Monday, March 30, 2009

The Mysterious Death in Ann Arbor

Came back from Spain to find out that Newhouse decided not only to take down the Bay City, Saginaw and Flint papers to three days a week -- no street sale or e-edition as in Detroit, simply three-day-a-week papers -- and kill the Ann Arbor News altogether, having it "reborn" in the manner of the Madison Capital Times, as a two-days-a-week print publication (Sunday and a weekend tab) while being online as a news source, but under a different name.

Very sad personally. I worked for the Flint Journal for five years; met my wife there; my in-laws live in Flint. When I worked for the Ypsilanti Press, I lived literally across the street from an Ann Arbor mailing address. Twice was offered a job at the AA News; twice turned it down.

So what's going on here? How can one not make a go of it in one of America's most educated markets? To hear editor Tony Dearing of the News tell it, that's exactly why. He links his paper's problems with those of the San Francisco Chronicle (by extension, probably, to Boston, Seattle and San Jose). Newspapers, he says, do well in -- well, he doesn't use this word, but in "less progressive" areas. That, he says, is why Jackson, Mich., the next county over, gets to keep its Newhouse seven-day daily.

Well, maybe. I remember from working at the late Ypsi Press the horrendous problems we had (in the 1970s!) getting home delivery accomplished because of the large number of people who lived in apartment buildings with locked doors; papers were still doing doorstep delivery back then, and all you could do was leave the paper outside the front door to the building, where either a nonsubscriber would take it or the apartment dweller would have to walk all the way down to get it. This was a problem in every city, of course, but in a city of the young and transient such as metro Ann Arbor, it was disproportionate.

But I also remember the Ann Arbor News of those days (and why I didn't go to work for it). The News of the 1970s was a paper that would have felt at home in Jackson or Saginaw. It did not seem to be edited for the professors, researchers, and executives who made Ann Arbor such an upscale place, or the students, intellectuals, and artists who made it so unique. We would joke that the News was edited for the people who lived in Ann Arbor but hated it -- the factory workers at the Chrysler parts plant on the edge of downtown, the secretaries and landscapers at the University of Michigan, the farmers in Saline and Pittsfield. The people on campus, and the people at the labs, read the Detroit Free Press or the New York Times or the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper.

Still, what could you do? The News at that time had a circulation of about 40,000. (It got up into the mid-50s by the 1990s.) I don't know what the staff size was -- when I arrived at Flint, we had about 90 people with a circulation of 105,000, but let's be generous and say the News had 40 people. That would have given the News about 22 reporters for news, sports and features. It would have had an AP feed and access to the Booth Lansing bureau. It would have been, in other words, about the equivalent of the Jackson Citizen Patriot. But Jackson was not Ann Arbor. This was a city that, folk wisdom had it, had the largest readership of the New York Times outside the East Coast, back in those pre-internet days. The News could cover Washtenaw County and the school board and the courts and the city council. Vast numbers of people in Ann Arbor had no interest in those topics. They were too young, or too etherial, or too cosmopolitan, or too much part of metro Detroit. They wanted to read analyses of national policy and scientific breakthroughs. The News was a paper for the "locals." The main thing it had going for it was that the sports editor was joined at the hip to Wolverines coach Glenn "Bo" Schembechler.

Things changed over the years, and the News became much better. (A true tragedy in this is how much work Newhouse did over two decades improving its newspapers.) But I wonder if it ever shook its reputation, or was always seen by the chattering classes in Ann Arbor as that small-town daily they didn't bother with. Even so, is that enough to kill the Ann Arbor News, particularly with the Free Press cutting back on home delivery to three days a week?

Well, pretty clearly the cutbacks on the I-75 (WHOOPS: I had said I-95; thanks, Vince Tuss) corridor owe a lot to that Detroit move. Advertisers, particularly those with inserts, understand the game; they will place their ads in the Thursday, Friday and Sunday papers. The Detroit papers make those three days profitable by concentrating everything there. Flint certainly, and Saginaw and Bay City probably, are viewed as sub-markets of metro Detroit; ads will be placed by major accounts following what Detroit is offering, and days that were unprofitable in Flint or Saginaw will become increasingly so. (Otherwise you would keep publishing and try to pick up disaffected former Free Press readers.) The three Newhouse papers on the western side of the state (Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Kalamazoo) are not tied to the Detroit market or even particularly to the auto industry; I am assuming Jackson is more a subset of Lansing, which also will have a seven-day Gannett paper (a big GM town, a big college town, but also a state government town, and MSU is not UM).

All of these moves are being made with the assumption that whenever the economic recovery comes, the distress of the auto industry and the fact that the companies and the UAW will have to make continuing major cuts means that it will come last to metro Detroit, which in many ways has never recovered from the early 1980s. If you're in Palm Beach or Orlando, things really suck now, but you hang on and hope that when the recession moderates you can stand on your feet with a smaller organization. In Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City -- the latter three being largely old GM colonies left adrift by its problems, cities that existed for decades simply as GM factory towns with plants such as Saginaw Steering Gear -- the recession is not going to moderate any time soon. Therefore, so what if you bet wrong and the market rejects a three-day-a-week Bay City Times? You weren't going to make any money with a seven-day-a-week Bay City Times either. As with Boca Raton and Knight Ridder, you don't do a grand experiment in the newspaper business unless it no longer matters to you whether the experiment fails because you had no hope of winning the old way. You do little experiments, but you don't kill the cash cow until it no longer can give any milk at all.

But could you pawn a three-day-a-week Ann Arbor News off on the Ann Arbor market? They would laugh. If they want a newspaper only three days a week, for the ads or the Sunday comics or whatever, they will take the Free Press. If they want a newspaper seven days a week, they will take the New York Times. If they are the "locals," advertisers probably don't want them much anyway. You can pick them up with the TMC product. You have two choices -- keep publishing seven days a week, hope that the prosperity of Ann Arbor eventually overcomes the recession, and try to pick up unhappy Free Press readers; or give up on print altogether. Since you are officially a suburban Detroit newspaper and ad campaigns are going to be based on the Detroit publication days, you are stuck. Since Detroit is going to be the last to recover, you are stuck. Since your market is younger and more transient, and since you have never had the household penetration rate of a Grand Rapids or even a Jackson, you are stuck. All you can do is make a hail-Mary pass.

All well enough and good. But other companies face similar problems. So keep in mind the Newhouse Pledge. Newhouse was famed as the company that never had layoffs; as long as you could not be dismissed for cause, you were guaranteed a job for life. With the troubles at the Newark Star-Ledger, publisher George Arwady -- who came out of Newhouse's Michigan operations -- clarified the pledge last year:

"Since its inception, the concept of the Pledge has always been to protect our full-time non-represented daily newspaper employees from layoffs so long as the newspaper continues to publish daily in its current newsprint form. The Pledge never was intended to apply to weekly publications or to distribution of content over the internet."

In other words, unlike Gannett or Hearst or the New York Times Co., the only way for the Newhouse operations to engage in massive layoffs is to cease to publish a printed daily newspaper. And the layoffs will be massive. In fact, all 242 employees of the AA News will be laid off, and may reapply for their jobs. Layoffs at the other papers will approach 35 percent. And remember that Newhouse has been a generous company with benefits, and that the income level (and thus probably typical pay) in Ann Arbor is high (although I have no idea about the News specifically).

Whenever people start talking about online experiences and progress and new paradigms, tell them to follow the money. But things change. I could buy into the optimism of fellow Ypsi Press alum Tim McGuire except for this statistic from E&P's Fitz and Jen blog:

"On a weekly basis, 4% of adults visited a newspaper Web site-only in Canada. ... I want to draw your attention to online-only readership here in the United States. Because it's no better.
For the most part, online readership is measured on a monthly basis. So I reached out to Scarborough Research to see if they could provide me with a weekly national online-only readership stat. Here's what Scarborough came back with for the 81 top U.S. markets it measures (a really close approximation to a national number): 4% of adults visited a newspaper Web site only in the span of a week."

That's "a newspaper Web site only," not "my local newspaper's Web site only." In both countries, as the comments note, about 15 percent of adults combine print and online newspaper use. Now there will no longer be a print newspaper of any real frequency -- three, four, seven days a week -- covering one of America's most educated counties. There will be an entertainment section and a weekly.

The News promises a way out of this by saying that the new Web site will not be a newspaper Web site -- it will be a community Web site chockablock with new ideas. This from a company that has made pretty much of a hash of its Web sites over the years.

For Washtenaw County and its residents, my prayer: Ave Maria, gratia plena!

(The title of this post refers to the book "The Mysterious Deaths at Ann Arbor," a book about deaths at a VA hospital in Ann Arbor. The story was broken by the Ypsilanti Press. That was how things were in Washtenaw County journalistically in the 1970s. Even though I didn't really fit in at the Press, and I'm sure some of the people who worked with me there don't have fond memories of me, I was always happy that I worked for the better paper in the county.)


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting take on the recession. You should join a recession forum or something and have your great say. I'll follow this blog, btw.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting take on the recession. You should join a recession forum or something and have your great say. I'll follow this blog, btw.