The Ann Arbor News: Homicide, or Suicide?

April 24, 2009


Dear Loyal Readers,

Today's commentary is a little more serious than most -- mainly because the subject, to me, is very serious: the future of journalism in our country. 

If this subject interests you -- and I'll bet for the vast majority of Our Loyal Readers it does -- you might be interested in listening to our radio show on WTKA (1050 AM, or wtka.com) on Monday, from 4-6 p.m.  My guest co-host, Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch, and I will be talking with former Ann Arbor News columnist Jim Carty, Mgoblog's Brian Cook and others on this very issue. 

A side note: because I've recently learned many folks are not aware of this, you can always listen to each commentary by clicking the audio, as well as listen to it. 

As always, thanks for reading, listening, commenting and spreading the word.  I have you to thank, of course, for the site's rapid growth.

-John


The Ann Arbor News: Homicide, or Suicide?

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Download | Duration: 00:03:06



JUB Note: The response to this commentary has been very strong.  It seems you folks are as unhappy as I am about the demise of the Ann Arbor News, and what it portends for journalism nationally.  To those ends, I've added about a page to my original commentary -- mainly because I had some points I couldn't get into the first version, and also because I couldn't help myself. This one has got me going.   -JUB

The news came as a shock – even to the seasoned reporters sitting in the room. 

Last month the leaders of the Ann Arbor News told their staff that in July, the paper would be dead.  The reporters I spoke with were clearly shaken by the news, and for good reason. 

Most ink-stained wretches don’t wind up working for newspapers just to pay the bills. They have a passion for their profession, and usually pay dearly for it in hours and effort, money and prestige.  By losing their jobs they are losing a part of themselves.

So, why is the Ann Arbor News going under, after 174 years?  The brass gave the usual reasons: shrinking advertising cut their profits, and the internet cut their circulation. 

But I think there’s more to it.  A lot more. 

We’ve been told for years that newspapers are not profitable.  Don’t believe it.  For roughly two decades, right up to 2005, they earned about 20 percent a year.  Twenty percent!  Fortune 500 companies are lucky to earn half that in a single year.

But maintaining those profits wasn’t going to be easy.  The media companies could have improved their product, and worked harder to get it into the hands of the next generation.  They had unparalleled access to schools and universities, the very places lifelong habits develop.  If Joe Camel and the Budweiser Clydesdales could get through those doors, those kids would be smoking and drinking their entire lives – however short and miserable those lives might be.  

But newspapers pretty much took a pass.  They worked far harder slashing travel budgets, foreign bureaus and reporters – the raw materials of serious journalism. 

The readers weren’t fooled.  Sometimes less is less– and charging the same price for less will cost you smart consumers.  The News’s replacement, Annarbor.com, will be more of less. 

Okay, the Ann Arbor News is gone.  So what?  We still have TV, radio and the internet.  Brian Cook’s sports coverage at Mgoblog is excellent.  During football season more fans visit his site than buy the Ann Arbor News.

But something has still been lost.  Bloggers don’t cover high school sports, so you won’t see your kid’s name in the paper, and the internet is far less likely to provide in-depth profiles and investigations.  The Boston Globe estimates that it spent a million dollars investigating the priest-abuse scandal.  Find me a website that can do that.   

It goes beyond sports.  The beauty of the internet is that you can skip the stuff you don’t want, and go right to the stuff you do want.  But in the process, people won’t stumble upon information they really need to know. 

I can’t recall ever opening a newspaper thinking, “Man, I’m dying to know what city council is doing today!”  Or, “I wonder what the school board has been up to lately?”  But in searching for the Michigan hockey score, I’d find out – and I was sometimes stunned by what I read. 

The less we know about our government, the worse our government is going to get.  I’m afraid we’re about to enter, as Steven Colbert has predicted, “a golden age of corruption.”

Yes, I had an occasional “lover’s quarrel” with the Ann Arbor News, but I still cited it weekly as a reliable and vital news source.  Make no mistake: its disappearance is bad for democracy, bad for my profession, and bad for my hometown -- and downright sad for those of us who cut our teeth in that newsroom, and made lifelong friendships there.

I know: journalism isn’t dead, even if the Ann Arbor News is.  We’ve been telling stories since we invented language, and we’re not going to stop now. 

So why does the demise of the Ann Arbor News bother me so much? 

The late, great Molly Ivins put her finger on it.  “I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying — it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”

Copyright © 2009, Michigan Radio  
 
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Comments

  • 4/24/2009 9:08 AM rhonda wrote:
    Anything we 'parent types' can do?
    Reply to this
    1. 4/24/2009 8:39 PM JUB wrote:
      I wish. Sad to say, the fate of the Ann Arbor News and hundreds of other dailies is in the hands of corporations that care a lot more about stock prices than public service.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 4/24/2009 10:45 AM Seth wrote:
    Well said. It's certainly been frustrating to watch the "changes" first hand. I don't think newspapers (in a broad sense) will survive unless there is comprehensive change that removes corporate ownership (profits over journalism) from the equation and government intervention (tax-free status/subsidies)to encourage local investment.
    Reply to this
    1. 4/24/2009 8:59 PM JUB wrote:
      Seth,

      You're correct. One of the underlying causes of the death of local papers was Congress's decision to revoke the limitations on how many newspapers, radio and TV stations one company could own in a given market. This paved the way for companies to create huge conglomerations far more concerned with shareholders than readers.

      And so here we are.

      I share Molly Ivins' hope that non-profit newspapers and stations might put the news consumers ahead of the investors.

      We'll see.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 4/24/2009 10:47 AM Bruce Madej wrote:
    You hit a home run with this podcast.
    Reply to this
    1. 4/24/2009 9:02 PM JUB wrote:
      Much thanks, Bruce.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 4/24/2009 1:06 PM CK wrote:
    You've hit it right on. I worked for a newspaper for seven years on the creative side. I couldn't stand how sales was everything. Eventually they have to respect and improve on the product!
    Reply to this
    1. 4/24/2009 9:04 PM JUB wrote:
      CK -

      You hit on an important point: newspaper companies apparently underestimated how smart newspaper readers are, and thought they might be fooled by smoke and mirrors instead of providing them smart, in-depth, well-reported and written stories.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 4/24/2009 2:16 PM Chris wrote:
    With hundreds of newspapers closing around the country... many with well over 100 years in business, I cannot help but feel a sense of sorrow.

    HOWEVER, many did it to themselves. I stopped reading newspapers years ago because of the over-the-top bias and sensationalism. Does that exist on the 'net, sure... but I can also avoid it there a lot easier.

    For those in the know, how many times has an editor, producer, manager, whatever, said that if they are not receiving complaints, you're not doing your job??? 'nuff said.

    People with more than two brain cells to rub together can see right through that rubbish... and now the industry is paying for justifying these hacks in the name of circulation and ratings.
    Reply to this
    1. 4/24/2009 9:08 PM JUB wrote:
      Chris,

      Another reader email right on the mark.

      To spell it out, publicly traded U.S. newspapers were racking up profits of roughly 20 percent a year for some two decades -- right up to 2005! It is impossible to rationalize how an industry that was that lucrative for that long suddenly gets blown over in a few years.

      The only answer is: they greedily pulled the profits out, and did almost nothing to prepare for the future.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 4/24/2009 6:13 PM Jerry Grohowski wrote:
    Mr. Bacon,
    Well done on the description of the demise of the Ann Arbor News. My father, wife, and I will really miss being able to "pick up the AA News" to read selected articles, and stumble upon important information regarding the community. Also, we truely like to read the input from the readers in the Letters to the Editor section; agree or disagree its good to know what the community is thinking. The sports section is a local jewel covering high school, U of M, and EMU in addition to the normal "big city" sports, and will really be missed on Saturdays and Sundays during football season. Your comments regarding the profit picture of the newspaper is shocking. A return of 20% is unheard of today, and worse, to turn your back on a potential great profit, and the community is truely "homicide". Thank you for your blog, and comments on your two radio shows on WTKA.
    Jerry Grohowski - Pinckney, MI
    Reply to this
  • 4/24/2009 9:09 PM JUB wrote:
    Jerry,

    Much thanks for your kind comments.

    And my frustration -- even disgust -- over the fate of our newspapers is surpassed by my disappointment at losing something so many of us truly loved for so long.

    The tactile pleasure of cracking open a good paper after a long day will not be replaced by the internet, kindle or anything else we come up with.

    -JUB
    Reply to this
  • 4/24/2009 11:27 PM Stan Bidlack wrote:
    John,

    Fine insights! GREAT piece!

    I miss Molly Ivins as much as I'm going to miss the AA NEWS. Thank God we've got John U. Bacon around today...

    S.A.
    Reply to this
    1. 4/27/2009 12:40 AM JUB wrote:
      S.A.

      Thanks for your kind words - but alas, on my best day, I wouldn't dare even to be the Molly Ivins of Michigan!

      She was one of a kind -- and dearly missed, even by those of us who never met her. A rare voice.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 4/26/2009 11:52 AM Dr. Ed Kornblue wrote:
    John,
    I must commend you on your article on the demise of the Ann Arbor News. I cannot agree with you more about a real newspaper's value as a tool to better inform and educate the public.

    I am a "dinasaur", and have formed a habit of reading an excellent local paper that is delivered to my door every morning, as well as reading The NYTimes online every day. It is truly amazing how much one learns while browsing a real newspaper, other than turning to the sports pages and/or the editorial sections directly, and then leave it at that.

    H.L. Mencken once wrote, "I pick up the front page of the sports section first, in order to read about man's accomplishments. Then, I will look at the front page of the News section to read of man's failures". That being said, it is all the other stuff in between, that you referred to, that I would miss when a local newspaper commits suicide.

    Bien dicho, my friend...and sad, but true. Best regards, Ed Kornblue
    Reply to this
    1. 4/27/2009 12:42 AM JUB wrote:
      Dr. Kornblue,

      Thanks for your email -- and especially the H.L. Mencken quote, a classic.

      Clearly, I am in agreement.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 5/13/2009 7:35 PM John Laich wrote:
    The AA News will be missed, but it's one of only many newspapers that are going out of style. Also, if I have the chance to read ONE physical newspaper in a day, it's probably going to be the FT, NYT, or WSJ.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/15/2009 4:18 PM JUB wrote:
      John,

      True enough, dozens, if not hundreds, of papers are nearing the same fate that The Ann Arbor News has already met. And it must be said, in fairness to the News, that none of them have figured out a magic formula for salvation. The closest I've seen to such a silver bullet is the Hyper Local approach of papers like that in Bend, Oregon, which hired more and better reporters, and covers the local scene like a blanket. But that's the exception, not the rule.

      Still, as I said in the piece, almost all papers (and more accurately, paper conglomerates), were making record profits for two decades, and did almost nothing to sustain them. That's the primary sin here, in my opinion.

      I'm hopeful that the papers I admire most -- the New York Times and Wall Street Journal make my list, too -- find a way to survive. Hard to imagine cracking open my laptap over breakfast.

      Thanks for writing.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 6/12/2009 9:27 AM pandora wrote:
    Let's face it, sales are *everything* in this world. Sad but true.
    Reply to this
  • 7/5/2009 9:11 PM Ed wrote:
    So the A2 News lost money in 2008 and 2009. Did the A2 News lose Newshouse money over the last decade? Heck, I work for a great corporation and we lost money this last year. But we made a mint over the last decade! Anyone have numbers on this for the A2 News or newspapers in general?

    And, secondly, I'd like to hear our elected Representatives comment on what Newshouse is doing with the newspapers of Michigan. Is this what they intended when they allowed media consolidation? Will the address the issue in any way at all?
    Reply to this
    1. 7/9/2009 9:09 PM John U Bacon wrote:
      Ed,

      Good point. And, as stated in the piece, newspaper conglomerates averaged about 20-percent profits per year for roughly two decades, 1985-2005. They obviously lost money in the last few, though I have no data on this. But as you say, that should still allow them to keep printing, if they cared as much about the product as they did about the profits.

      I have no insights, either, on the legal aspects of this, but I'm fairly confident in saying state and federal legislators will happily wash their hands of the whole thing. In other words: Don't count on any divine intervention.

      Thanks for writing.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 7/7/2009 9:25 PM keely wrote:
    I think that the demise of specific newspapers, including the AA News, is due to being out of sync with their community. When you have a liberal community, a conservative paper and an economic crisis-the community will give up the paper. Most people that I know kept their subscription to the AA News for local news only. Opinions and news reports were not respected. What paper could not back a presidential candidate in 2008? AA News.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/9/2009 9:15 PM John U Bacon wrote:
      Keely,

      You've raised a good issue.

      Of course, with no real reader data, it's hard to say what caused the circulation to decline from a high of about 55,000 to about 45,000.

      But I do believe the higher ups at the Ann Arbor News could have been in better touch with their community, especially with several of the officers living outside Ann Arbor, even outside the county.

      When you consider the original motivation for starting a newspaper -- wanting your fellow citizens to be informed about a town you live in and care about -- you can count this as another element that presaged the demise of the Ann Arbor News.

      Thanks for bringing it up.

      -JUB
      Reply to this
  • 12/15/2009 2:09 AM orthopaedic wrote:
    the underlying causes of the death of local papers was Congress's decision to revoke the limitations on how many newspapers, radio and TV stations one company could own in a given market. This paved the way for companies to create huge conglomerations far more concerned with shareholders than readers.
    Reply to this
  • 3/5/2010 11:58 AM Wildblue wrote:
    I really hate to see newspapers going under. While the Internet has brought news to our door step, I think it's hard for readers to sift through the lies and truths that the Internet breeds. I think newspapers provide an unbiased view that most news sources on the Internet fail to provide.
    Reply to this
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