Experts: Newspaper closings most damaging in smaller towns

BY CHRIS HERRING
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 19, 2009

When it became known late last month that Ann Arbor’s primary daily newspaper, The Ann Arbor News, would be closing its doors in July, the obvious question followed: Who’s going to provide local news content for the area?

And with dozens of papers having closed since the start of the year, it’s a question that's being asked across the country. At best, the print newspaper industry is in a state of flux. At worst, it’s in a state of emergency.

To reduce costs, the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News just scaled back home delivery to three days a week. In the last two months, two big-city dailies, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have closed and gone exclusively online. The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe have also recently received threats of closure from their parent companies.

Understandably, the fate of major papers and their respective cities has been the primary topic of discussion when it comes to the future of the industry. But little has been said about how smaller cities like Ann Arbor — and even smaller towns — are being affected when they lose their main source of news.

In many cases, industry experts and newspaper veterans say, small communities have much more to lose than major cities when their primary newspapers fold. With no apparent outlets to plug the news holes left behind, residents of small and mid-sized towns are more likely to be uninformed about the developments taking place in their area.

ANN ARBOR’S MEDIA FUTURE

There was an outcry when Laurel Champion, the publisher of The Ann Arbor News, announced the paper would shut down after its 174 years of existence.

But despite the disappointment many have expressed because of the impending closure, the general consensus among analysts seems to be that the city of Ann Arbor — more so than most — is ready to embrace the next generation of news.

“People have been very understanding,” said Champion, adding that she had returned calls from around 100 town residents and members of the media regarding the paper’s future. “There’s definitely a sense of mourning for The Ann Arbor News. But then as you get to the end of your conversation with the residents, they say, ‘You know, this AnnArbor.com thing sounds pretty cool.’ ”

AnnArbor.com is the website that the paper’s management announced will largely replace the print version starting this summer.

For now, Ann Arbor is on track to become the largest city in the country to lose its primary daily newspaper this year.

For most cities comparable in size to Ann Arbor — which has about 100,000 residents — there would normally be more concern about the loss of the daily newspaper. One would think, with a major metropolis just a half hour away, other news organizations would be rushing to Ann Arbor to fill the gap that will be left behind by The Ann Arbor News.

But with both the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News facing their own financial turmoil, that isn’t very likely, said Don Nauss, managing editor of The Detroit News.

“Traditionally in this situation, I think, we would have made a play for Ann Arbor by adding reporters and doing more advertising there,” said Nauss, adding that he and other executives at his paper were caught off guard by The Ann Arbor News's closing. “About 10 years ago or so, we had more resources and were still looking to expand. But I just don’t know that we have the resources to do it right now.”

Editors at the Detroit Free Press did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story.

Even without the major metro newspapers making a concerted push into Washtenaw County, Ann Arborites who want to stay informed on city issues should be able to for the most part, said Jane Briggs-Bunting, director of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism.

She said because The Ann Arbor News is morphing into a twice-weekly print publication with a heavy online emphasis — in addition to Ann Arbor’s affluent, Web-savvy makeup — residents will be fine reading their news online.

“The biggest concern when a city loses its paper is Web access,” Briggs-Bunting said. “In a place like Ann Arbor, that’s not as much of a concern.”

Aside from AnnArbor.com and its print counterpart, The Michigan Daily will continue to publish on weekdays from September through April and maintain its online presence. The Ann Arbor Chronicle, a year-old, Web-only, blog-like source on city affairs, also contributes original reporting to the city.

In short, experts say the media landscape in Ann Arbor appears to be changing, but not dying out completely.

“Most newspapers are making money from their websites,” said American University Journalism Prof. Amy Eisman, who has done consulting for several major newspapers trying to make the shift from print to the Web. “It’s just that those papers aren’t making enough to sustain an entire print organization and newsroom.”

HOW SMALL TOWNS SUFFER

The very thing that Briggs-Bunting said will keep Ann Arbor residents informed — Web access — is what could prevent smaller communities from gathering the information they’re used to having.

People in places like Ann Arbor, where about 70 percent of residents over the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, are well equipped to read online-only coverage. The community’s affluence is among the key reasons AnnArbor.com will soon replace The Ann Arbor News, Champion said.

But in many cases, the nation’s recession has forced newspapers to cut back print publications in markets that aren’t prepared to make the shift to online yet.

A town like Newton, Miss., which in January lost its 107-year-old daily, The Newton Record, is one such example. The town of 4,000, which is about an hour east of the state’s capitol in Jackson, is Ann Arbor’s polar opposite. In Newton, just over 12 percent of residents hold a bachelor’s degree and nearly a fifth of its residents are living below the poverty line.

“The closing of the newspaper here was very abrupt and didn’t give the residents a chance to brace for it,” said Newton Mayor Michael Pickens, who said the paper was a casualty of slumping advertising sales and the town’s poor economy. “Once the newspaper closed, we scrambled for about two weeks to see if we could fill that hole.”

The paper won’t be restored, but Pickens said his town was fortunate because another paper in the county was in good enough financial shape to hire a pair of reporters from The Newton Record. Those reporters have been tasked with covering Newton in hopes of filling that void.

Newton is just one of many towns across America to see its lone paper vanish. According to Paper Cuts, a blog that tracks the print newspaper industry’s woes, 87 American newspapers have closed or gone online-only since New Year’s Day. Most of those papers served rural communities with limited populations.

Boston University’s Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor, said it would be a mistake for most newspapers to do what The Ann Arbor News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer have done.

“There’s a huge risk involved in jumping to online-only. It can definitely be done too soon,” said Zuckoff, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting during his time at The Boston Globe. “You risk losing your legacy readers, who have traditionally gone out to the end of the driveway or the mailbox to get a print copy. It’s premature to think that every community is ready to automatically migrate to the Web.”

Zuckoff’s point is especially true in Pinckneyville, Ill., a town of 5,500 that lost its paper, The Democrat, in March. After the paper folded, residents there couldn’t go online — the 140-year-old paper didn’t have a website.

“This sort of thing leaves a huge hole in a small community like ours,” said Pinckneyville Mayor Joseph Holder, who has lived in the town all 60 years of his life. “We have no idea how to fill that void right now. It’s going to take awhile.”

DEMOCRACY AT RISK?

Industry experts were unanimous in one sense: each said newspaper closings anywhere, paired with the loss of reporters, are a threat to democracy.

For that reason, people will take great interest in what happens with AnnArbor.com’s coverage later this summer. Can the site, with only a fraction of the paper’s current staff, be anywhere near as hard-hitting as The Ann Arbor News?

Champion, who will act as executive vice president of AnnArbor.com, believes the website can accomplish just as much as the print product. When asked if the task of watchdog journalism would be affected in any way because of the smaller staff, Champion said, “Absolutely not. We’re going to be providing the information in a different way, but we’re not giving up on the traditional local watchdog journalism role.”

Others were skeptical about Champion’s assertion.

“If they (AnnArbor.com) are only rehiring a fraction of their staff, there’s no way the staff can accomplish all the same things they did before,” said University of San Francisco Prof. Teresa Moore, who teaches in the media studies department and spent 10 years reporting for the now-endangered San Francisco Chronicle. “There’s no way for the skeleton staff to do the things the community has come to expect from them.”

Moore said AnnArbor.com could play a strong watchdog role in the community, but only if it chooses to focus solely on that type of reporting.

ProPublica, a New York City-based, online-only outlet, has taken that very approach. The two-year-old site, which employs 28 investigative reporters, offers its stories to major media outlets in hopes of garnering recognition and, in turn, advertising revenue.

ProPublica managing editor Stephen Engelberg, an Ann Arbor native and former investigative reporter at The New York Times, said he believes more groups will adopt his outlet’s model, which is funded by The Sandler Foundation and donations from online readers.

“The way we’re doing it — through pure philanthropy — is not going to be possible everywhere, but I expect that we will see more independent, Web-based, investigative reporting,” he said.

Pinckneyville, Ill., illustrates Engelberg’s point that in some places, democracy is already in danger. The town has no reason to expect that another paper will sprout up anytime soon. And as for the local news website, well, there’s a better chance that another newspaper may come along before that happens.

Holder, the town’s mayor, said papers from other towns parachute in every now and again by sending a reporter to a city council or school board meeting, but that the coverage ends up being “sketchy at best” and “not adequate at all.”

Asked whether he, as a politician, was happy that no media outlet could closely scrutinize his work, Holder laughed.

“I guess when you’re mayor of a small place like this, you don’t have much to hide,” he said. “I’d rather have a reporter grill me with hard questions to let my town know what’s going on than have my people in the dark wondering what’s going on.”