In an announcement made at a staff meeting yesterday morning, Laurel Champion, publisher of The Ann Arbor News, told employees that the newspaper plans to close its doors and stop publishing in July.

Krista Boyd/Daily
A passerby crosses the street in front of the Ann Arbor News building on Monday, March 23, 2009.

In an interview yesterday, Champion said she and a few key executives learned of the newspaper’s decision to close about one month ago, but that most Ann Arbor News employees heard the announcement for the first time yesterday.

Champion said a marked decline in advertising revenue — with January advertising sales figures down 20 percent from last year — largely contributed to the newspaper’s financial challenges.

“We had very serious losses last year and those losses declined even more in the past months,” she said.

The Ann Arbor News — owned by parent company Booth Newspapers — will be replaced by AnnArbor.com, a website that will publish local news online.

The News will continue to publish its daily content on Mlive.com in the interim.

AnnArbor.com, owned by Web-based media company AnnArbor.com LLC, is expected to begin operations later this year and has plans to circulate a print edition on Sundays and Thursdays.

Champion, who will be executive vice president of the new company, said plans for the website are still underway, but that it will likely be supported by advertising revenue, rather than require paid subscriptions from its readers.

Daily circulation for the print edition of the News is currently about 48,000, with a Sunday circulation of about 60,500, according to the News’ media kit.

The cost of a monthly subscription is $15.

Though the Ann Arbor News has been in operation as the city’s primary daily newspaper since 1835, Champion said yesterday’s announcement does not mean “the end of local journalism in Ann Arbor.” She added that the content provided by the new website would help fill the void left by the News.

Antoine Pitts, a 14-year employee of the News, learned of the closing for the first time during yesterday’s staff meeting.

“There had been rumors about things that were going to happen at our sister publications that made people wonder if the same things were going to happen here,” Pitts said.

A sports reporter who covered University of Michigan hockey during most of his time at the News, Pitts accepted an employee buyout package first offered by the News last fall in an effort to downsize staff and cut costs.

Though Pitts has plans to begin law school in the coming months, he said that most people were unprepared for the prospect of unemployment.

“What was dropped this morning was a lot different than what people had expected,” Pitts said in an interview yesterday.

Champion said the News currently employs 272 people between its newsroom on Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor and its printing operation in Pittsfield Township.

Though current Ann Arbor News employees will have the opportunity to apply for positions with the new company, the newspaper’s shutdown will mean job losses for some of them.

Before the new website is launched, Champion said the company has plans to get input from community members on the feature and design aspects of the new website.

“It’s really of the community, by the community and for the community,” she said.

Matt Kraner, former chief marketing officer of the Cleveland-based newspaper The Plain Dealer, will be president and chief executive officer of the new company.

Kraner wrote in a press release that the Ann Arbor news market makes it an ideal location to pursue online readership.

“It is the perfect place to embark on a Web-focused news and information strategy,” Kraner wrote. “We will be working with Ann Arbor’s residents and residents to build a unique and innovative community news and information service.”

The first community forum will take place at The Dahlmann Campus Inn on Thursday, April 2 at 2 p.m. The second forum will be held at Weber’s Restaurant & Hotel on Friday, April 3 at 10 a.m.

Today’s announcement came alongside several others to revamp the Michigan-based newspapers owned by the Booth Company. Along with The Ann Arbor News’s closing, The Bay City Times, The Saginaw News and The Flint Journal will reduce print circulation to three days a week.

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