Hard Times at the News
The city's daily is shrinking fast
by Vickie Elmer
For most of this decade, the Ann Arbor News spent money freely-even as it lost readers.
Ann Arbor's daily paper spent $14 million to build new presses in Pittsfield Township. It launched a Livingston County edition, expanded its Ypsilanti office, and created the weekly Business Review.
"They have not been cheap with money," recalls Jim Carty, until recently the paper's star sportswriter. Besides the new presses, he says, the paper invested in renovating "the entire downtown offices."
The News flew Carty to the Gulf Coast to write about a Michigan football player who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, and to New England to interview former athletes about their academic experiences. He recalls the "hundreds of hours of overtime" invested in that series on athletics and academics, and big bills to acquire documents from the university.
But recently the Ann Arbor News hit the brakes-hard. It not only stopped spending money but started slashing staff and other expenses. Staff lists show that between 2004 and 2008 the newsroom headcount fell by more than 30 percent, from 107 to 73 people.
More cuts are coming: this spring, at least eighteen graphic artists, copy editors, and others will have to choose between buyouts and moving to Grand Rapids, where a central staff will now handle those functions for the News and seven other Michigan papers.
In December employees faced an end-of-year deadline to decide whether to take the buyout or take their chances in an uncertain future. "It's like going to a funeral every day going to your job," says one copy editor who expects to leave. This person, who asked not to be named, says the News is "a very sad and fearful place right now."
What went wrong? News publisher Laurel Champion politely declined to comment, and editor Ed Petykiewicz has ignored repeated emails and phone calls from the Observer. But in a front-page column in December, Petykiewicz wrote that the News is "coming to grips with the same economic forces that
triggered downsizings by local companies." While putting a positive spin on the paper's plan to emphasize more local news, he acknowledged that in the future the paper will have fewer staffers and fewer pages. "The timing of these changes is triggered by the recession," Petykiewicz wrote, "which is choking the economy and hurting our advertisers."
An Observer comparison of a Friday and Sunday edition from early December over several years confirms that. The News has suffered a sharp decline in advertising, especially from auto dealers and from companies that place help-wanted classified ads. "Every paper is suffering from the craigslist effect," says Carty, referring to the free online classifieds website. On the first Sunday in December 2000, the News carried forty pages of classifieds. By 2006 the classifieds for that same Sunday had shrunk to twenty-six pages. And this past December 7, the paper had just fourteen pages of classifieds-a decline of 65 percent since 2000.
Like other newspapers throughout the country, the News also has suffered as national chains replace local stores. Giant retailers like Kohl's, Target, and Best Buy don't buy ads inside the paper, instead producing their own "preprints." The News gets a small fee for delivering these circulars, but they contribute little if anything to the news-gathering operation-which may explain why, on December 7, they outweighed news sections by three to one.
It doesn't help that many fewer people are reading the paper. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the News's daily circulation fell from 57,000 in 2000 to just over 47,000 last spring-a decline of 17 percent. The Sunday paper slipped more than 20 percent, from 72,000 copies to 57,000. And a disproportionate share of that drop was in Ann Arbor-the News's city-zone Sunday circulation fell 12 percent from March 2006 to March 2008, more than double the declines in Livingston County and outlying Washtenaw County.
To be sure, other publications are shrinking too-from Detroit's News and Free Press to the Ann Arbor Observer. On December 16 the Free Press and the News announced plans to cut home delivery to three days a week, and offer more news on their websites and through newsstand sales. The changes will mean a 9 percent reduction in the workforce of 2,100, but Detroit Media Partnership CEO Dave Hunke says the newsroom will be spared job reductions this time. (It has gone through several buyouts in recent years.) The Observer,which is mailed free to every permanent household in Ann Arbor, will cut its circulation by almost 10 percent in February by dropping distribution to area hotels and some near-campus apartments. The quarterly Community Observer will end home delivery in Manchester, reducing its circulation by about 5 percent.
Editor John Hilton says both publications saw ad sales fall 10 percent last year-and then another 10 percent going into 2009. Because the magazines get nearly all their revenue from advertising, issues have always grown or shrunk with ad sales. But in November, for the first time, the company also had to lay off an employee, a part-time calendar editor who worked on the Community Observer.
"It's a difficult time for our advertisers, and we're sharing their pain," says Hilton. "We've seen a lot of clients reduce the amount of advertising they buy, and some eliminate it completely-or even go out of business."
The News announced its own cutbacks in November, in a four-paragraph brief inside its business section. Some say the same announcement-with a different publisher's name inserted-appeared in all eight Booth newspapers in Michigan.
Websites run by former News staffers carried more details. Mary Morgan's annarborchronicle.com and Jim Carty's blog, Paper Tiger No More, reported that the papers were offering six months' severance pay to staffers with five or more years of experience. Publisher Laurel Champion reportedly told the staff that the paper sees this as a matter of survival and that they should expect more cutbacks ahead.
Champion's statement that the News has too many reporters and photographers appalled some newsroom staffers, who have already seen their ranks thinned by 30 percent through attrition and an earlier buyout. While they all knew that newspapers generally were suffering, "the consolidations are much more than anything I could have speculated on or anticipated," says one former employee.
Beside reducing staff and printing fewer copies, the News has shrunk physically-it's printed on narrower paper than just a few years ago, and in fewer sections. And some editors and outsiders predict the next reduction in the newspaper's page count will be dramatic-including eliminating more sections and using more pages produced for statewide audiences and shared with other papers.
In Ann Arbor, as in many other communities, griping about the local paper is almost a sport for some residents. But as the News has shrunk, those complaints have grown louder.
Washtenaw County commissioner Leah Gunn, a News reader for almost forty years, is angry that the paper no longer routinely reports on meetings of the board of commissioners. "We get no coverage at all any more," Gunn says of the board, which oversees a $200 million annual budget. "We used to have a reporter assigned."
Mary Morgan, who left in August after twelve years as business editor and then opinion and editorials editor, points out some of the challenges the paper faces in deciding how to deploy its shrinking staff. "When I was at the Ann Arbor News we were always trying to figure out what the readers might want," Morgan recalls. "It was difficult, because the core Ann Arbor readership was very different from what people out in Lodi Township wanted." She says the paper's top editors preached that readers wanted short stories and more entertainment and consumer stories, so the News gradually moved away from covering government meetings.
Morgan's online Ann Arbor Chronicle now reports on many meetings of public bodies, including the Downtown Development Authority, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and the county board of commissioners. At these meetings, she told a freelance writers' group in December, she sees reporters for the Michigan Daily, radio stations, and the Ypsilanti Citizen. Only after being prompted did she add that she "sometimes runs into" a News reporter.
Morgan declined to discuss the changes in the News with the Observer. But in a column in the Chronicle, Morgan wrote that she was surprised by the "floodgates" of ill will toward the paper that she encountered after she left. And she worried about how staff cuts will affect her former colleagues and the paper. "Those who remain at the News are burdened with shouldering more of the load, both for gathering news and for reaching out to the community," Morgan wrote.
Art Gallagher sees the changes from an even longer-term perspective: he was editor of the News from 1954 to 1976. "The News has grown so much," he points out. It now covers many areas-including all of Livingston County-that were outside its purview when he ran the paper.
Gallagher says today's paper still has lots of good stories; he singles out features, arts coverage, and some columns. And he notes that the paper now can pick and choose articles to reprint from the New York Times and many other major newspapers.
Bob Faber, though, says the paper's current managers seem arrogant and aloof; he says he seldom sees them at public forums or events. A retired retailer who served on the Ann Arbor City Council in the 1960s and 1970s, Faber says a local newspaper ought to be "a unifying force," a place where issues are debated and illuminated. Yet when the News published an op-ed piece he wrote, he says, none of his friends at his book club or in his golf and poker groups commented on it-because "nobody had seen it."
Paul Courant, the U-M's university librarian and former provost, has read the Ann Arbor News for thirty-five years-along with the New York Times, the Michigan Daily, and, more recently, "all sorts of things online." Courant says the News's coverage of the university, business, and finance has slipped, and he says he sees "a lot of reporting by press release"-stories based on handouts from groups seeking publicity.
"They don't do local news very well," says Courant. But he does admire the paper's sports coverage and what he calls the "dear Ann Arbor town" stories. And Courant thinks the focus on sports-from Michigan football to high school hockey teams-may be a smart strategy.
While other departments' staffs and space for stories have shrunk considerably in recent years, the sports section seems unscathed. Jim Carty says that when he left the News in October to attend law school, the paper had an opportunity to cut back on its U-M sports coverage-but instead has continued to send two writers to away football and basketball games. "Michigan football is very important to them," says Carty.
As the buyout deadline approached in December, the News staff fell into three camps-those who are definitely leaving and already planning their lives and careers outside the newspaper business; those who are undecided; and those who want to hang in and hope for the best. "If you do not leave or move, they will transfer you," the copy editor says. "There's a lot of people who are throwing up their hands and saying 'I have to get out of here.' These people don't know what they're doing."
News staffers don't need to look far to imagine the worst that could happen. The planned publication cutbacks in Detroit are bad enough-but the recent bankruptcy filing of the Tribune Company was downright terrifying. In addition to its flagship Chicago Tribune, the company also owns the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun.
The Tribune Company, however, is an extreme case: a recent buyout had left it with huge debts. The Michigan Booth papers, in contrast, have been owned by the Newhouse family's Advance Publications for generations. Booth "is struggling, as is every newspaper across the country," says Jane Briggs-Bunting, director of the MSU School of Journalism. But Briggs-Bunting points out that Advance has not made any big purchases in recent years and so should have a stronger financial base to weather the economic storm.
Booth's plan to centralize copy editing and ad and page layout will create huge headaches-but if the company can make it work, the cost savings could be considerable. And this may be only the first step: some suspect that in time the eight Booth papers might share more staff as well.
Meanwhile, though, Booth's local publications continue to shrink. It's consolidated staff at its weekly Business Review, where editor Paula Gardner now oversees both the Ann Arbor and Oakland County editions. And even after a 30 percent cutback, the Ann Arbor newsroom looks robust compared to the Ypsilanti office. Four years ago, two dozen people worked there. In November just five were left, and the last two writers were already splitting their time between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.
The office closed entirely as the first snow fell. Announcing the closing, editor Petykiewicz wrote that the paper's "commitment to covering news in Ypsilanti is as strong as ever." But from now on, that coverage will be done from the Ann Arbor newsroom.
News editors and designers spent much of 2008 considering ways to further shrink the paper, reducing the number of pages while preserving the articles and features readers value most. Candidates for consolidation are said to include state and national politics, world news, and entertainment news, though it's possible Booth may try it on some sports and business coverage too. And the News may eliminate some sections and some less popular features soon.
"It will be a very different newspaper," Carty predicts -"a considerably smaller newspaper," with fewer writers and photographers. And he is convinced that dig-deep reports like the one on student athletes are gone at the News. In his last year there he started seeing some tightening, and he foresees many more reductions, especially as the buyouts take effect in coming months.
Carty expects a "significant amount of people" to leave, partly because the buyouts are open to so many employees, and partly out of fear that they if they stay, they may end up working in Saginaw or Grand Rapids. Like him, many of them are considering a future outside newspapers-especially when it feels as though staying in the business will ask more from them and offer less. It's a sad story, even before the ending is in sight.
[Originally published in January, 2009.]