The Twilight of Newspapers in Ann Arbor

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Cover by Katie Spak

 

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 6:11pm

Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith resigned his elected post in August of 2016, after accusations that he engaged in a self-serving conflict of interest surfaced.

In a letter to the County Board, Mary Morgan, former opinion editor of the Ann Arbor News, alleged Smith was unethically using his position as an elected official to secure a position as Washtenaw County’s director of community and economic development. The position likely would have carried a 6-figure salary.

“The board of commissioners is not responsible for hiring county employees, other than the county administrator,” Morgan wrote. “So there’s no reason for commissioners to be involved in the hiring process for other county staff, much less a single commissioner acting alone.”

Although acknowledging he had been pursuing the position, Smith denied any wrongdoing in an interview with the Daily.

In October, Smith announced his intention to run for re-election to the county commission seat he had resigned from just two months earlier, taking himself out of consideration for the economic development position.

Faced with only write-in opposition — several protest candidates and his board-appointed interim successor — some of Smith’s former constituents said few voters seemed to be aware of his conduct, which they attributed to lax local media coverage of the issue.

“It’s kind of sad how many people don’t know about this situation,” Ann Arbor resident Judy Foy said in an October interview. “He’ll just be the name on the ballot.”

When Ann Arborites turned out en masse for Hillary Clinton on November 8th — Clinton carried 68 percent of the county — Smith’s write-in opponents secured only 9 percent of the vote. Ninety-one percent of voters on Ann Arbor’s west side were either unaware of Smith’s resignation and waffling, or they were content to overlook it.

Some of Smith’s critics would blame a variety of factors, from straight-ticket voting to civic apathy.

"He had the luxury of turning his back on the people he's supposed to represent for a couple months... knowing that he'll get re-elected in November because of straight-ticket voting," local resident Jeff Hayner told the Daily in October. 

Others — such as Morgan —  attributed the scandal and Smith’s reelection to a more systemic problem: The deterioration of local news coverage's ability to ensure government transparency, beginning with the Ann Arbor News’ 2009 closure amid flagging revenue.

“If I had not reported on (Conan Smith), it wouldn’t have been daylighted,” Morgan said. “In terms of things that are happening in our government that aren’t getting covered, that is a good example.”

Death of a Newspaper

On the Monday morning of March 23, 2009, Ed Petykiewicz, then-Ann Arbor News editor in chief, was seen walking out of his office visibly distraught, according to former News copy editor Domenica Trevor.

“(Petykiewicz) looked like somebody had whacked him in the face with a two-by-four, he looked shocked,” Trevor said.

Several minutes later, a staff meeting — with almost 100 attendees despite recent waves of buyouts — was called with little explanation. Many thought a new wave of cuts was about to be announced.

Instead of announcing more staff cuts, Ann Arbor News publisher Laurel Champion, with a pained expression, informed them the newspaper, with 174 years of history and 45,000 daily subscribers, would cease production that July.

The staff was stunned, and most would be out of work in four months.

In a letter to the public later that day, Champion wrote the decision by its owners — New Jersey-based Advance Publications — to close the paper was due to declining print advertising revenue. Champion also announced the shift of the publication’s remaining resources to a soon-to-be-launched platform, AnnArbor.com.

“We have shared with you before in our pages the extreme challenges that our industry and our newspaper have faced over the last couple years,” Champion wrote. “Out of those challenges has come a new opportunity. Our new strategy reflects shifting media consumption habits and advertising revenue in the newspaper business, and particularly in Michigan.”

Though few, if any, Ann Arbor News staff expected an outright closure prior to the announcement, warning signs of the paper’s troubles had been present for years.

The size of the print edition was reduced in 2007 to cut newsprint costs, according to several former staff members. In 2008, Advanced Publications announced the News’ copy desk and several of its other production functions would be downsized and centralized to a Grand Rapids office. The size of the staff — including newsroom, distribution and business — was whittled through attrition and concurrent waves of buyouts, from 400 to 272 by 2009. 

Some left of their own accord in the period immediately before the closure. Morgan left as opinion editor in 2008, after 12 years at the News.

“At the time, you could see they were not investing in the newsroom and that when people left, they weren’t being replaced,” Morgan said. “Generally, it did not seem like there was a vision from the leadership.”

Trevor, seeing poor future prospects for her role as a copy editor at the News, accepted a buyout offer in late 2008, though she continued working through July 2009. She now works as a paralegal and freelance copy editor in Ann Arbor.

“A bunch of people were offered buyouts,” Trevor said. “Any copy editor with any sense took it because there was an ‘opportunity’ for employment in Grand Rapids, but we were being told it’s just not going to happen.”

The Ann Arbor News staff was promised an opportunity to apply for positions at the new publication, AnnArbor.com and about a dozen employees were retained, according to several former staff members. The rest moved to other publications, freelance positions or entirely new careers.

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Infographic by Katie Spak

The market trends ending The Ann Arbor News were hardly confined to Ann Arbor. Until the advent of the Internet, most medium-sized cities could support at least one independent daily print publication that could reap healthy profit margins by holding a de-facto monopoly on local classified ad sales.

Although the Internet would begin eroding newspapers’ competitive advantage as a one-stop shop for local advertisers in the 1990s and early 2000s, newspapers were largely able to weather the changing market. Total U.S. newspaper ad revenue would peak in 2005 at $49.4 billion — even when daily subscriptions had been in decline for years — according to Pew Research.

Freefall ensued during the 2007 financial crisis and the subsequent recession. Newspaper ad sales plummeted 60 percent below their pre-recession peak to $19.9 billion by 2014 (the last year the Newspaper Association of America published figures), as advertisers realized they could target audiences more effectively online and slashed their print spending.

The employment prospects of newsroom staff have followed their employers’ tanking earnings. The number of U.S. newspaper employees plunged by 40 percent from a pre-recession peak of 55,000 to 32,900 in 2014.

In the decade between 2004 and 2014 at least 126 daily papers closed, according to industry publication Editor and Publisher, and the approximate 1,300 that remained increasingly had to make do with less. The same year The Ann Arbor News ceased production, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer moved solely online, and both The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press cut their print schedules to three times per week. With its stock price slipping below $5, the New York Times Co. was only dissuaded from shutting The Boston Globe — one of its properties — when the Globe’s employees agreed to $20 million in concessions.

More with Less

AnnArbor.com — which fully merged into the Mlive brand in 2013 — is a leaner operation than its predecessor. The print schedule was cut to twice a week and its copy desk, sales, production, circulation and sports coverage were consolidated into its parent company’s statewide operation alongside seven other local papers.

Individual reporters are saddled with greater responsibilities than their forerunners: They cover multiple beats, take their own photos and run their own social media, according to Jenn McKee, a former entertainment reporter at the Ann Arbor News and MLive .

“Really focusing on your writing and having that be your calling card isn’t enough; you really need to be a more well-rounded journalist and be able to offer all those things,” Mckee said. “That’s a pretty sharp shift for people who have been doing this for a while to make.”

John Hiner, vice president of content at MLive, said the economic realities of the news industry make the scale of old local newspapers financially unrealistic, and traditional media companies must increasingly explore alternate sources of revenue.

“We don’t dream about putting everything back the way it was,” Hiner said. “But I think you can find continued growth in digital revenue.”

Hiner further said MLive has prioritized preserving its reporting capacity, explaining that while about 25 staff members work in the Ann Arbor office — less than 10 percent of the 272 who were in 2009 — most cuts have been to non-editorial positions, like those consolidated under MLive’s statewide functions. He estimated this means the reporting staff is between one-third and half of its pre-2009 headcount.

He also admitted not as much coverage is possible with fewer staff members, but argued that the web-based platform of MLive makes news more immediate to its audience.

“The Ann Arbor News used to be at every school board meeting, every city zoning meeting, every library meeting,” Hiner said. “We still go to those things when they’re newsworthy and important to the community, but we don’t babysit boards and council to the degree we used to when we had more resources.”

Jen Eyer, who held various editorial leadership roles at MLive’s Ann Arbor office until 2016 and is now communications director for gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer (D), described maintaining Ann Arbor coverage as a “constant struggle,” but expressed admiration for the dedication of the remaining staff in the face of challenges.

“It pains me to hear the criticism they sometimes get,” Eyer said. “That newsroom and the whole organization is still filled with journalists who believe in the mission of journalism.”

While acknowledging the efforts of MLive’s staff, many local residents say the consequences of large staff cuts and the reduction of printing to twice a week are difficult to ignore.

Vivienne Armentrout, former county commissioner and long-time Ann Arbor resident who actively blogs about city issues, said the loss of daily print distribution has steeply affected public awareness of local news.

“I was here when we actually had an afternoon paper … we could be sure that virtually every resident of Ann Arbor was reading the same news as you were reading,” Armentrout said. “There was sort of a common community memory, and now a lot of people are pretty ignorant of what’s going on.”

These sentiments were echoed by City Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4).

“I have to tell you that (MLive reporter) Ryan Stanton covers City Council very well,” Eaton said. “But the public doesn’t necessarily read everything he writes because it’s only published twice a week and not very many people bother to subscribe to it.”

Both Eaton and Armentrout added that they see less long-form investigative reporting, and it is evident the smaller staff is spread thinner than its predecessors.

“A local person who’s involved, such as myself, kind of has to piece together the news,” Eaton said. “You need to listen to WEMU, because they do fairly good local coverage, you need to hunt down a copy of The Ann magazine.”

From the Ashes

A year after the News’ closing, The Ann magazine, a monthly glossy magazine featuring long-form pieces on local news, was launched.

Jim McBee, creative director of The Ann, has worked at a variety of local papers in California, the Carolinas and Wyoming. However, he found himself increasingly disillusioned as long-term prospects soured.

“While I was still in newspapers, I just felt like I was just riding it out,” McBee said.

As The Ann Arbor News was closing shop, McBee’s former co-worker Kyle Poplin was in Ann Arbor on a Knight-Wallace Fellowship, an award for mid-career journalists to study at the University of Michigan for a year. Poplin saw an editorial void left by the News’ closure — a lack of in-depth longform reporting — and reached out to McBee, ultimately conceiving the magazine.

“Our desire editorially is to do the big projects newspapers used to do,” McBee said. “That’s the idea, to do the big in-depth story … that newspapers have a really hard time doing now because they’ve fired all their experienced reporters.”

In the past year, The Ann has featured stories on topics such as the local startup scene, emotionally heavy profiles of homelessness in Washtenaw County and a piece from Morgan outlining the circumstances surrounding Conan Smith’s resignation. A large portion of content comes from freelance writers, while a core team of four manages editing, production and advertising sales.

Each month, 18,000 copies are printed and distributed through direct subscriptions and a distribution partnership with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which include The Ann as an insert in local deliveries to respective papers.

McBee readily admits, however, that no monthly publication can fully substitute the day-to-day and breaking news reporting capacity of a daily newspaper. By relying heavily on freelancers, the Ann cannot readily do follow-up coverage on recurring issues, particularly local government.

“I don’t know if I would structure beats the way a newspaper does, but the fact that I don’t have a staff of reporters … is a little frustrating,” McBee said. “Somebody needs to be keeping an eye on government officials, on businesses, on whatever. I think it’s a glorious golden age for graft and corruption.”

A copy of the last issue of Ann Arbor News July 23, 2009

A copy of the last issue of Ann Arbor News July 23, 2009 Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

Some Ann Arborites were not daunted by the task of holding local government to task, though. When Morgan departed from The Ann Arbor News shortly before its demise, she and her husband, Dave Askins, launched The Ann Arbor Chronicle, a Web-based publication focused on local government, in September 2008.

Aiming to increase civic awareness and participation, the couple sought to fill a vacuum left in local government coverage by the departure of the News. Their site primarily featured detailed chronicles of local government meetings and decisions, while also including original analysis of local policy issues, columns and cartoons from freelancers.

“By covering government the way we did, we could lower some of the barriers to entry,” Morgan said. “The idea was: If people want to know what’s happening so they can get more involved, we would provide them with that information.”

Raising revenue through advertising sales to local businesses and “voluntary” subscription fees — the Chronicle was a for-profit entity — Askins said their site drew between 30 and 40 thousand unique users per month. The couple was adamant, though, that their success be measured not by their readership but by their impact on the functioning of civic life.

Though the Chronicle’s revenue was sufficient to cover its costs and the couple’s living expenses, Askins and Morgan found a fundamental challenge: Covering every public meeting could consume as much as 80 hours per week, even with freelancers’ help.

They determined it would not be possible to scale up the Chronicle’s revenue to hire full-time staff without compromising key elements of their publication. In an August 2014 post, Askins announced the Chronicle would end publication.

“In past columns I’ve compared this kind of labor to running a marathon — with one key difference: There is no finish line,” Askins wrote. “You can never really finish. But as a practical matter you will quit running one day. And if you never decide to stop, then when you do stop, it will be because you are dead. So we’re setting an end date as a kind of artificial finish line.”

That September, a final post was made on the Chronicle: A heartfelt farewell from Morgan.

The Chronicle's departure put residents in the same predicament they felt when the Ann Arbor News began downsizing — a lack of investigative city coverage. Many residents, including Eaton, still remember the Chronicle’s reporting fondly.

“The Chronicle wasn’t really traditional journalism, it was exhaustive journalism where you’d get 15,000 words on one meeting,” Eaton said. “It was a great resource for activists or board members like myself … and I don’t expect a daily newspaper like MLive or anybody else to do that kind of exhaustive meeting coverage.”

New Beginnings

Now, Askins is on his way out of the city he has covered for so long. This week, he filled a U-Haul to move to Madison, South Dakota (pop: 7,258) to start again as a local journalist.

Despite having a population less than one-tenth of Ann Arbor, Madison has maintained its daily print paper — the Madison Daily Leader — which he and Morgan credit to the publication’s ownership by the same local family for multiple generations.

Morgan plans to remain in Ann Arbor for the “medium term,” until she can transition the leadership of her civic engagement nonprofit — the CivCity Initiative — which she began after the Chronicle closed, before joining her husband in Madison.

While acknowledging he would miss Ann Arbor — which he has called home for the last two decades — Askins bristled with optimism for what new adventures would await him out west.

“The work of a local journalist, if you do it well … you make the place you live in better, because it allows more people to participate in the life of the community than otherwise would be able to,” Askins said. “That’s the work I want to do ... Ann Arbor’s clearly not the only place you can do it, and it’s not clear to me you can work as a local journalist in Ann Arbor anymore.”

In early 2016, the last two Ann Arbor News staff members to remain through the entire transition to MLive — McKee and Managing Producer Cindy Heflin — were laid off. Heflin is now a copy editor at the Detroit Free Press, while McKee works as a freelance reporter. Today, MLive continues to serve the Ann Arbor news market.

“I harbor no malice against MLive,” McKee wrote in a text message. “They’re just trying to make it through this era, as every news outlet is.”

Correction: A previously published version of this article described the Ann Arbor News as "now-defunct". However, MLive's twice-a-week print edition in  the Ann Arbor area is still published under The Ann Arbor News brand.

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