Column: What The Ann Arbor News Needs

2009 will be pivotal for the local newspaper, one way or another

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.

What’s happening

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.

The spin

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.


  1. December 26, 2008 at 8:38 pm | permalink


    I grew up in Ann Arbor, now living in Saline. As a kid, the only thing I knew of was the AA News. As a young adult, it was where I could vent via the letters to the Editor (most of which were never published, thankfully!). Newspapers have been a part of my life as long as I can remember.

    Newspapers have been around since the Revolutionary War era, if only in pamphlet form back then (thank you, Ben Franklin). Still, there was dissemination of information going back 232 years and longer in this country.

    What we’re witnessing in Ann Arbor (the News) and Detroit (News and Free Press) is the (self-imposed) destruction of that 232-year history. It is both exciting and scary at the same time. Exciting for all the new formats of information supply being created (perhaps M-Live being excepted). Scary for the loss of a familiar format – newsprint, and ink on my fingers.

    Thanks to the work you’re doing here at the Chronicle, I’ve been an RSS subscriber since nearly day 1. This blog is where I turn first for local news, and stories no longer covered by the AA News. So it’s not like I’m losing anything newsworthy by the changes at the AA News. I suspect that there are many like me – lurkers who follow and read this blog, who haven’t worked up the nerve to comment. It’s through this real-time interaction between writers and readers that we all will benefit. As hand-held devices continue to gain strength, many will be able to both “report” news as it is happening, and comment on real-time stories. Talk about exciting!

    I’ll miss the AA News when it is gone, but I won’t be at a loss for local news. If there’s a market of news readers, there will be source of supply of that news. There will be “news” sources created and built which we cannot even imagine today.

    Again, thanks for the work that you, and all the other writers here at the Chronicle, do on a daily basis. This reader surely appreciates it.

  2. By A view from the inside
    December 26, 2008 at 8:38 pm | permalink

    You’re right, the leaders need to be frank and open with readers – and employees – to help them understand the situation and get them on the newspaper’s side.

    But don’t hold your breath. I think the “fundamental change” that the leadership requires is a change of the leadership itself. I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re capable of the fundamental change required to make this metamorphosis a success.

    Photographers, reporters, mid-level editors, copyeditors, page designers, artists – everyone on the front lines, everyone who contributes content to the paper, has been asked to do more and more, to do different things to help the newspaper survive. Yet the people at the very top have done nothing different. They are keeping the exact same hours, doing the exact same tasks, holed up in the exact same offices. They’re not pitching in in ways that would boost the morale of the people below them. Everyone has been called on to learn, change, adapt, work harder — everyone except them, it seems.

    They’re not dealing with employees any differently than they always have (despite the fact that change is desperately needed) and they’re not dealing with the public any differently than they always have (despite the fact that change could help their cause immensely). I think it might be because they’re simply not capable of it. Old dogs and new tricks, you know.

  3. By Leah Gunn
    December 27, 2008 at 7:53 am | permalink

    Okay everyone – For those of us who admire the Chronicle and ar thankful for its in-depth coverage of local events (not just meeting) – GO TO THE TIP JAR AND HELP UNDERWRITE THIS WONDERFUL PAPER!

  4. By Leah Gunn
    December 27, 2008 at 7:54 am | permalink

    The Tip Jar is located to the right of the date – scroll over.

  5. December 27, 2008 at 9:28 am | permalink

    …many of us who were long time readers of the A2News now get our information on line. We dropped the paper about 2 years ago, starting it up during the MI football season in 2007. This year we did not and I didn’t miss out on any coverage with the video’s of the press conferences, we were fine.

    I do get a lot of my news from Twitter and follow @A2Snooze, @mlive and other news papers and organization there. So if the tweet is interesting I go check the tweet out.

    They could still have a place but need to embrace social media and blogging. I have several friends that work there, so am I concerned about their jobs….Yes. They are excellent journalist.

    With RSS feeds it is just to easy to catch what I want on line. As a Realtor, my advertising have gone where the buyers are on the internet. In 2004 I stopped getting calls from consumers reading the Sunday paper, but I got leads from my online marketing.

    Great post!

  6. December 27, 2008 at 9:49 am | permalink

    In my Google Reader feed this item was immediately followed by an item by Brad DeLong specifically about on-line advertising, which was an interesting juxtaposition.

    When I moved to Ann Arbor in 1997 I subscribed to the AA News, but quit a few years later because I just did not see the value in it. This was before I started following local blogs such as AAIO, Arbor Update, etc. Now the local blogs, and especially this site, are providing better coverage in many cases of local issues than the News. See the current discussion of a city income tax on Arbor Update for an example of this.

    Your comments on MLive were interesting. MLive is not just bad, it is in my view downright malevolent.

    Thanks for the work you and Dave do on this site. I hope it continues.

  7. December 27, 2008 at 1:37 pm | permalink

    There have been a couple of stories (which no doubt I bookmarked somewhere, but probably can’t find anywhere) about how the few newspapers that are thriving in print don’t have any web presence at all. If you want to read that paper you buy the paper (and the lovingly created ads that go with it).

  8. By Vivienne Armentrout
    December 27, 2008 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    I am a paper subscriber and occasional online reader of both the New York Times and the New Yorker. The NYT went through a period where they were requiring a subscription for full access to their website. They dropped that because it was inhibiting readership for their online advertising. I’ve noticed lately that their website is now offering more frequently updated news stories and features that are not part of the print paper. Sometimes when I like a story (my preferred first intake is still paper) I will go to the online version to see if there are some hyperlinked references. Meanwhile, the New Yorker website also has features not available in the print version, such as videos and some blogs. They still require a subscription for access to all stories, and to the new “virtual” version (one actually turns pages).

    Maybe the lesson here is that a print publication must have a nimble approach to the online experience so that the two are essentially sister publications rather than duplicates. Nimble MLive is certainly not.

  9. By Del Dunbar
    December 27, 2008 at 3:32 pm | permalink

    MM: I didn’t think you could write this well. People seem to do better when they are happy and in a more entrepreneurial environment. You stated in the column: “But that won’t happen unless it’s (Ann Arbor News) leadership makes some fundamental changes in the way they operate.” The fact that you didn’t pull the trigger is to your credit. It wasn’t necessary and would accomplish nothing.

    Having no credible understanding as to the problems at the Ann Arbor News I do however concur that MLive is totally dysfunctional. However, it is not an easy fix. Its a little like having an elephant in your back yard. You either continue to feed it (and it just gets to be a bigger problem) or you kill it. Then what do you do with a dead elephant in your back yard?

    I am a little more familiar with the Knight Newspapers which may reflect the problems of the industry as a whole. Publicly-traded big corporations have turned journalism into shareholder cash registers with big payments to some publishers/editors while, at the same time, advertising costs exceeded customer benefits. Much like the Wall Street Elitists, the print media is the victim ,not of the internet, but of institutional greed without the commensurate productivity or creativity. May Rupert Murdock and Sam Zell,the grave dancer of the once great Tribune syndicate,get their due.

    Hopefully the Ann Arbor News will survive and prosper. The community needs an institutional newspaper. Unfortunately, some of their best people have left but I hope that the few that I know that are still there will choose to remain. I see no value to the New’s purchased editorials which I have read days before on the New York Times and Washington Post web postings. During the 1960′s and 70′s I looked forward Art Gallager’s editorials about the community and the university and the direction he thought should be considered. Maybe the New’s could reconsider the value of such “localism” in breathing new life into what could be a very good newspaper.

  10. By Rina Miller
    December 27, 2008 at 3:42 pm | permalink

    Well said, Mary. All of it.

    The News staff pleaded for years to get more input into MLive, but was met with an “it’s-out-of-our-hands” response. Ridiculous!

    Now the staffers are paying the price of management’s ineptitude with their jobs.

    I’m sure some golden parachutes are ready to be deployed, but they won’t be for the people who are the backbone of the newspaper.

    My heart goes out to them.

  11. By Liz Margolis
    December 27, 2008 at 4:31 pm | permalink

    Thank you Mary. As a life-long Ann Arborite I am deeply saddened by the recent demise of the News. I know, it isn’t gone yet but it has been on a slow death march for years. Since I deal with the News as a source for both good and not so good stories and I haven’t always agreed with the coverage and what the editor considers “newsworthy”, the majority of News reporters have been professional and fair.

    It is not though a local paper and I cringe at the Editor’s claim that this new move will make it more so. The Editor isn’t local so how could he make that claim ever? It is sad that a town this size can’t maintain a good quality paper. It doesn’t have to be large but it has to be local We have the stories that people are interested in why can’t it be sustained? Today’s edition, I assume, is the first example of “local” reporting. A folksy story written by a non-News reporter. I guess that is what we are to expect from here on out?

    I totally agree with your assessment of MLive. It is unbelievable to me that a newspaper could have such a poor web site. It is technically poor, content weak and some sections rarely updated. I know the reporters I have talked with are horrified by it and that their articles are published on it. While many of us have moved to online versions to get our news the AA News can never compete with their current site.

    As for advertising, as a media buyer the News prices itself out of the ballpark for the coverage it offers. Your site, the Observer and a few other local media outlets are much better buys for scarce advertising dollars.

    Maybe someday soon we will have something that competes with the News in a printed format. Until then subscriptions will decline, advertising will decline and the News, I predict, will cease to be. Very sad for this community.

  12. By Janet Storm
    December 27, 2008 at 8:36 pm | permalink

    This is a brilliant and brave column Mary. It breaks my heart to read it, though.

    Your assessment of MLive is spot on, as is your assertion that staff members have been complaining about the site for years. Like Liz I find it unbelievable that any newspaper, let alone one with the well educated and literate readership of The Ann Arbor News, could have such an awful site. I remember many occasions where I searched in vain for stories, finally giving up in despair.

    You’re also correct that management needs to improve communication with staff members, but I have to agree with ‘View from the Inside’ that the chances of that are slim while the current management remains in place.

    It seems beyond belief that a town like Ann Arbor will someday be without a local newspaper. But that’s exactly where things seem to he headed.

    The people in the trenches at that paper are wonderful, hard working and talented. They deserve better than this fate. So does Ann Arbor, for that matter.

  13. December 27, 2008 at 9:32 pm | permalink

    Thanks for your perspective Mary. Also, interesting comments here about MLive.

    I hope many of you will give it another chance in the early part of 2009. The site will feature better navigation in the coming months to allow you to find the local content you’re seeking.

    Despite it’s issues, the site is successful and has the highest traffic of any news site in Michigan. – and it will be getting better.

    Also, the archives problem has been improving. The majority of the Booth Newspapers’ stories for the past couple of years can be found on the site, and they no longer depend on the archaic online publishing system described in this column.

    I like a lot of your suggestions, especially involving the community as much as it can. I’m looking forward to the near future when we will see more content from sites like AAC alongside A2N.

  14. December 28, 2008 at 12:13 am | permalink

    Newspapers have been slow to change. Now its time to figure out how to make money with online media or shrink down to a small boutique newspaper. Its time to innovate or die. I enjoy many of the writers at the news, and I hope they can find a way to make money delivering information. The old model isn’t going to work though.

    I used to share your thoughts about Mlive, but it seems to be making some improvements. As a real estate advertiser, I would be more interested in spending money on online news advertising if it drove traffic to my website and provided seo benefits. As is is now, I get more traffic by advertising my listings on free want ad sites like Craigslist than off of newspaper ads or Mlive advertising.

  15. By Liz Margolis
    December 28, 2008 at 12:20 pm | permalink

    Sean, as an example of a few on-going issues with MLive… the Letters to the Editor, Editorial and Other Voices sections have rarely been loaded in a timely manner. The newer posting format is much harder to track. When you click on Letter to the Editors section you may get one letter from that day’s paper. Navigationally it is frustrating and continues to be. While I hope the changes you mention are positive and improve navigation my experience has been a slow-to-respond organization that is not connected to the actual paper version of the News.
    And I am not surprised by the high traffic to your site but this does not mean it is a good site. It is simply the only site, up until AAC, to offer local news so not much competition. I look forward to the improvements as the printed version shrinks.

  16. December 28, 2008 at 3:38 pm | permalink

    @Liz and others, I will do my best to share concerns about editorial content with the appropriate newspaper staff.

    Newspaper staffs control what newspaper content is posted to the website, not MLive. Hopefully, the Booth newspapers can continue the big progress being made in shifting more of content online, despite the difficult financial situation and limited resources.

    I too am glad to see sites like AAC doing well. More local news is needed, and hopefully MLive and AAC’s relationship can someday soon be seen more as cooperative than competitive.

  17. By Matt
    December 28, 2008 at 10:00 pm | permalink

    I don’t see the Chronicle and News as being competitive, because the News simply doesn’t cover meetings.

    I certainly read interesting things in the News — maybe one or two a day. There’s a lot more going on in Ann Arbor than that, and I do wish the paper would pick up on it. To me, local is not a daily photo feature of elementary-school children. I’d much rather pay for a 4-page newssheet four days a week and get three of high-quaility stories.

    Ann Arbor Chronicle and the Observer writers use a tone that shows me they live in Ann Arbor, too. Characters return and come alive; my memory of past events is refreshed but not insulted; and I feel that I can reach the people writing the stories. If I have a question or a suggestion for the Chronicle, I send it out by twitter or text message or email, and more often that not I have a reply within minutes or hours. The News should take this to heart — reporters should be engaged, responding without a prompt — not distant.

  18. By Matt
    December 28, 2008 at 10:00 pm | permalink

    And of course, I misspell “quaility”

  19. By Dave Askins
    December 28, 2008 at 11:01 pm | permalink

    ” … because the News simply doesn’t cover meetings.”

    To be fair, the News does cover some meetings. Generally, either Judy McGovern or Tom Gantert attends city council meetings. And generally they will post a story out of that meeting on MLive well before The Chronicle publishes something.

    What I think the web offers, and what The Chronicle tries to exploit, is the ability to report at a level of detail that a print-based publication could never support. While some see the web’s main strength as the ability to turn a newspaper into a 24/7 news machine, I see the web’s main advantage as unlimited space. And writing out the kind of detail to fill that space is going to take some time — in some cases more time than the production cycle of a daily print publication.

  20. By Bob Dively
    December 28, 2008 at 11:08 pm | permalink

    I’m late to the discussion, but I’d like to add that today is a perfect example of why the News is increasingly irrelevant to me. When I became aware of the widespread power outages due to last night’s wind storm (via Twitter), I went to MLive to see what the News had to say – which turned out to be nothing. The “Latest News” highlighted in a red box at the top of the page was about the University’s plan to move the zoology museum’s specimen collection – stop the presses! Almost 12 hours later, there’s still nothing on MLive. No mention of electricity or DTE or the storm. I am completely unsurprised by the lack of a story.

  21. December 29, 2008 at 7:32 am | permalink

    I am very tempted to add some specific examples of local news print irrelevancy myself, but instead will refer readers to a very relevant and insightful 1-page article called “News You Can Lose,” by James Surowiecki, published in “The New Yorker,” December 22/29 issue, p. 48:

  22. December 29, 2008 at 11:46 am | permalink

    Growing up (not in Michigan), we always received the local newspaper, and when I moved out (including college), I always subscribed to a daily. In theory, I’m who the newspaper should have been targeting, but since I moved to this area in 2001, I have never even considered subscribing to the News.

    To begin, consider the timing of delivery: too late to read in the morning before leaving for work (which had been part of my daily routine), too early to include news from the morning (or even from late in the previous evening!). If I subscribed, by the time I read the paper, the “news” would be almost 24 hours old. So on speed, a mark against.

    I moved back and forth between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor several times before settling in Ypsi. The spotty, inconsistent local coverage is appalling. Regardless of whether they might have broader appeal, events in Ypsi are confined to the “Ypsilanti edition” (I have observed this as recently as three weeks ago). Even in the “Ypsilanti edition”, significant local stories are often ignored or not covered until weeks or months after the fact. So on regional and local coverage, a mark against.

    National and world news, such as it is, consists of wire reports. The same coverage, often in greater detail, can be accessed online for free and in a more timely fashion. On national and world news, a mark against.

    Then there’s the disaster that is MLive, which has already been thoroughly (and deservedly) bashed by previous commentors. On internet presence, a big mark against. (And in response to Shawn’s point about having the highest traffic of a news site in Michigan, remember that MLive is an aggregation of 8 papers owned by the same company. If the Detroit News and Free Press joined forces in a similar way, they would dwarf MLive. Also, that listing is only newspapers; it doesn’t include the websites for TV stations, Michigan Radio, etc. The failure to recognize that newspapers are not just competing with each other but with radio, broadcast and cable TV, internet, and other news delivery media is part of the problem here.)

    When you really think it through, the question isn’t why people are abandoning the News; the question in my mind is why so many people still subscribe.

  23. By Tim Martin
    December 29, 2008 at 11:49 am | permalink


    As a former 17-year employee of the Ann Arbor News who was lucky to escape five years ago when it was still a real newspaper, it has been sad to see what has become of a once-decent publication.
    As I describe it to friends, it’s a cocktail napkin.
    You were spot-on in this piece, and wanted to let your readers know.
    And you are correct about MLive. As someone who scans newspaper Web sites daily as part of his wires job, I find MLive to be the absolute worst in the business for a media organization of it size.
    And mismanagement? Hey, I’ve been pointing out that foible since the early 1990s when so many good journalists were driven out for daring to disagree with Darth Editor. And it’s just not Ed. It’s now Ed, Jr., as well. All they are doing now rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Keep up the good work.
    I’ll be following from down South.

  24. By Barney Klein
    December 29, 2008 at 4:56 pm | permalink

    Mary, Like Tim Martin I too worked at the News for many years before departing nine years ago now. I am still close to many of the people who will be losing their jobs in the near future.
    Thank you for putting into words many of the things that ex and present newsies have been mulling over for the last month or two.
    You couldn’t be more correct about the lack of communication from the News. Alas that is not a new phenomenon at 340 E. Huron.
    If they had even done half the job you just did in explaining the situation everyone would have been much better off.
    Thank you.

  25. By Mary (McDonough) Miller
    December 29, 2008 at 6:36 pm | permalink

    Mary –

    Well said! Not sure I have much to add to the discussion, but as a 5-year employee of the News, I am very sad to see that not much has changed and that many of the talented people I once worked with may be facing a job loss. I agree with your thoughts and hope they are taken as they were intended: An honest attempt to tell it like it is. Thanks for your courage!

  26. December 29, 2008 at 7:46 pm | permalink


    At the Bonisteel Masonic Library in Ann Arbor/Detroit 6 years ago our staff and Directors decided to concentrate our efforts on the Internet client. We abandoned the traditional library services and focused on the ‘best of the best’ web sites in Freemasonry worldwide. It paid off. We now have 120,000 visitors every 90 days just after our online quarter publication, Rising Point, comes out. We succeeded because we studied successful Masonic online site libraries. Digital technology will produce more market change than all the traditional services of established libraries.

    Our advice to the ANN ARBOR NEWS management and corporate New Jersey Directors: Survey American newspapers and find the 25 best newspapers who have successfully integrated traditional newspaper publication with comprehensive online services. Implement those practices which will turn your newspaper and its affiliates into
    newsworthy institutions.

  27. December 29, 2008 at 8:00 pm | permalink

    Although a fair amount of the comments on this thread come from former employees like myself, there are almost a dozen from readers. I think that’s very telling. People care about the local paper here – even if it’s mostly to the extent of being unhappy enough about it to express their discontent. That’s the tragedy of where the News finds itself.

    This is a market where it should be easier for a newspaper to succeed than almost anywhere else in Michigan, but the News seems unable or unwilling to see that their current and past approaches were not working.

    When I traveled throughout the Big Ten covering Michigan football, it was impossible not to notice that every other Big Ten town had a Saturday and Sunday newspaper filled with twice as many ads as the News. Why was that, I asked? Not only was there never an answer, people seemed to get annoyed at me for asking the question.

    Cuts, especially of content producers, will only fuel what’s become a self-fulfilling shrinkage in size and relevance. It’s a shame. Just a shame. And I feel for both the people who are being hurt, and the community that deserves the paper the News once was and probably won’t ever be again.

  28. By Juliew
    January 1, 2009 at 8:00 pm | permalink

    A decade ago, it seemed that libraries and newspapers were in the same position: industries based in outdated technologies with no real hope of competing in the hip, new digital world. Most libraries have managed to change and embrace the digital world and new technologies, while still keeping true to their essential core mission (dissemination of information). The result being that both the digital and physical parts of libraries have been strengthened. Not only are people using the online services of libraries, but more people than ever are walking into libraries and checking out books. Newspapers for the most part have been far less able to change. They have changed fonts, changed columnists, but not made industry-altering changes to compete with the changes in society and technology. They haven’t figured out how to make money online, track usage online, or take advantage of a worldwide audience. The Ann Arbor News family is one of the most striking examples of this stodginess. As everyone has noted, their online presence is useless, and in fact, I think it is detrimental. I am always shocked by the difference between the printed copy and the online versions. Seems like it would be far easier to just scan the printed version and put it online than to bother with the horrible MLive farce.

    Newspapers as a whole need to make changes. Big changes. Better online versions are a given. Lots of people want to read a physical paper, but what the newspapers are just beginning to understand is that a good online version will only enhance the printed version. Newspapers need to come up with a real way of measuring readership so to give advertisers confidence in their choice of the newspaper as a vehicle. They need to rethink distribution and printing. There is no reason that newspapers have to be the size they are: we might be heading back to a broadside-style paper. How about paper boxes that are printers and can print out a day’s paper on 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper within a few seconds after someone pays. That would cut out unnecessary and expensive printing. Reporters need to be trained and supported in new technologies. If online comments are available, they need to be monitored. 24-hour local updates should be available online so the paper is considered *the* resource for breaking news. Citizen reporters and student reporters should be encouraged (a la stopped. watched) with professional oversight.

    Personally, I think newspapers are imperative for a strong community. Local news, local sports, local food, local community politics, calendars, local feel-good stories, births, deaths, marriages and so on will always be important to a community. The News should have good local investigative reporting, but not just to sell papers. The recent “expose” on academics and athletics seemed mean-spirited and not reflective of what the citizens really care about. Not only that, but it turns out that that was essentially yellow journalism, done to increase circulation, not because there was a huge scandal. National news and classifieds are not very important to a local paper anymore because of constantly updated, searchable, and free online sites so papers need to be able to publish without them. Comics on the other hand are not well-served online (not in one place anyway) so keep a page or two of comics (how about sponsoring a contest to include some local ones). The national filler is just that: filler, and few people have interest in it. For example, I’m a Mark Bittman fan, but I read his column in the NYT online a week or more before articles show up in the News. I would much rather see local food articles. It is also very important that a paper reflects the community it serves. The Ann Arbor News has fallen down on that for years. The two endorsements of Bush and then the non-endorsement this year might not seem like a big deal, but it shows essentially a newspaper that not only doesn’t reflect the community’s beliefs, but actively spurns them. The newspaper’s editors and management don’t seem to like Ann Arbor or the people who live here. They attempt to cater to those people outside of Ann Arbor, while trying to solicit advertising and circulation within Ann Arbor. We stopped subscribing after the second Bush endorsement and are drifting away from caring about the paper. Even though we didn’t subscribe, I used to buy it daily, but now I don’t really care as much, which is sad. I know that I miss important local items when I don’t read the paper, but the News has done nothing to make a connection with me (they have actively turned me away) so I have turned to other media.

    Ann Arbor needs a “real” newspaper, or multiple newspapers. The Observer, the Chronicle, ArborUpdate, and other blogs are part of the media mix, but we still need a real community newspaper with full-time, round-the-clock reporters and professional staff. It would be great if the Ann Arbor News was a real community paper and the Michigan Daily was a real reflection of the University community (in the Daily’s defense, they had good writers and articles this past year so I have hope that trend will continue). I really would like to see the Ann Arbor News remain, but to be relevant, huge changes in ownership and management need to be made. Hopefully that will happen.

  29. January 5, 2009 at 3:52 pm | permalink

    Here is an illustration of one big problem:

    MLive Story on egg crash

    Chicago Tribune story on egg crash

    [Editor's note: links as URLs shortened with text links to keep them from sliding off the edge of the column.]

    Why is the Ann Arbor News using wire service coverage for local events? Who is actually covering this?

  30. By Dave Askins
    January 5, 2009 at 4:24 pm | permalink

    Would just like to note that Stopped.Watched. correspondent jnaz seems to have filed the egg crash story before those two media outlets, and perhaps before any other media outlet did. I’ll grant you, details were scant in that report.

  31. January 5, 2009 at 4:28 pm | permalink

    WDIV sent a camera crew.

  32. January 5, 2009 at 4:57 pm | permalink

    Here’s the original AP article for reference purposes:


  33. By Marvin Face
    January 6, 2009 at 12:26 am | permalink

    So I actually like the AA News. I absolutely look foreword to reading it every single day. I love opening the paper, scanning the headlines, photos, maps, graphics, and ads and deciding what catches my eye first. It is something that a website just can’t do. I live in-town Ann Arbor and love the local content. I also look to this site for local meeting coverage which really makes me feel like I was there, and I look to other online media for breaking national news. Perhaps I am a little more relaxed or easy-going. Perhaps I’m a little more forgiving of something less than perfection. Perhaps I’m not consumed with rage and hatred at all things conservative (sounds crazy but I don’t lean either way). I don’t know. I just love the AA News.

    My guess is that if the editorials leaned in a different political direction, nobody would have a problem with the paper. As a matter of fact, if the News would have changed editorials on only three days in the past 15 years, everything would be fine and this discussion wouldn’t be happening. I also think that if someone cancels a newspaper subscription over an editorial, that’s just too bad. (over a presidential endorsement? seriously?)

    BTW, I neither work for the News, nor have I ever met anyone who works there.

  34. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 20, 2009 at 8:24 am | permalink

    I don’t work for the A2 News either but yesterday’s ‘remodel’ was HORRIBLE. No I don’t want the entire back page devoted to 5 year olds, I don’t care about a page devoted to school kids (when the paper has been butchered into a one section product), and the real ‘Ann Arbor’ foucused stories could have been read in under five minutes total.

    So here we are-after years of Boothsucking money from the state of Michigan is search of 40% profit margins and ready to abandon the sinking ship. Sad.

  35. January 20, 2009 at 10:10 am | permalink

    check out TweetNews:“ann+arbor”

    [Editor's note: The quotes in the URL to preset the search pose a difficultly I don't know how to suss. For now, readers should kindly highlight the URL, copy it, and paste it into the address of their browser. Or else follow the partial hyperlink and type "ann+arbor" into the search box.]

  36. By Mary Morgan
    March 12, 2009 at 12:06 pm | permalink

    WJRT-TV Channel 12, an ABC affiliate in mid-Michigan, is reporting on rumors that the Newhouse-owned newspapers in Flint, Saginaw and Bay City will merge some of their operations and start printing only three days a week. Here’s a link to the newscast.

    They’re basing their report on a March 10 Free From Editors blog post – an item which has also been circulating among staff in the Ann Arbor News newsroom.

    The publisher of the Flint Journal, Dave Sharp, was previously publisher at the Ann Arbor News, and is an “uber-publisher” for the Newhouse-owned papers on this side of the state, a group which includes the Ann Arbor News.

    There have been rumors about the Ann Arbor News doing something similar. But there are always rumors, and often they come to nothing. However, the silence coming from publishers and other top managers in the wake of a “traditional” media outlet picking up these reports is troubling. It’s another example of a lack of communication that’s damaging to both employees and readers, whose support and loyalty are desperately needed if the newspaper is to survive.