Yesterday’s announcement of the end of The Ann Arbor News is yet another dark cloud in the ever-worsening landscape of print journalism in this country.
All across the country, newspapers are switching to an online format, cutting down on staff and content, filing for bankruptcy and even going under. Though 15,704 people lost a job at a newspaper in 2008, and over 6,000 have already lost their jobs this year, according to Paper Cuts, a website that tracks layoffs, buyouts and news in the U.S. newspaper industry, some local experts have begun to speculate that the Ann Arbor’s tech-savvy community could make for a smooth transition to a strictly online news outlet.
“Many people think that we’re experiencing a slow but quickening death spiral of the newspaper industry,” said Michael Traugott, chair of the University’s Communications Department, in an interview yesterday.
“So who is going to keep an eye from a news perspective on developers, the University of Michigan, certain kinds of businesses as well as the political machinery in local government?” he said.
Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, a local, online news source that was launched last year, declined to speculate about whether the new AnnArbor.com will provide people with a replacement they could be satisfied with. Though he did say that Ann Arbor was “more likely to embrace an online publication than other communities.”
He said that people typically cite interactivity, spontaneity and publishing “as it happens” as the advantages of online news sources.
“That is by no means our strength,” he said.
For Askins, the freedom to write as much as necessary and include as much detail and thoroughness as possible sets online publishing apart from print, where there are limits on paper space.
“It’s the vertical scroll bar we take advantage of,” he said.
Whether AnnArbor.com will share this philosophy is unknown.
“The important thing is that you have a news organization that has sustainable economics to it so that it exists,” Askins said.
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje said that although he was confident local news coverage would continue without The Ann Arbor News, he said “it does mean the loss of another way to get info out to the public.”
“It’s uncharted territory,” Hieftje said of the loss. “But there’s still going to be news coverage.”
Indeed, many worry that for newspapers with extensive coverage of local news, moving to the Internet will have negative consequences. Primarily, there is concern that newspapers will lose the credibility that sustains their traditional position as a necessary check on institutions — a protector of democracy.
Traditional newspapers, like The Ann Arbor News, have been forced to compete with an explosion of online content, and as a result they’re suffering from declining subscriptions and advertising revenue. These factors is the crushing economic crisis making consumers think twice about buying something they can get online for free.
The Ann Arbor News is not the first paper to go through this transition. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its final print edition last Tuesday, and it’s now available only online.
When the Post-Intelligencer announced the move, media analysts labeled it a sign of things to come for an industry with everything going against it.
According to Anthony Collings, a Communications lecturer who has also been a Washington correspondent for CNN and the London bureau chief for Newsweek, if struggling news organizations like The Ann Arbor News cut staff as a means of restructuring their businesses as they move to new formats, such a loss in credibility is likely.
“If they hire a much smaller number of full-time paid journalists than they had before, obviously there would be a real question whether they could be a watchdog as much as before,” he said.
Even more worrisome, Collings said, is the tendency for news organizations to try and fill the local coverage void solely with user-contributed content.
Collings said that claims of community inclusiveness can be used as “a euphemism for unpaid work by unprofessional journalists — so-called citizen journalists.”
Collings said there is “a risk that they’re not being professional, they won’t be as cautious and skeptical, that they won’t have the skills that they need to evaluate information correctly, put it in context and be ethical.”
Communications Prof. Fara Warner, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, has a slightly different perspective.
“My big question is should this have happened sooner? Did we actually hold on too long?” she said.
“I worry that we assume that media must look the way that it has always looked to do what it’s supposed to do. I disagree with that,” Warner said. “I hope journalism is more than just the newspaper it’s printed on. It really is about the content and what we say, as opposed to where we say it and in what forum we say it.”
The Internet has created opportunities for contributions from anyone with a modem. For years, readers have been able to contribute their own perspectives through comment sections on news websites. Blogs, many of them run by individuals, have already replaced traditional news sources for a large number of readers.
Addressing Colling’s concerns about credibility, Warner said media institutions will eventually make the necessary adjustments to make user-generated content more viable. She said she favors embracing the flood of user generated content and energy.
“Freedom of the press and freedom of speech don’t just cover people who own media companies,” Warner said. “It covers everybody in the country.”
In order for user-generated content to become a viable supplement to professional journalism, Warner said the public needs to be assured that the content is consistently accurate.
Warner said that perhaps a system where user-generated content could be put through some sort of editing process could be developed.
She also said that news websites shouldn’t blur the distinction between staff- and user-generated content.
“We need to do a better job as journalists in signaling to people online the context of information,” Warner said.
— Daily News Editor Lindy Stevens contributed to this report.