Ten years ago, when high school journalism teacher Tracy Anderson was approached by a professional news source in Ann Arbor asking to publish her students’ work, she did not immediately take it as a compliment, although it was an opportunity for her budding journalists. Aside from raising concerns about the potential vitriol in the anonymous comments section, the request also reinforced her observation that funding for professional local journalism in the region was in short supply.
“There’s a sadness to it. It shows the fact that professional journalists in our community are not being paid to do in-depth or quality reporting. Our students could take on these bigger stories [with the time and resources of a classroom setting] whereas in an era of really clickbait journalism, that longer story doesn’t have the money and the support behind it,” she said.
Anderson has advised Community High School’s student-run Communicator Magazine for over 20 years. Over the course of that time, Ann Arbor’s local daily newspaper has undergone multiple transformations, from The Ann Arbor News to Ann Arbor.com to The Ann Arbor News again, this time run at the state level by media conglomerate MLive.
Ann Arbor is far from the only city to lose its print news, but it was one of the first. In 2009, Poynter Institute dubbed Ann Arbor “the first city to lose its only daily newspaper.”
“Home to the huge University of Michigan, birthplace and headquarters of the Borders book chain and a pocket of relative prosperity with only light collateral damage from the auto industry, a literate place, population around 100,000, one might expect to be appreciative of what print newspapers offer,” Rick Edmonds, media business analyst, said in his Poynter article announcing the shutdown of the Ann Arbor News. Ultimately, declining revenue made the newspaper financially unsustainable.
Michigan has seen a 26 percent decrease in the number of newspapers between 2004 and 2019, according to the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. On the same database, Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor is located, is incorrectly listed as having one weekly newspaper, the Ann Arbor Observer. The Observer is actually monthly, and so Washtenaw County meets the UNC school’s definition of a “news desert”: “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”
The UNC Hussman School’s 2020 Report also found that states in the Midwest, South and Rocky Mountains had the most counties with only one local newspaper, which often covered vast regions and populations.
Ann Arbor still has its share of media: MLive Ann Arbor is updated regularly online and prints the new Ann Arbor News as a digest twice weekly. The Ann Arbor Observer prints monthly and has a weekly e-newsletter, and the Michigan Daily, the nonprofit student newspaper from the University of Michigan, reports on local news as well. Smaller publications cover special interests, and high school reporting sometimes finds a general audience.
Nevertheless, the traditional locally-owned newspaper delivered daily at your doorstep is officially a thing of the past for Ann Arbor and many other cities across the country—and while news moving online isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, it presents challenges in readership, credibility and funding sources that media providers continue to grapple with far beyond 2009. Although Ann Arbor’s story may no longer be unique, its transition to online led the way for many others.
1835 to 2009: The Ann Arbor News
Unbeknownst to some citizens, the original Ann Arbor News was always owned by an outside company: Booth Newspapers, based in Grand Rapids. Booth was bought out in 1976 by Advance Publications, based in New York. Corporate ownership came to public attention in 2009, however, when the paper announced the end of its 174-year run. The company fully shut down and was replaced by a new entity, AnnArbor.com, which enabled its administration to lay off its 272 employees—despite a guaranteed employment clause—and hire “more than a dozen” to its new staff, according to publisher Laurel Champion at the time.
“I don’t think that anybody at the Ann Arbor News saw the end coming the way it came,” journalist Dave Askins, whose wife Mary Morgan worked at the News until a year before its closing, said.
“I think what happened which was sad in Ann Arbor is that people had moved up the chain [and] all of a sudden there was a big cliff,” Edward Vielmetti, who was taken on as a new hire at AnnArbor.com, said.
But the Ann Arbor News was never perfect, even though it’s tempting to remember it through rose-tinted glasses. Askins and Vielmetti, both longtime Ann Arbor residents as of the time of the paper’s closing, recall examples of subpar reporting and fluff pieces meant to take up space beside advertisements.
“People loved to hate it,” Askins said.
Even “fluff,” however, has its place in bringing people together, Vielmetti said.
“I count on a newspaper to not only have exciting, compelling stories but also some boring stuff—just filler—because one person’s filler is another person’s story,” he said. “I miss that stuff because that’s the kind of texture of everyday life that I think is missing when you have a paper that’s gotten much smaller than the city that it lives in. You only get the controversy or you only get the big stories and you never get, ‘Here’s a picture of a cute kid,’ or ‘Some puppy got lost.’”
For Askins and his wife Morgan, the closing of the Ann Arbor News came a year after the couple started their own local news site, the Ann Arbor Chronicle. A small publication with a core group following, the Chronicle specialized in lengthy, in-depth reporting on City Council meetings and other local government matters. They had never expected their main competitor to fold, leaving a void as AnnArbor.com found its footing.
“We were not prepared to meet the expectation that people had that we would simply fill the gap,” Askins said.
Maybe the Chronicle gained a few readers after the Ann Arbor News shutdown announcement, he said, but they didn’t have the capacity to cover all the sections their competitor had. The Chronicle ended operations in 2014, when Askins and Morgan moved to Bloomington, IN.
After the move, Askins saw similarities between Ann Arbor’s news situation and that of The Herald-Times, the local newspaper in Bloomington. The local Schurz family sold The Herald-Times to a national publisher, GateHouse Media, in 2019. GateHouse Media later merged with Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher by distribution in the U.S.
“Who knows who they are?” Askins asked. “Who knows in what geographic place the decisions are being made now?”
2009 to 2013: AnnArbor.com
At the close of the daily print paper, its publishers promised a new kind of news delivery in the form of AnnArbor.com, an experiment at a time when online news was still a relatively recent development.
“This isn’t about abandoning local journalism, it’s about serving it up in a very different way,” Champion told the employees, according to the paper’s announcement.
“I don’t know how much of this was window dressing and how much of this was really real, but there was a thought that they would do more local community reporting rather than less,” Vielmetti said.
AnnArbor.com ran for four years as an independent entity, attempting the difficult task of providing the same quantity and quality of coverage with less than one tenth the staff. Vielmetti remembers that writing for an online audience instead of print was a transition for the veteran writers. The website tried some experimental new approaches to journalism, such as having staff on the first floor instead of the newsroom so that members of the public could walk in and talk to them.
“We didn’t get very many walk-ins, but it was a radical idea that the newspaper would be more accessible,” Vielmetti said.
The end of AnnArbor.com’s short run was an internal decision by Advance Publications. Once again, the paper’s finances were unsustainable as a standalone entity.
“Those old school news organizations are really at this structural disadvantage in competing for people’s attention […] and also competing for advertising dollars,” Vielmetti said.
And so in 2013 AnnArbor.com was merged with MLive, Advance’s larger and more developed platform for the entire state of Michigan. This saved funds by consolidating site promotion and ad sales to just one site.
“The process of folding AnnArbor.com into MLive had a lot less fanfare; it just sort of happened,” Vielmetti said. “It didn’t really have a grand finale the same way that the first Ann Arbor News had a grand finale.”
2013 – Present: The Ann Arbor News (Again), Now Through MLive
MLive, owned by Advance Publications, features news from Ann Arbor, Flint, Grand Rapids/Muskegon, Jackson, Kalamazoo and Saginaw/Bay City news markets. According to the UNC Hussman School’s data, the top five newspaper owners in Michigan run 79 newspapers collectively. Advance is ranked as the 17th largest media owner in the country by number of papers owned.
MLive has several locally-based reporters covering daily news online. Vielmetti, however, also looks to neighborhood forums like Nextdoor and Facebook groups for hyperlocal coverage.
“I feel really well-informed about the goings-on of 150 neighbors, and then go a half a mile in any direction and I have no idea what’s going on there,” Vielmetti said.
As with many larger media organizations facing difficult funding situations and smaller staffs in local newsrooms, some of the content is reproduced across publications and isn’t completely localized, especially as MLive covers a state with a wide geography and 10 million people.
“If you read the Ann Arbor section of MLive, you often get sort of mysteriously headlined stories [that] don’t really say where they’re located and end up being somewhere [other than Ann Arbor],” Vielmetti said.
MLive Media Group Vice President John Hiner declined to comment for this story, but referred Midstory to a previous column he wrote in October 2019 in response to a New York Times piece titled “When the Student Newspaper Is the Only Daily Paper in Town.” Hines’ column response is titled “Our readers get what NY Times missed – local publishing is alive and well.”
“Yes, The Ann Arbor News has gone through a lot in the last 10 years. But guess what? We never missed one day of reporting on issues that matter to Ann Arbor residents,” Hiner wrote. “Has a lot changed in the news industry, in Michigan, in our company and in the way we report and deliver news? Yeah – my dedicated colleagues and I have lived it every day. Have we made mistakes along the way? Of course. This has been an unprecedented period in American media, and we’re still learning every day. Do we have critics and detractors? All over the place, from the White House on down to the local gadfly. But we also have a large, dedicated reader base that is counting on us to stay focused on the job at hand – quality journalism, every day.”
Social media, COVID-19 and beyond
While online news may be the new standard, community members in Ann Arbor are also looking for other ways to connect with local goings-on. Vielmetti, for example, uses Twitter and Facebook to find out what’s happening in the area, “but it is not a replacement for reporting.”
Social media has become a more popular news source for Americans than newspapers, UNC researchers found in their 2020 report. Facebook is the most popular, where 43 percent of Americans get their news.
Social media news has its benefits, such as ease of access, immediate availability of large audiences and the opportunity for lively discourse with people all over the world. The UNC study, however, concluded that readers who exclusively rely on algorithms such as the Facebook “Today In” feature will often miss out on important local stories that don’t make the front page.
“Assuming a journalist attends a local planning board meeting and writes a story about it—[which is] not always a certainty given the number of local newspapers that have vanished—that type of story is not typically shared as widely on social media as crime or human interest stories,” the report says.
The COVID-19 pandemic only adds to the difficulty of staying in the loop.
“I think the pandemic has made it even harder [to stay informed],” Vielmetti said. “You can’t just go to the coffee shop and gossip with your neighbors about what’s happening because they’re all closed.”
And newspapers that do remain in print across the nation have continued to face financial decline during the pandemic, primarily due to lost ad revenue, according to the Pew Research Center.
But some see the pandemic as the perfect opportunity to reconsider print at a time when people are tired of screens and are craving the more tangible touch of words on a page. While she believes daily print newspapers may not be profitable enough to make a return, Anderson thinks now could be the time for local papers to re-emerge on a less frequent basis.
“People are sick of their computers and people want connection with their community,” she said. “I think people would subscribe to a Sunday magazine. Now is the moment. There are people who are hungry to hold something in their hands and connect with people and know what is going on.”