The Ann Arbor Precedent: Three Years before It Announced It Was Taking a Digital-First Approach and Cutting Back on Print Publishing at Papers in New Orleans and Five Other Cities, Newhouse's Advance Publications Adopted a Similar MO in Ann Arbor, Michigan. How Has It Worked Out?

By Kalter, Lindsay | American Journalism Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Ann Arbor Precedent: Three Years before It Announced It Was Taking a Digital-First Approach and Cutting Back on Print Publishing at Papers in New Orleans and Five Other Cities, Newhouse's Advance Publications Adopted a Similar MO in Ann Arbor, Michigan. How Has It Worked Out?


Kalter, Lindsay, American Journalism Review


Nearly 1,000 bundled Ann Arborites lined the city's downtown sidewalks during a snowstorm in February 1985, waiting to enter a three-story Art Deco office building on East Huron Street. The residents weren't waiting to see a politician speak or to watch a well-known musician play, two events that might draw such a crowd in a college town like Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. Instead, they were waiting to attend an open house to celebrate their community newspaper's 150th anniversary.

Longtime staff members recounted this day in the final print edition of the Ann Arbor News on July 23, 2009, when the city became the first to lose its only daily newspaper. The next day, AnnArbor.com was launched as the community's main news source, with a print edition on Thursday and Sunday.

Three years later, the Ann Arbor News is just one in a growing collection of newspapers owned by Newhouse's Advance Publications that are shedding production costs by transitioning from daily print to primarily digital operations. In May, New Orleans' Times-Picayune announced that it would print only three days a week, as did Advance's three Alabama papers. Six hundred staffers were laid off at the papers. In late August, Advance disclosed similar plans for its papers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, New York. Publication schedules have also been reduced at other Advance Michigan properties.

With just 13 reporters listed on its staff page, AnnArbor.com has a much. smaller news team than the News did, and the journalists are working for far less pay. So what impact has the transition from Ann Arbor News to AnnArbor.com had on the city? How good is the journalism at the digital-first news outlet? Does the demise of local print newspapers have a fracturing effect on communities, as many in New Orleans fear?

Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellows in journalism at the University of Michigan, says that although the News "was never the New York Times" and had been on the decline for some time, it was an adequate, serviceable local daily. But AnnArbor.com, he says, has proven to be an insufficient substitute and has had "a terrible effect" on the city.

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"If you pay people a third of what they were paid before, and you have a third as many of them, the results aren't exactly rocket science," Eisendrath says. More specifically, he says, the result has been anemic coverage. "If this is the model for the future of traditional news organizations, they need to begin calling themselves something else. Not news organizations."

Dan Gaydou, president of Ann Arbor. corn's parent, MLive Media Group, turned down AJR's request to visit the newsroom and discuss the operation. "We've decided to decline your request to visit with our employees or release information about reporters, but I'm glad to give you current circulation and audience data," Gaydou wrote in an e-mail.

Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the digital division of Advance Publications, and Randy Siegel, president of local digital strategy at Advance, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

In an August 3 column published on poynter.org, Newhouse depicted the Ann Arbor transition as a great success. "AnnArbor.com scaled nicely; it exceeded our expectations for audience growth and performed well by increasing our digital revenue," he wrote. "The website has consistently ranked #1 in the United States for having the highest local market penetration (54.9 percent) among consumers of any local newspaper site in America, according to Media Audit."

"The reason for AnnArborscom's strong readership is the high quality of its journalism. In the past two years, the site won 21 awards in the Michigan Associated Press Editorial Association's news-writing contest, including first place awards in investigative reporting, breaking news and column writing, and second place in community service. …

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