the local newsroom, where every full-time employee with five years or more of tenure has been offered a buyout. And because there have been very few new hires over the past five years, the offer affects most of the newsroom staff. They have until the end of this month – just a few more days – to make their decisions.
The buyout is complicated by the fact that staff aren’t assured they’ll keep the job they have if they don’t take the offer. Advance Publications is consolidating the production staff of all eight of its Michigan papers at the Grand Rapids Press. But they’ll have far fewer production jobs in Grand Rapids than exist at the individual papers now. So page designers, copy editors, graphic artists and others who are involved in production will have to apply for those Grand Rapids jobs – assuming, of course, that they’re willing to move their families to that community.
The same goes for virtually every other person who stays – it’s a crapshoot. The company has a no-layoff policy – rare in this or any industry. But now that might mean the job they give you is in Bay City selling ads, even if you’ve never done that before. If you don’t take the buyout and don’t like the job you’re offered within the company, you can quit – which means no unemployment benefits.
Communication with the staff about these changes and the future direction of the paper has been poor – and that’s a generous description. Communication with the community has been even worse. People ask me why The News is closing. Answer: It’s not. Or they wonder how the paper can call itself The Ann Arbor News when all the workers will be in Grand Rapids. Answer: The newsroom, advertising and circulation staff are remaining in Ann Arbor – the consolidation hasn’t gone quite that far. But the fact that so many people are confused speaks volumes about how ineffectively The News has communicated its plans to its readers.
Of course the staff size will be reduced after the buyouts, even if only a small percentage of people end up taking them. Due to attrition and a previous round of buyouts, the newsroom already has far fewer people than it had just five years ago. The departure dates for those taking the current buyout will likely be staggered over several months, so the full impact might not be felt until mid- to late-2009.
It’s happening everywhere
All of these local changes are taking place in the national context of a transformation in the field of journalism, driven by the overall economic downturn, lower advertising revenues, rising newsprint and personnel costs, competition from online news sources and a shift in readership away from traditional print to online.
The decision this fall by the Christian Science Monitor to become a primarily online publication was a dramatic indication of these changes, and the recent announcement that the Detroit papers are canceling home delivery on all but three days, revamping their newsstand editions and pinning their future to their online product is just the latest in a string of decisions that seem either boldly visionary or baldly desperate, depending on your perspective. (One blogger sweetly called the moves in Detroit a “crap sandwich.”)
The publisher of the Detroit News, Jonathan Wolman, was in town in early December as part of a panel discussion titled “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism,” held at the Ford Library. As partners in The Ann Arbor Chronicle, my husband and I have a deeply vested interest in exploring this topic – it’s our future, too.
Based on what the panelists had to say, that future involves a tumult of technology – news delivered via Twitter, video, podcasts, blogs, live-blogging, social networks like Facebook and others methods yet to be invented. These different forms require attention – someone has to file a Tweet, shoot and edit video, record the podcast, get these things into some kind of presentable form and post them on whatever platform they’re using. Often, that someone has evolved to be the reporter. That doesn’t include time spent doing what the job originally entailed: Preparing, researching, reporting, writing, editing, rewriting and, god forbid, just working the beat.
With fewer people employed at news organizations, each person is asked to do more of these things. At some point, something’s got to give. Vincent Duffy, news director at Michigan Radio, said at the Ford Library forum that typically what gets shorter shrift is attention to the story itself.
Technology is also behind the news in other ways. All of the panelists said they factored in website traffic – specifically, what stories online drew the most readers – when deciding what to cover next. They all looked at that data as part of their daily news meetings, when editors discuss how to allocate their staff resources, what kind of “play” a story will get or whether it’s worth covering at all.
I guess this could be seen as the democratization of media – readers are essentially voting on what they’re most interested in, be it Britney or bailouts. But it also seems like an abdication of responsibility, when newsroom leaders throw up their hands and say, “Hey – we wanted to cover the war in Iraq, but our readers were clamoring for cute puppy stories.” It’s happening at a time when newsrooms need more leadership and vision, not less.
Back to Ed’s column. I was glad to see he at least acknowledged the buyouts and talked about some of the challenges the paper is facing. I was glad that it ran on the front page of the Sunday newsprint edition. Finding it online was more of a challenge – it was placed in the “Real-Time News Coverage” feed, but as far as I could tell there was no direct link from MLive’s home page (an example of the weird disconnect between the online and print versions).
So what did he have to say? The piece began with this curious statement: “In the coming weeks, your News will begin to focus more on local people, local issues and local events.”
It’s hard to argue against more local coverage. Yet it prompts the question: does this just mean more local relative to non-local content, or does it mean more local coverage in absolute terms? The staff of the newsroom, during my 12 years there, at least, has been focused exclusively on covering local people, issues, and events. The state, national and international news was picked up through wires services that The News subscribes to. If we see a reduction in wire-service content – not an unreasonable move given that these are costly services – then of course we’ll get “more” local content, relative to everything else. But providing “more” local content in absolute terms requires the folks who’ve always worked exclusively to provide local coverage to provide even more of it.
The brute reality is that there will be fewer people in the newsroom after the buyouts. So how can there be more local news in the paper if there are fewer people to do the reporting? Ed doesn’t address this, so we’re left guessing. The staff who remain will in some cases be doing different jobs. Editors might be asked to do reporting – for mid-level editors, that’s already happening. Everyone will likely be expected to produce more, and in different forms – video, podcasts, online (see above “Future of Journalism”). Maybe they’ll use more freelancers. Likely they’ll recruit people from the community to write columns – not a bad thing.
In his column, Petykiewicz also says that readership has never been higher than when print and online are combined – no doubt that’s true. (Strip away University of Michigan sports coverage, though, and online numbers would likely plummet.) But the challenge he doesn’t discuss is the digital elephant in the room that is MLive: It’s an ill-conceived, poorly executed, untenable partnership.
Michigan Live is a separate “sister” company to The News. It operates the websites for all eight daily newspapers in Michigan as well as the Business Review publications. Many decisions related to the site have been made at the corporate level in New Jersey – and it shows. The operation runs to a great extent on automated feeds that rely on hand-coding, which if not done accurately by News staff results in all manner of glitches. Headlines can be loaded without the accompanying story, for example.
Since it launched in the mid-1990s, the site has been roundly ridiculed by readers for its confusing, hard-to-navigate design. (It’s not loved by Ann Arbor News staffers, either.) I think it’s improved incrementally over the years, but its generic look, the lack of a decent archiving system, the difficulty in finding content (even when you know it’s there, somewhere) are crippling.
The revenue model is even worse. Newspapers – especially those like The Ann Arbor News, which haven’t faced competition from other traditional media in the form of a comparably-sized newspaper or TV station – have been cash cows for their owners. They’ve delivered double-digit profit margins with the knowledge that advertisers really had no choice but to pay their rates. There was no other game in town.
Now readers and advertisers are migrating online, but without the commensurate revenue. Readers don’t pay subscription fees. Online ads don’t command as high a rate as print ads, and the online revenue is parceled out between MLive and The Ann Arbor News and MLive’s other print partners. For the News, just like any newspaper, that means there’s a smaller advertising pie. But with MLive as part of the picture, it means that more people are eating that smaller pie.
So what’s next?
No amount of spin will change the realities confronting The News, but there is hope. A smaller newsroom could produce a smaller newspaper that’s a must-read, tightly focused on local news and events. But to do that, the paper’s leadership needs to overhaul its own approach to doing business. Here are a few places to start:
- Don’t treat readers like idiots. Don’t tell people they’re getting more when they’re clearly not. They might not like the changes you’re making, but what they’ll really hate is an attempt to mask those changes by saying it’s an improvement. You’re in a fight for survival. You need readers on your side – employees too, for that matter. People will be advocates, even evangelists, for the the local paper, but not if they think you’re trying to swindle them with a product that costs more, delivers less and is being promoted as an upgrade. Everyone these days is dealing with the crappy economy – they understand you’ll have to make hard decisions. Don’t pretend it’s not happening.
- Don’t try to be everything to everyone. For several years after I joined The News in the mid-1990s, “zoning” was the big thing. The paper put out several different editions, swapping out the lead stories in each one so that it related to the edition for a particular community – Ypsilanti, Livingston County, Ann Arbor. The newsroom twisted itself in knots to make this happen, resulting mostly (as far as I could tell) in confusion. Readers in Ypsilanti felt they weren’t getting the “real” newspaper. People who worked in Ann Arbor and lived in Livingston would see two different versions and wonder, “What the…??” The effort was eventually dropped, but the paper still tries to cover a little of everything, both topically and geographically. With fewer resources, you need to hone your focus. And when you do, make sure your readers understand your goals.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Vickie Elmer has been interviewing people for an article about changes at The News that’s scheduled to run in the January edition of The Ann Arbor Observer – it’s probably already being delivered to local households. If The News itself had been frank about what’s happening there, she wouldn’t have much of a story to tell. And I would be writing a much different column than the one you’re reading today.
- Get out of the office. Like anything else, loyalty is built through relationships. If people don’t know the decision-makers at The News, they’ll view the institution as just that – an institution, making it a far easier target to lampoon. Speak to community groups, reach out to people you don’t already know, make sure all the senior managers are involved in as many different community efforts as possible. It’s easy to develop a defensive bunker mentality when you don’t leave the building and when most of your conversations are held with others in the newsroom. Relationships shape reality, and when you don’t have deep connections to the community you cover, you can’t really understand what’s important to your readers.
The Ann Arbor News can emerge from its restructuring as a stronger, more relevant publication. But that won’t happen unless its leadership makes some fundamental changes in the way they operate. It’s not clear they’re willing to do that – even when it appears they have no other choice.