More than 146 years ago Dexter townsfolk enticed a Detroit printer to move to their village and start a newspaper. The Dexter Leader made its debut in 1869. The Chelsea Standard appeared in 1889, but later boasted the 1871 founding date of the Chelsea Herald as its own–the papers merged in 1906. The Saline Reporter dates from 1948, when Paul Tull fulfilled his childhood dream of creating a small-town newspaper. Tull, says his daughter Jody, “believed in community building through wholesome and local reporting. He was dedicated to small-town publishing–by being a community advocate and participant–until the day he died.”
That history came to an unceremonious end on June 25, 2015. That’s when publisher Jeannie Parent posted a terse “Dear Reader” note on the Heritage Newspapers site announcing the final edition of Washtenaw Now, the last collective iteration of six local papers.
The weekly Heritage papers had been riding the rough rollercoaster of the newspaper industry since the small Michigan chain bought them from longtime local owners in the 1990s. Heritage itself was sold in 2002, and, under its new owners, the chain lived through bankruptcies and acquisition by hedge funds and media conglomerates. Its final owner, Digital First Media, merged the Dexter, Chelsea, and Saline papers–along with the Milan News-Leader, Manchester Enterprise, and Ypsilanti Courier–into the ill-fated Washtenaw Now.
The closings tore a hole in the local media landscape. As state rep Gretchen Driskell of Saline puts it, “Newspapers are foundational to a community.
“You know, I was mayor [in Saline] for a long time, and I never once had somebody say ‘I get too much information. I know everything that’s going on.’
“Usually it was the total opposite, no matter what we did. We [the city government] had a newsletter; we had a website; we were televised. And even with all that, we’d have people who would say, ‘I didn’t know about that.’
“It’s really tough to communicate with constituents. Now, with the papers closing, it’s going to be even more difficult.”
Digital First Media wasn’t the only one to misread the online future. The Newhouse chain spent five years and a small fortune promoting AnnArbor.com, only to abandon it and return to its prior pairing of the Ann Arbor News (in print) and MLive.com (online). And America Online lost at least $200 million on its network of local news websites, patch.com.
Tran Longmoore says his year-and-a-half stint running Saline-Milan Patch “was like watching the rise and fall of community journalism in eighteen months.” At first, Longmoore says, AOL-Patch paid him a $45,000 salary and gave him a monthly budget of $2,400 to pay freelance writers. They were regularly scooping the Saline Reporter. But it began to go south when AOL bought the Huffington Post and the emphasis turned to attracting as many clicks as possible and pushing stories that would generate comments.
“The trouble was that all you focused on after a while was the high-traffic stories,” says Longmoore. Crime and celebrity stories generate more page views and comments than school board meetings. “We got away from covering news and went to aggregating stories” from other sites, says Longmoore. He left in 2012.
Now Longmoore is one of three local journalists stepping up to the online news challenge. Though their budgets are tiny, they’re backed by personal commitment and sweat equity.
Longmoore runs TheSalinePost.com. It’s been a tough slog. In summer, when it’s relatively slow, he works a forty-five-to-fifty-five-hour week. When school coverage is added, he works sixty-to-seventy-hour weeks. He declines to disclose his revenue during our telephone interview, but allows it’s a tight squeeze trying to make a living and grow the business. A recent survey by the Tow-Knight Center of Entrepreneurial Journalism found that most online local news sites generate less than $50,000 a year.
Longmoore has two freelance writers whom he pays (“more than they made at the Saline Reporter”) for stories–retired scientist Bob Conradi and local historian Martha Churchill. Steve Sheldon volunteers to cover sports. Still, Longmoore is pretty much a one-man shop.
“You know how they used to say the advertising and editorial were on different floors at the [Detroit] Free Press? Well, how do you do that when you’re one guy?” Moreover, the person you offend with a serious article may be an advertiser. “You have to be careful.”
He’s usually the only reporter at city council and school board meetings–“the Ann Arbor News doesn’t show up in Saline until somebody dies.”
From December to May of this year Longmoore published a monthly print edition, which he set out for free in shops and coffeehouses. But “it just didn’t take off. You do all this work and put it all over town, and at the end of the month, [all of the papers] are all still there.” Now he’s considering publishing a weekly, which would better suit his timely content.
Why continue? “Sometimes I wonder. Partially because I like it. I like being involved. My parents were activists. I’m not, but I do serve a function. You know the saying: ‘Journalism is the oxygen of democracy.'”
Lisa Allmendinger grew up in New Jersey, but her Washtenaw roots run deep: Ann Arbor’s Allmendinger Park was named after her Swabian ancestors. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1980 with a journalism degree and returned to New Jersey to launch her newspaper career.
About seventeen years ago, she moved permanently to Michigan and settled just outside of Chelsea. She freelanced for the Heritage papers and the Ann Arbor News, covering seventeen communities from Milan to Manchester and all points in between. “I was the Fair Queen,” she says. “I got to cover every fair. And I loved all of it”–from Saline’s Celtic Festival to Manchester’s rubber ducky race.
Allmendinger briefly switched her focus to Ann Arbor when Heritage took a run at a weekly there, then served a stint at AnnArbor.com. It was, she says, seeming to search for a diplomatic term, “different.” Though she had a “full-time job with benefits” she stayed only about a year before leaving to launch ChelseaUpdate.com. The liftoff–by intention–was July 23, 2012, exactly three years after the old Ann Arbor News closed.
Today, she runs the online daily from her home in Sylvan Township. Her latest journalistic coup was breaking the woolly mammoth discovery in Lima Township. “That story went around the world,” she says with a hearty laugh.
She credits the time at AnnArbor.com with giving her a window into digital publishing. And she credits another Ann Arbor News alumna, Mary Morgan, who, with husband Dave Askins, launched the much respected Ann Arbor Chronicle, a serious online newspaper that provided deep coverage of Ann Arbor civic life. “They broke the barrier and gave us hope. What they did gave everyone else that spark: They can do it. Then so can I.”
But Morgan and Askins burned out after publishing for six years. Doesn’t that make her nervous?
“Their business model was different,” Allmendinger says. “My model is to cover the entire community from cradle to grave. But you won’t see 2,000-word stories from me.” She also has a more direct relationship with her readers than at a traditional newspaper. “I want everybody to feel like the Chelsea Update is theirs. They tell me what they want to read about.”
The community of readers helps “with more than money” by giving her press releases and story tips. They even assist with marketing, by reposting and passing along her stories on social media.
“It’s been way more successful than I imagined,” Allmendinger says. Though she is not keen to publicly disclose her readership numbers, she can promise her advertisers plenty of eyeballs. “There are 5,000 people in the city of Chelsea, and I have many more than that.” And she gets as much in donations from appreciative readers as she does from ad sales.
The income isn’t huge, but then she just wants enough to pay her bills and go to a dog show once in a while (she raises champion Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers). Anyway, the real payoff is being so closely intertwined with the life of Chelsea, which she clearly loves. But “man, it’s a lot of work,” she says. She works ten to twelve hours a day Sunday through Friday, posting eight to ten stories a day and sending out an email newsletter with headlines around 1 p.m. She tries to take half a day off on Saturday. “It’s a marathon,” she says. “You can’t get sick.” Not that she’s complaining. “It’s a privilege and honor for me to be able to do this. If this is truly in your heart and the community supports you, it is the coolest thing.”
The closing of the Chelsea Standard may have, in a sense, knocked off a competitor, but she sees it as a loss. “I grew up with newspapers. It’s very sad to me that the Chelsea Standard is not publishing.
“The greatest compliment I’ve received is from people saying ‘the Leonards would be so proud.'” Walter and Helen Leonard were the Chelsea Standard and Dexter Leader’s last local owners before selling to Heritage in 1995. They published for decades from an office filled with cats near Chelsea’s iconic clock tower.
Dexter, too, has its own news website. WeLoveDexter.com celebrated its hard launch September 1, after a year of getting everything up and running. Dexter-based Realtor Rob Ewing initially set out to promote the virtues of Dexter living and provide a place for his company’s advertising. Ewing had advertised in the Chelsea Standard and the Dexter Leader, but when Heritage rolled all the papers into Washtenaw Now, he pulled all his ads because “there was not enough room for [editorial] content, and Dexter was way in the back.” He speculates that other advertisers must have felt the same.
Shortly after Ewing set up the site, he met then-Heritage reporter Sean Dalton. When Dalton exited Heritage, he and Ewing got together. With Dalton in charge of greatly expanded content, WeLoveDexter.com now reports on news and events on a handsome website that posts stories almost daily. Ewing calls it “a journalistic venture with community involvement.”
Editor Dalton, thirty-five, is keenly aware of the geographic boundaries of his content–he remembers being chastised by a reader while at Heritage for running a Manchester obituary in the Chelsea paper. “We have a hyper-local mind-set,” he says. Schools and sports are hugely popular. But so are features, like the one Dalton wrote about the Dexter United Methodist Church memorial garden. Dalton has assembled a team of three part-time reporters, each of whom has a solid journalistic CV.
Like Allmendinger and Longmoore, Dalton is a jack-of-all-trades, designer and webmaster in addition to being editor. And he is building a strong social media presence to connect the site to its readers. But Dalton is not a one-man band, thanks to Ewing, who owns the site and is the impetus behind ad sales. Ewing is excited about adding more content–particularly video and mapping features. But what he’s really keen on is getting Dexter involved. “I like the community participation aspect,” he says.
Dalton is upbeat about the future. His eyes sparkle as he talks about the community response. And though he stresses that he’s focusing on substance rather than metrics, he looks pleased when he says, “Last time I checked, our website had 20,000 unique viewers.”
The Last Paper Standing
One local publication is running counter to the online trend: the Dexter-based weekly Sun Times News. Its owners, publisher Bob Nester and editor Wendy Wood, are absolutely bullish on old-fashioned newspapers.
“Contrary to common belief, newspapers are not dead. Not at all,” says Nester. Wood adds: “The model just had to change.” The old model was built around a combination of subscribers and advertisers. The new model, Nester says, is “local news, for free, delivered through the postal system” to tight clusters of zip codes and supported by advertising (this is the same model the Community Observer uses).
People who say that newspapers are dying are “making reference to the larger newspapers,” he says. “You can get national news anywhere. And, quite frankly, you’re bombarded with it … Local news is far more difficult to get, and people, quite frankly, are not all that thrilled about getting it on the Internet.
“We hear all the time that people absolutely love having a newspaper to read.”
The Sun Times News grew out of the Stockbridge Town Crier, which was on its last legs when Nester and Wood purchased it in 2008. Since then, they’ve broadened the coverage area and increased circulation. They now cover Chelsea, Dexter, Stockbridge, Pinckney, Unadilla, and the townships of Lyndon, Sylvan, Waterloo (in Jackson County), and White Oak and Bunker Hill (in Ingham County)–and, as of late August, Saline. They reach some 25,000 households.
The expansion upset some Stockbridge area residents. “This paper was in Stockbridge for 150 years. … When we branched out to Dexter and Chelsea, they felt like we had taken their paper,” says Wood.
In Saline, though, “they’re pretty excited,” says Nester in an August interview at Dexter’s Joe and Rosie coffeeshop. “So far, we’ve had conversations with the mayor, who’s pleased that we’re coming to town; the head of the chamber of commerce; and the funeral director,” says Nester.
The Sun Times News is ad heavy, reflecting the fact that advertising is the chief source of revenue. Nester credits its strong growth to the enduring power of print, which is still, he insists, far more effective than digital advertising. Another steady revenue stream–although Nester and Woods decline to say how much of one–is public notices (governments are required by law to print notices for things like zoning changes and elections). Nester says the Sun Times News has been chosen by Dexter, Chelsea, and a number of township governments as the newspaper of record. They expect Saline to follow suit.
Nester and Wood, who share a personal as well as a business partnership, balance each other in terms of vision. Nester would like to keep growing the circulation and expanding distribution. Wood is keen to concentrate on “growing the creative side” after adding Saline. They have eight freelance reporters, each covering a particular geographic or subject beat.
“I have a very specific and contained content model,” says Wood, who spent twelve years as a writer at the Town Crier. “We are never going to be the breaking-news paper that gets to every fire and every car crash.” Instead, they’ll focus on local sports, government, schools, and arts and culture. “If we keep that manageable, we know where we need to be and how many writers we’ll need to have.”
Newspapers traditionally try to fulfill five roles: commercial, information, opinion, public forum, and entertainment. The new online publications and the Sun Times News deliver on most of that. But without the resources and revenue of old-line newspapers, they can’t provide the kind of investigative journalism that made traditional media the watchdog of local government or big institutions.
“When the Ann Arbor News did an investigative series, they might have had ten reporters and three editors,” says Lisa Allmendinger. “It takes a lot–going through the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] papers and the fact-checking.” That seems to be off the table everywhere for now.
The relentlessly positive Allmendinger provides perhaps the best road map for navigating the new local media environment. She puts together a patchwork of print and online sources for a full news picture. She reads the Sun Times News each week. And she takes advantage of the back-and-forth with members of the community made possible by new technologies.
Over time, the publishing platform–whether the news is delivered online or on paper–will likely evolve. For now, the entrepreneurs repopulating Washtenaw’s media landscape have taken their old-fashioned journalistic values and applied them to their new ventures.