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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BUZZ SAW, by John Hilton

"Attention please: the Ann Arbor News is closing." Sales rep Vikki Enos, first with the buzz as usual, announced the news over the Observer intercom at 9:55 Monday morning. I discarded the email message I'd been about to forward from restaurant reviewer Bix Engels--the first of a dozen that delivered the incredible news over the next few hours. In between came calls from worried advertisers who'd mistakenly heard that it was the Observer, not the News, that was closing. (Some wanted to express their sympathy, only to embarrassedly withdraw it.)

As the word rippled around the country, I heard from Observer founder Don Hunt in Traverse City, ex Guides editor Erick Trickey in Cleveland, former News reporter Mark Peyko in Youngstown, and even my sister in Chicago. But the strangest call came that evening, when profiles editor Eve Silberman, working late, answered the Observer phone--only to be asked if she'd like to take advantage of a "terrific offer" on a three-day-a-week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) subscription to the News. The price was right--just $1.25 a week. "But the News is closing!" Silberman exclaimed. "Why would I subscribe to a paper that's closing?" Defensively, the caller replied that there would be a new paper in a different format--though she admitted, "We're as nervous as all get out" about the future.

As it turns out, at least one subscriber had been prescient. Former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw used to pay for his News a year in advance, but lately signed up for just six months. He says "rumors" about the paper's possible demise made him nervous about committing longer term.

An hour ago, I called the News to ask what will happen to my own home subscription. I sat through a canned spiel about how they'd be contacting subscribers in the next few weeks, waited on hold for a few minutes, and was rewarded by reaching a terrific customer service rep.

"It's very simple, sir," Bob promised. "It'll get cancelled and if you've got any money coming you'll get it back." But, he added, "I've had six people so far today--that's not a lot but it's six people--that are going to just roll [the balance on their News subs] into the Thursday and Sunday" paper that will replace it.

What will the twice-weekly paper cost? "I have no information on that--this all just came down yesterday," he pointed out. "If you like I can take your information and put you on that list."

He took my phone number and looked up my subscription. "You're paid though August 8, and you're on easy pay, so you're not going to be charged again," he said. "Your last payment was $162." Publishing only twice a week, the new paper "would have to be less," he ventured. "I would think a lot less."

I told him to put me down for it. "I've printed your screen, and I or somebody will be in touch with you," he promised. "I'll be here right to the end."

I said I was sorry about his job. "I've only got three more years left before I would have been retiring," he replied--then added briskly, "We'll see what's out there."

posted by John Hilton at 6:34 p.m. | 0 comments


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