It’s Monday afternoon and I’m sitting in a terminal at Detroit Metro airport, waiting for a flight to Texas to be with my father and sister.
News of my mother’s death and the planned closing of The Ann Arbor News came inside a 12-hour span. The two events are orders of magnitude apart in their emotional impact on me, but in an odd way I find myself processing both and finding a metaphor for one in the other.
My mother was ill for a long time. Once a woman who loved to sing, she became unable to articulate the simplest concept. She grew to be fearful of even the shortest trips outside her home, though once she’d been eager to travel – so much so that all our family vacations when I was young were camping trips, far before it was popular. Piling us into a station wagon hauling a pop-up camper was the only way my parents could afford to see the country.
By the time she died, my mom was a shadow of her former self. And for the people who knew her only in the final months of her life, I’m sure it’s hard for them to imagine the woman I knew, and loved.
All of this was on my mind when word came about the decision to close The Ann Arbor News. And what I’ve heard from people in the aftermath of that decision looks very much like grief.
For the people who work at The News, or those who work at any of the hundreds of other struggling newspapers nationwide, it’s a grief linked to the uncertainty of their livelihood, for sure. But for the many journalists who are deeply committed to the idealistic goals of their profession – that the very foundation of a democracy relies on an informed public, which a free press serves – the closing of a newspaper is a frightening symbol. For them, it’s not a business. It’s a calling – even when it sometimes fell short of that idealistic goal.
But what about the rest of us, those who are no longer linked to traditional media, or never were? What are we grieving? It’s the loss of something that’s been part of our lives as long as we can remember. Of something that’s been entwined in our daily routines, often thoughtlessly. Of opportunities missed, of potential unrealized. Of witnessing a long, sad, sometimes maddening decline – and feeling powerless to do anything about it.
Of course not everyone is sentimental about the closing of The Ann Arbor News – one blog headlined its post with “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead.” I believe this animosity stems at least in part from an us-versus-them mentality. Over the years the News had grown inarticulate about its vision, and fearful as well. I’ve heard people at the News described as arrogant, and no doubt there was some truth to that, for some. But more recently, whatever arrogance newsroom leaders had was replaced by fear and a kind of desperation – not an eagerness for what the future was bringing as it barreled toward them, but a resentful apprehension. They felt embattled and under-appreciated, too – and all of this contributed to a destructive bunker-mentality that only exacerbated their alienation from the community.
These were the death throes. Yes, the economy is brutal and advertising revenue has been leeching away. Despite the economy, I believe the newspaper could have survived if its leaders had better engaged and embraced this community – not as sycophants or vacuous boosters, but as people with a vested interest in the lifeblood of Ann Arbor, its politics and government, arts & culture, schools, businesses, nonprofits – and in the people who live and work here every day, who, like us, call this patch of Michigan home.
Maybe their new venture, backed by the resources of the Newhouse corporation, will do this. Based on the community meetings they’re holding to help shape what the new online publication will be like, it sounds like they’re going to give it a shot.
I also wonder what this means for The Ann Arbor Chronicle – all day long people have been asking us that question. We have a clear vision for what The Chronicle does well – eyewitness, first-hand accounts, whether it’s a public meeting or a fun community event. And we’re committed to covering the community where we live in a way that reflects what it is, quirks, warts, and all. With the news yesterday, expectations from some readers of what The Chronicle could be and should be have risen dramatically. And so have our own.
But just for a little while, I’ll pause to indulge in unabashed nostalgia. Because when The News ceases to publish in July, I will miss it. Whatever takes its place – the new business promises to publish a print version on Thursdays and Sundays – it will almost certainly not look or feel like a daily newspaper. That model has been broken, at least in the minds of the number crunchers, and perhaps they’re right.
Almost everyone I talk with has stories of their own about visceral ties to their local newspaper. For me, I’ll miss the tactile, physicality of newsprint: its grime, its tempting outdoor smell that teases our cats to pounce, its transience. I’ll miss its clutter – how, spread across the floor, the newspaper evokes the messiness of the lives its reporters cover. I’ll miss the thunk it makes when our carrier pitches it onto our porch steps.
And perhaps above all, I will marvel at how I’ve become like my mother, whose stories about growing up with an outhouse and no running water seemed apocryphal to me, as newspapers will be to kids born today.
We can’t help but grieve. Yet it’s exhausting, and can’t be sustained at its most heightened level. I take comfort in that. So today I’m grieving, but tomorrow or the day after I’ll feel more hopeful. I will still miss what’s gone, but will remember why I loved it, and I’ll hold that part with me.
They’re boarding my plane. As I get ready to pack up my laptop and go, I feel as though I’m leaving something precious behind, and moving toward a future in which the landscape of my life has unalterably shifted. I don’t know what the future will be in this new place. But I don’t feel I’m alone.
Mary Morgan, publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, was a 12-year veteran of The Ann Arbor News. Most recently she served as opinion editor there, and before that was editor of the News’ business section. She and Dave Askins, Chronicle editor, launched this online local news publication in September 2008.