Column: Outliving The Ann Arbor News

Thirty years ago, computers foreshadowed the end
Jeff Mortimer (Photo courtesy of the Lucy Ann Lance Business Insider)

Jeff Mortimer (Photo courtesy of the Lucy Ann Lance Business Insider)

In the spring of 1979, the entire staff of reporters and editors at The Ann Arbor News was temporarily shoehorned into the lunchroom, a space about a quarter the size of the newsroom, while the latter was retrofitted for the dawn of the computer age.

As the waggish John Barton, who I think was then covering the police beat, has recalled, noting how different the times were, “We weren’t so much elbow to elbow as ash tray to ash tray.” I felt like an immigrant crossing the ocean in steerage. When Jeff Frank, the news editor who was in charge of our training on these newfangled gizmos, asked if there were any questions, I inquired, “Is it true we’ll all have jobs when we get to America?”

Jeff taught us what a password was, how to log on, how to print out, how to create and edit and save and send a file … it seems primitive now, but it was gee-whiz then. Most of us picked it up in 15 or 20 minutes. The ones who couldn’t more or less never did.

When I became the arts and entertainment editor in September 1983, I was introduced to the sacred mysteries of the editor’s keyboard, which had two additional rows of keys for functions that editors needed and reporters didn’t, like writing headlines and formatting type.

They also provided access to the wire services The News subscribed to. I believe there were seven, including The New York Times, The Associated Press, United Press International, and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post (which we called “latwop”). This was a revelation to me. I had done my share of editing in my first 12 years in the newspaper business, but that was in the era of hard copy, soft-lead pencils, and clattering linotype and teletype machines.

Now all I had to do was tap a few keys to retrieve any file that piqued my interest and do whatever I wanted with it. But another thought soon crushed my exuberance: “We’re doomed.”

Hardly anyone had a home computer then, but almost everyone knew that was the future. It was in the air like the smell of rain on a summer breeze. If the technology was available for us to do that, then it was only a matter of time before it was available to the readers, too, and in their own homes. And when that happened, what would they need us for?

I never thought about its effect on advertising, which was what really finished off the print newspaper, but the principle was the same. They wouldn’t need us to be the gatekeepers anymore. It took 30 years, but it finally happened.

Having spent 20 years of my life in its employ, I used to wonder whether The News would publish an obituary when I died and, if so, what they would deem worth distilling from my lifetime. Dump the Dope? Covering the Tigers and UM basketball? Running for office? (Twice, but God saw fit to spare me both times.)

My ancient forebodings notwithstanding, I never dreamed I would outlive them.

Jeff Mortimer lives in Ann Arbor and has been a freelance writer and editor for the past 15 years. For 20 of his 23 years as a print journalist, he worked at The Ann Arbor News, which published its last edition today.

Section: Business, Opinion

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  1. By Mark
    July 23, 2009 at 9:05 am | permalink

    I for one, will not be visiting I want my news on a big sheet of paper to read. I want my comics on one page – even the ones I hate. I want to be able to skim big type headlines and go back and read in random order, or not at all. Sigh.

  2. By Susan
    July 23, 2009 at 9:27 am | permalink


    On the other hand, you’re reading the Ann Arbor Chronicle…undeniably a ‘news source’ even if it isn’t on paper. I, too, will miss the News, but I suspect we’ll all get used to this new way of getting our news, probably sooner rather than later.

  3. By Bob Martel
    July 23, 2009 at 10:57 am | permalink

    I am hoping that the loss of the Ann Arbor News and the birth of signifies primarily a change in delivery format and not so much a loss of well thought out content.

    From habit, I too prefer the feel of the paper in my hands, and I still can’t bring myself to use my laptop in the bathroom, but I recognize that there are some advantages to the on-line format. For me, it will mean that I can keep abreast of the local Ann Arbor news when I’m on the road. MLive is and was an abysmal attempt at providing on-line content.

    I switched over to the on-line version of the New York Times a few months ago when they brought out the new Times Reader application for my Macintosh. Not only is it less expensive than picking up the paper every day (when the boxes aren’t empty that is!) but we live too far out in the country for daily home delivery. I’ve gotten used to using my laptop to read the NYT, and I suspect that the same will be true of

    I’m still sad for all of the disruption to the people who work at the Ann Arbor News and I wish them all the best in the next chapter of their lives. I hope that they can all keep writing in some venue so that the rest of us can still benefit from their talents!

  4. July 23, 2009 at 11:17 am | permalink

    Jeff was appointed to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners on July 7, 1999, (he filled a position vacated by resignation) and resigned on August 4, 1999, after losing the primary in District 11 to Jeff Irwin. Note that he could have chosen to remain in his seat through the end of the year, and collected his stipend, but chose to let the newly nominated Irwin to assume the seat.

    It was nice serving with you, Jeff. You were certainly funnier than any of the others.

    This has not been an obituary.

  5. By Rod Johnson
    July 23, 2009 at 12:45 pm | permalink

    Mark, do you think not reading it will somehow bring newspapers back? Heck, maybe if we hadn’t read newspapers it would have brought town criers back.

  6. By Alan Goldmith
    July 23, 2009 at 1:08 pm | permalink

    I’m old enough to remember that election too, and the slander/smear job the Ann Arbor News editorial page ran against Jeff’s campaign. Or was it another campaign….? It might have been the school board campaign?

    And for a few years, I carried around Jeff’s 1975 News review of Bruce Springsteen at Hill Auditorium because I thought it was one of the best written rock concert reviews I had ever read.

    I am waiting to see how the turns out before I decide to if I’m going to read it or get the print edition. We’ll see.

  7. July 23, 2009 at 1:36 pm | permalink

    Many fond memories of Jeff’s stylish writing for the News.

  8. July 23, 2009 at 1:54 pm | permalink

    Yes, I remember Jeff as a (good) reporter on the schools. I think your memory must be a school board election, Alan. I don’t remember that the BOC primary got much attention.

  9. By Alan Goldmith
    July 23, 2009 at 2:01 pm | permalink

    I think you are right Vivienne.

  10. By tcidda
    July 23, 2009 at 2:05 pm | permalink

    No doubt computers did foreshadow the end of print media as we knew it but computers simply can’t cover the news like newspapers can and some for whatever the reason refuse to have and/or learn how to operate a computer.

  11. By dave hutchinson
    July 23, 2009 at 3:54 pm | permalink

    Jeff, thank you for the article. Please give us more of your wonderful thoughts and writing.

  12. By lorayn
    July 23, 2009 at 5:50 pm | permalink

    I am much less concerned about the delivery of content, than the content itself, altho I am a fogey who kind of hates reading on a screen and loves to sit with a Paper-paper every reading.

  13. By Amy
    July 23, 2009 at 7:54 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the history and context Jeff. A fitting send off and I for one would be interested in hearing more community history from you in the days ahead.

  14. By UMGrad1234
    July 24, 2009 at 8:47 am | permalink

    Just spent 35 minutes at Not impressed with the content or the navigation design. (Sigh.) Anyone else?

  15. By Rod Johnson
    July 24, 2009 at 9:46 am | permalink

    I agree about the design. It’s kind of not designed, really generic. I compare it to the (also fairly generic but much more refined to start with) Chronicle and there’s no contest. The Chronicle is lovely to look at, if somewhat quirky to navigate. is just meh, top to bottom.

    As to the content, well, those of you lamenting the death of the News, do you remember it as being especially good in that way? I sure don’t. I remember it as being one of the weaker dailies I’d seen. is starting out at a level of content that seems to me to be no worse than the News, at any rate.

    But I imagine it will evolve on both fronts. Let’s hope so.

  16. By Bob Martel
    July 24, 2009 at 9:53 am | permalink

    I suspect that it is way premature to make judgments about’s content or format. Let’s at least give them a few weeks to find their sea legs. Then we can criticize! The good news about web based delivery systems is that the format can change and hopefully improve over time. Remember, this is an experiment for them as well as for the readers. While I am very sorry for the loss of the AA News (and especially for the people who lost their jobs) I am looking forward to seeing how this new media develops over time.

  17. By Matt
    July 25, 2009 at 1:02 pm | permalink

    Boy, the News had its problems, but so far, the moral of the story is be careful what you wish for…

    The new acorn site is all fluff. Worse than that, actually.

    Today’s (Saturday at noon) home page features items on a community garden in Ypsi, “news” about an acorn affiliated food blog, a promo for another acorn blog, this time on parenting, and, wait for it, a post on somebody’s idea of a perfectly grilled steak.

    OMG. Kill me now.

  18. By Matt Hampel
    July 25, 2009 at 9:18 pm | permalink

    That Matt wasn’t me, but I agree! At least it doesn’t look like the Chron has serious competition yet. Check out this school shuffle press release rewrite, and imagine what it would be if it were a Chronicle article.

  19. July 26, 2009 at 5:05 pm | permalink

    The MLive site has active links to current stories.

  20. By Bob Martel
    July 26, 2009 at 6:23 pm | permalink

    Matt (Hampel) I’m glad you pushed back against David Jesse’s milquetoast response to your request for some real reporting on the principal switches. Since I agreed with you I left my own similar comment. I hope the folks amp things up a bit over there. So far I am not impressed, but will hold to my intention of giving them a few weeks to get their act together before I publicly express my opinions on their content.

  21. By Matt Hampel
    July 26, 2009 at 6:56 pm | permalink

    Thanks Bob. I really hope that the Chronicle will cover the school board. It’s been operating without real coverage for way too long.

  22. July 26, 2009 at 8:49 pm | permalink

    Yahoo News lists its source under “Local News” as the Ann Arbor News. The stories after Friday are linked to

  23. July 26, 2009 at 10:57 pm | permalink

    Jeff-What a delight and surprise! Great article, and you are STILL the best damned writer in the Universe! (o.k.-o.k…ummm, “State of Michigan” :D)