Monday, March 30, 2009

The Continuing Death of Newspapers Hits Home

So I'm a week behind on this, but after picking up a Sunday edition of the Ann Arbor News yesterday, I remembered that I hadn't written anything about the paper shutting down as of July. Considering that I'm both an Ann Arbor resident who loves (or used to love) newspapers, that felt like an oversight.

What was surprising about the news was how surprising it still felt when it was actually announced. Anyone reading this who's picked up a copy of the A2 News lately saw this coming. That newspaper is but a shell of what it once was, the paper most of us grew up with and developed an affection for. And the decline has been steady for years.

The local arts coverage disappeared almost a decade ago. Reading syndicated film reviews in a town that supposedly covets quality cinema was incredibly disheartening. The paper also used to run music reviews and columns from writers that had a feel for what readers were listening to. They actually went to concerts and interviewed performers before they came to town. But those articles have been gone for a long time, too.

Even the sports page - which with the University of Michigan athletic program to cover would seemingly be the backbone of the newspaper - had dwindled to a near pamphlet over the past couple of years, with less than a handful of full-time reporters on staff. And this was a sports department that provided a springboard to national talents such as Jason Whitlock and Jeffri Chadiha.

The Michigan ice hockey team - a perennial national power in its sport - didn't warrant a beat reporter for road games. The baseball team, which had a notable run of success the past 2-3 seasons was barely noticed. Football still drew significant coverage, but the number of reporters covering games had clearly been cut, opening the door for the bigger Detroit papers to swoop in and beat them to stories.

Even the paper's top sports columnist, Jim Carty, thought so much of the paper - and his profession - that he chucked it all and went to law school last fall. (Fortunately, he's blogging like a madman, and has been all over the decline and fall of his former employer.)

And I haven't even gotten into the lack of actual news about what's going on in Ann Arbor. Stories chasing flashy concepts like commuter trains to Detroit and trolley cars downtown still get the front page, but if you want to find out what happened at city council meetings or various programs being implemented, you have to seek that information out for yourself. Granted, that's not the most exciting news, but isn't that the sort of thing a local newspaper should be focused on, rather than running syndicated articles on stories you've already heard or read about elsewhere?

When I moved to Iowa, my mother told me she and my father had decided to cancel their subscription, largely because Dad wasn't reading the paper anymore. He didn't have the energy to stay up and read the paper after dinner (the A2 News being an afternoon paper) like he used to. So the copies were frequently going from kitchen table to recycling bin untouched. Dad and I never really talked about it, but I wonder if perhaps he also felt the paper was no longer worth the effort.

Of course, when I wanted to hear what was going on back in Ann Arbor, Mom usually didn't have any local news to share. And I'd mock her for cutting herself off from the one source that might provide her with such information. But really, the paper wouldn't have given her much. And eventually, I found some of what I was looking for online. Sadly, that experience hasn't changed since I moved back here. The A2 News's website isn't bad, though the platform (imposed by corporate ownership, I imagine) doesn't do it any favors, in terms of appearance or functionality. We got what we paid for, I suppose.

The hope is obviously that the new website that rises from the ashes of the fallen A2 News provides something more than what was previously available. But other than vague promises that will be "unlike anything we've ever seen," there's not a lot to go on. With only a few exceptions (the New York Times and Washington Post, to name two big publications), newspapers haven't "gotten" the internet very well. And maybe therein lies the promise. This won't be a "newspaper," per se. It'll be an online publication.

But as Jim Carty points out (I told you his blog was good), the people in charge not only all come from newspapers, they come from the publications that have now failed. Will they have learned from the mistakes that were previously made? Will the presumed freedom of a new venture allow them to provide us with the news source we've been lacking for so long? Or will people decide they prefer what the Ann Arbor Chronicle (run by former News staffers) has been doing -and quite well - since last fall?

Ultimately, it's just sad that the print product - some local flavor, a piece of a community - is being left to die. But if papers like the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer couldn't survive, what chance does a publication like the A2 News have? Or is that exactly the kind of newspaper that should be surviving, because it serves a smaller region and doesn't require such a wide scope? Lamenting what could've been, along with the finality of it all, is what still managed to make this announcement so impactful.

For those who know me well, this might have a whiff of hypocrisy. I've been beating the "print is dead" drum for a couple of years now among friends and colleagues, finding more prosperity (relatively speaking) writing for a sports blog than I did for a magazine that eventually failed. I made an opportunity for myself, and it happens to have worked out. But I grew up loving newspapers, and always wanted to write for one. (Hell, my very first job was delivering the A2 News.) And I still buy them, though hardly as often as I used to (maybe once a week, and usually on Sundays).

But it would be nice to actually be excited by reading a local publication again, anticipating what I might learn or what someone has to say, rather than picking one up just because I need something to read at a diner or coffee shop. Local radio looked like it was dead, but might possibly be making a comeback with WQKL and WTKA. Here's hoping the same is possible for local news.