On July 24, the Chicago Tribune printed a mournful column, lamenting the death of the Ann Arbor News. Unlike many other cities, the death of the Ann Arbor News is the death of the only major news source in the area.
The News was not just a hometown paper for the 114,000 residents of this university town about 45 miles west of Detroit, it was the hometown paper. Ann Arbor has become the first American city of any size to lose its only full-time daily.
But perhaps understandably(less so for the many journalists sitting in the seats), they are starting from the ground up. The editors are trying a business model that has been semi-successful for other digital news outlets: small staff, small circulation, niche advertising (see AnnArbor.com–oh and the top story this morning is dead swans).
While this maybe the first “city” to lose it’s full-time daily, there’s certainly been documentation about what happens when a community loses it’s daily. Want to make your palms sweat? See what happens to volunteerism, civic involvement and political participation when a local newspaper closes.
It’s impossible for me personally to have a clear thought on the matter of a newspaper closing. On one hand, I’ve sat in the newsroom. I know what the loss of a colleague is like and I know the good that a skilled journalist can do. But I’m unfortunate enough to see where the market is headed. Will news survive? Of course. Will newspapers survive? Yes, in some capacity. But it means a new model with new strengths and a lot of new weaknesses. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand how the columnist feels when he writes:
This radical reinvention looks ominously like a smoke screen for radical cost-cutting and wholesale firings, one that will be replicated in city after city where lone, moribund daily newspapers are so many dominoes waiting to fall now that this first one has toppled.
As I mourn the passing of the Ann Arbor News, I’m haunted by the fear that AnnArbor.com will succeed. Even more, I’m haunted by the fear that it will fail.
Is there a way to save these newspapers, that still attract millions online but don’t charge for it? Some people think so. The LA Times on “Free Riding” and it’s affect on newspapers:
Practically anyone can start a website and get software that snags fresh online news from those who originate it. Website owners pluck the freshest, most interesting reports and quickly post condensed rewrites. That costs them little, and they then surround the rewrites with cut-rate ads.
When readers get to work in the morning, they can read fresh news on the newspaper’s site or equally fresh rewrites on competitors’ sites. The free-riders may link to the newspaper’s report, but why click on the link to read the same story twice?
Take Newser.com, an “aggregator” of others’ news reports. It boasts on its site: “We choose the most important stories from hundreds of U.S. and international sources and reduce them to a headline, picture and two paragraphs. And we do it 24/7 — you can come back morning, noon, night (and in between) for something new that matters.”
Competing with each other and newspapers for advertising, free-riders enter the market undercutting each others’ ad rates until many of them can still profit, but newspapers, which bear the hefty labor costs of gathering the news, can’t.
But on the other side, some journalists have, despite the obstacles, managed to make it in the digital world. But they’re reporting on a beat, not on a city. Individual journalists can survive, but the industry?