When Larry Kestenbaum, clerk of Washtenaw County, Michigan, was in Lansing for a meeting recently, he saw something unfamiliar on the faces of the other clerks: pity. Colleagues from hard-pressed towns like Flint, Jackson and Kalamazoo were offering sympathy because, despite everything, they still had a local newspaper, while Ann Arbor, his county seat, did not.
At first blush, Ann Arbor is an unlikely place to earn the dubious distinction of being the first good-size municipality in the U.S. to give up on its only daily newspaper. A2, as the town is known, is more or less the beauty queen of Michigan: pretty, confident and seemingly immune to the problems of her peers. It still has a downtown with sidewalk cafés and quirky local stores. Its biggest employers are two universities and two hospitals, and it has weathered the recession better than most of the rest of the state. Nearly half its residents have graduate degrees. How could the paper die in a place like this?
The answer is that it didn't die. It was killed by its owners in a high-stakes gamble to try to create a new and more profitable enterprise. (In the past nine years, the paper lost more than half its classified-ad pages.) The Ann Arbor News ceased to exist on July 23. On July 24, AnnArbor.com was launched. The new website has a paper version also called, oddly, AnnArbor.com that comes out on Thursdays and Sundays. The News's owner, Advance Publications, is betting it can rebrand the 175-year-old News as a Web publication, turn a profit and still satisfy its readers' craving for local news. A lot of U.S. newspapers, and their readers, have a stake in whether the experiment in Ann Arbor succeeds.
A local newspaper is more than an organ for delivering news and information. It's a habit, a watering hole, a local landmark. It's a unifying force, even if that's just because, like a loud uncle, it gives everyone something to complain about. It's the hub that connects many people to their community. "The News was like an old friend. You weren't sure why you spent time with it, but you did, because it was such an old friend," says Charles Eisendrath, who runs the Knight-Wallace Foundation at the University of Michigan. How does a city deal with that loss? What, if anything, is irreplaceable in the transition from print to Web?
Death's paperboy has been tossing a lot of venerable titles onto the porch of history recently. The 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the 149-year-old Rocky Mountain News are gone. Dozens more are shadows of their former selves, their revenues and resources gutted by the flight of classifieds, the gasping economy and the hordes of websites competing for readers' attention. The best that most print publishers can do is try to slow the drain-circling while frantically figuring out how to make money on the Web. This means cutbacks, layoffs, misery.
Instead of stanching the blood, the Newhouse family, which owns Advance a group that includes more than 20 daily newspapers across the country is using Ann Arbor as a lab subject to see if it might hurt less to tear the Band-Aid off quickly. Fixed costs such as paper, printing and delivery have been drastically reduced. From a staff of 316 at the News in May 2008, AnnArbor.com has a full-time staff of approximately 60, about 35 of them "content creators" (reporters) plus some 80 from the "preferred blogging community," the majority unpaid according to AnnArbor.com president and CEO Matt Kraner. Rather than looking like a news-media website, AnnArbor.com deliberately reads more like a social-media site, with equal weight given to reports on a new diner and the proposed city income tax. Ads known as "deals" are incorporated into the feed, and users can vote for their favorite, with the highest vote getter scoring a place on the cover of the Sunday hard-copy edition. Not exactly Pulitzer material yet.