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.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

It's Been a Good Time...

... to be in Spain, visiting our son.

Some observations from spending a lot of time behind the wheel:

  • Driving in Madrid is pretty easy. Deciding to turn into the old part of Seville is not something that should be undertaken without having some idea where one wants to go. I was reduced to "I'm going to follow that Mercedes, he has to be going somewhere." They are building a subway system in Seville, but until then, there are buses, a light rail line that doesn't go very far, and ... driving in a maze.
  • We think of Gibraltar as being a bit of Jolly Olde attached to the bottom of Spain. It actually is much more like a part of Spain that happens to belong to England. Yes, there are "Give Way" yield signs and rule-Brittania mailboxes. But it is not the Queen's English that you are hearing, and the houses have much more to do with la vida Espanol than with Swinging London.
  • Taking the expressway from one end of Madrid to the other is a lot like driving the New Jersey Turnpike in Essex and Union Counties. People who say "Oh, there's no sprawl in European countries like in the U.S." are people who have taken the bus or train from old city to old city and not driven themselves. What is different, of course, is that they have managed to combine suburban sprawl (including giant malls) with vibrant city centers. How this country could have been different had freeways not been driven into downtowns! European cities have freeways just like American ones, but they don't go into the heart of town.
  • If you love residential architecture, the thing to see in Seville is the Casa de Pilates. No, it's not an exercise facility.
  • Parking at the Imagen garage in Seville makes you realize that it really once was a country where everyone drove the equivalents of Fiat Cinquecentos and Renault 2cvs. Spain is no longer such a country. They don't drive pickups and there is no equivalent of the Crown Victoria, but the cars are mostly the same size as cars in America, and they drive the smaller SUVs and Chrysler Voyagers as well. There was even a Hummer in one parking garage.
  • If a parking garage is "Completo" in Spain, you don't drive off looking for another one, you just wait at the entrance until a space opens up and the sign turns to "Libre." In America you would feel like an idiot doing that.
  • You sure can go far on a gallon of diesel.
  • If taking the ferry to Tangier, you will have to run the gauntlet of tour guides -- but most of them will give up once you get out of the port, and most others who come by can be easily waived off. However, at least one of them -- let's call him Ben -- may make you his mark and stalk you for hours, patiently waiting across the street while you have lunch, letting you walk on the beach, but always there when you start turning toward the kasbah. My advice with the benefit of hindsight: Take a taxi from the port to the Place de France and come back at the old town from the direction of the new. There will still be touts, but not the ones who follow you for an entire day waiting to break you down, because they look for people who don't look like they know what they're doing. (Yes, I broke down.) Plus, when you get to Tangier by the ferry you see the old town and some restaurants with a line of idle men in front of them and think, well, this may be exotic, but it may be kind of creepy as well. Just five or six blocks away from this is a prosperous, lively, modern downtown area where many of the traditional Moroccan items, the leather goods and mint tea and the like, are on sale without bargaining or hassles, and where clearly a lot of the Moroccans do their own shopping. And the stores on the main street through the medina are run by people who are good salesmen and bargainers in a way we are not used to in America, but who are respectful of you as a customer and are professional and a delight to deal with without any intermediary. But the unofficial guide will never let you know this, of course, because his job is to take you to the out-of-the-way stores in the medina where he gets a cut.
  • At the same time, trying to get through the medina on your own is probably a bad idea. You really have no idea where you are, the streets are four feet wide and curve every 10 feet, and you get the sense that except for the merchants, the people who live there really don't want you there. They put up with it, because they always have, but they are the people who are living there because they either can't afford to live in the modern city or don't want to. I was a bit over my head to think I could simply stroll through unguided. So hire one of the guides wearing an official badge -- but make sure you work out how long you want to be in the medina, what sort of shopping you want to do, and what sights you want to see; and then once at the Petit or Grand Soccos, be on your own.

All this and I come back to find out they have killed the Ann Arbor News. Well, more about that to come.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Department Store Building of the Week, Vol. 27

Vol. 23 appeared twice.

Vol. 26 was of Troutman's in Greensburg, Pa. But there was a second department store there, Royer's. It began as a shoe store called Brien, Smith & Royer. In the late 1920s and early 1930s it kept adding lines, to make the jump to a department store. Other than that I know very little about it, except that the husband? son? of one of its owners was an official at Horne's in Pittsburgh in the 1960s. It was hard to get a good picture of the Royer's building, which was not terribly distinctive.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Dangling Conversation

Paper Guy: Well, I'm glad to see newspapers finally fighting back.

Tech Guy: Too late.

PG: Late, yes, but better late...

TG: 1995 would have been too late.

PG: But someone needs to tell our story.

TG: You have no story to tell.

PG: Millions of people read newspapers. Advertisers still use newspapers regularly. Newspapers have just rolled over and let others walk all over them.

TG: No, they just accepted the truth, but then couldn't let go.

PG: That's the problem. We're trying to write a newspaper story about newspapers, with two sides, both represented equally. You're being Fox News -- fair and balanced by saying, there is the other side and there is the truth.

TG: Fox News is dead too.

PG: But that's not the point ...

TG: True. But journalistic objectivity is part of why you're toast.

PG: People need a medium they can trust.

TG: People can choose for themselves what they trust. Take the fires in Australia. Who would I trust -- an AP reporter parachuted in from Sydney or ordinary blokes on the scene talking on Twitter with their phones?

PG: I'd trust the reporter to give me the story.

TG: There is no story. It's not just the time that the story takes to be printed on dead trees and driven around town by trucks that's the problem. By the time you've talked to people and then sat down to write your story, that story is already irrelevant. It's moved on. Maybe the guy you talked to already got burned up. Maybe he was at the 7-Eleven and lied to get his name in the paper.

PG: But how do you know what really happened?

TG: Why would you want to know what happened? I want to know what's happening.

PG: What seems to be happening is often not what, afterward, people realize happened.

TG: Then at that point the conversation changes. But do you really care that "Fires blazed through Australia yesterday, killing X people and causing X in property damage?" No, you care that there are fires in Australia now and that some person is saying he saved his home. The rest is for the undertakers and insurers to worry about. Not you.

PG: But then there's no first rough draft of history.

TG: History, as someone said, is more or less bunk. Does anyone really know what happened in New Orleans after the storm? We know what stories we were shown. We haven't seen the same sort of problems that have crippled Galveston, because they don't have a TV station and no one goes there to eat at Commander's. It's all arbitrary. Now you can be part of anything anywhere anytime. Does it mean anything? That's not the point.

PG: The point of journalism is to discover the truth.

TG: The truth comes through everyone having an equal ability to tell his or her own tale. That's why print is dead. It's not paper. It's the idea of there being a story. Things change too quickly. There are too many things. A story exists in a linear world. There is no more linearity.

PG: So even if...

TG: Even if newspapers could do it right, they can't do it right. They just need to accept that they are over and get out of the way as quickly as they can, so that everyone stops using them as a security blanket and embraces fully the conversation.

PG: But what about those millions of people who still want to read stories, who still want to read newspapers?

TG: They're stupid.

PG: That's not a reasonable argument. It's an ad hominem characterization.

TG: What, Modern architects didn't call Beaux Arts architects stupid? Dadaists didn't call Impressionists stupid? This is the other thing you don't get. It's not about fair. Fair is for the referees, which is what you print guys think you are. Yeah, I don't have any use for newspapers, therefore no one should. Otherwise we'd all still be thinking we should live in Victorian claptrap and put David's "Napoleon" on our walls. Do you think the editors of Dwell are fair to Ashley furniture? Change comes because someone wants change, and that person wants it because they see the future and most people don't.

PG: Well, most of the McMansions are mock-Victorian and a lot of people buy faux Second Empire furnishings.

TG: Of course they do. They're stupid.

PG: So newspapers...

TG: Even if they aren't doomed, which they are -- they will become a mark of the stupid, just like black-velvet paintings or wire wheels and landau roofs. Lots of people loved Lee Iacocca's landau roofs, they felt sophisticated driving those cars, but the roofs just went away after enough auto writers said they were dumb. Were they really dumb? Who cares? No auto writer wanted to look dumb to another auto writer by defending them, and all of a sudden, you looked dumb for having them. People don't try to hide their TVs in "consoles" anymore and pretend that it's furniture. It's normal to have a TV in your living room, it's not a sign of vapid anti-intellectualism or a lack of refinement -- so the TV can look like a TV now. Style is set by the stylish. Progress comes from the progressive. The winners are people who want to win, not people who want to be fair. Ask the Republicans in Congress.

PG: OK, I get your side of the story, and I will quote it accurately when I publish my think piece on the future of newspapers this Sunday.

TG: Too bad that in the days before that, I'll have trashed you, your newspaper and your story in every online app I can find.

PG: Why would you do that?

TG: Because of what you print guys really don't get about the 21st century. Just because I can. Just because it means you can't define me. I'm bigger than you now. It's not about you anymore. It's about me.

PG: This seems to me to be bad for civilized discourse, representative government, and coordinated action.

TG: Yeah, it is. Too bad. But all that got us into Iraq. You really want to defend that?

PG: But it seems like the other way is anarchy.

TG: Anarchy was simply humanity without instant electronic communication. Obama didn't try to control all the parties that people put on to raise money for him, even though he had no real idea what those people said his policies were or what he would do.

PG: So what did Obama really stand for?

TG: Who cares? He rode the wave. He got it. He'll ride the wave until he falls off, and then there will be someone else. But we have the power to decide that, not him, and not you. We are the wave, and the wave never stops. You are over on the shore trying to describe the wave. But that means, you're off the wave. Bye.

PG: But the wave could be a tsunami and destroy lots of good things. This puts a lot of faith in human nature.

TG: Which is why you're not the damn liberal media after all.