Mar 25, 2009

Death of the A2 News is a blow to Democracy

The bad news continues for democracy and the vital watchdog role newspapers play with the news of the death of the Ann Arbor News.

The corporation that owns the newspaper announced on Monday that the daily paper will be shutting down in July after publishing for 174 years, and it will switch to some Internet-only, social networking thing. Very few of the 272 employees will be hired back. Ad production, copy editing, circulation and accounting will be outsourced. I have even heard of reporting being outsourced, and that is possibility here.

The Livingston Daily Press & Argus is now reporting that the Livingston Community News, a weekly edition covering the county owned by the A2 News, is also folding in July.

Livingston County went from a community covered by the Detroit News with a bureau in downtown Howell and the Ann Arbor News coverage to just the Press & Argus.

As a reporter for 12 years and an avid fan of newspapers since I could read, this is indeed a sad day. Even if the same coverage was provided on a web based product – which will not happen – there is nothing like holding a newspaper in your hands, reading it at the breakfast table or reading it at places inconvenient for a computer.

Jack Lessenberry, who was once briefly my boss when he was hired as the executive editor of Hometown Newspapers before it was sold to Gannett, said it much better than I can on his blog.

“I can tell you right now that the Watergate scandal would never have been exposed by, had that existed then,” he wrote. “Nor do I see telling in-depth stories about what is happening with local government and education.”

I wish I had a dollar for every evening I sat at a school board meeting, township board meeting, planning commission meting, village council meeting or city council meeting. That coverage will be gone with the demise of newspapers. I will always remember the first time a citizen approached the microphone during the public comment section of a meeting clutching the newspaper in their hand and quoting something from an article I had written. I was terrified I would get something wrong. From that point on every article I ever wrote I envisioned a person reading it at a public hearing.

I know some of the A2 reporters who will lose their jobs. Frankly, there were times when I hated them, especially when I was scooped by them. But over the years I got to know them. I really got to know one departed former reporter while covering Green Oak Township when it was called “Green Joke Township.”

The meetings were tumultuous and newsworthy, and they often ran until midnight. About two-thirds into the meeting, the board always went into closed session, and the diehards were left to talk until the board came back. You couldn’t leave because you had no idea what they would say when they came back, and you didn’t want your competition to scoop you.

That competition made you work harder. That incentive is now gone in Livingston County.

In fact, it was the Ann Arbor News and the Detroit News that finally forced the Press & Argus to go daily in 2000; a move that should have taken place years ago.

The Ann Arbor news came out with something called the Livingston County edition, and because they were published daily and the Brighton Argus and Livingston County Press were published just twice a week, they were beating us badly.

Not long after that I left to take a job Downriver, and it wasn’t long before the Detroit News opened a bureau in the county to publish a Livingston County edition. I knew the handwriting was on the wall, and management could no longer ignore the rumblings that it should publish a daily edition.

It was that confirmation that led me to come back to Livingston County, and being part of the first daily start-up in Michigan in 50 years was both historic and exciting; and even a little scary.

This is a sad day and a blow to both journalism and democracy.


kevins said...

You were scoped by another reporter? Do we really need to know that?

My guess is you did get a dollar for every meeting you covered. From what my newspaper friends tell me, newspapers were pretty stingy with what they paid reporters. Maybe that has something to do with the mess they are in.

Communications guru said...

Yes, I was scooped by another reporter, as was just about every other reporter. I don’t know if “we really need to know that” or not, but you didn’t have to read it or comment on it.

Your “newspaper friends?” Right. There is no doubt reporters are underpaid, but I never met a reporter who got into the profession for the money. Your crack about “you did get a dollar for every meeting you covered” is as stupid as your claim that low pay “has something to do with the mess they are in.”

kevins said...

Geez. Lighten up a bit will ya? And try to actually read what is written.

I said you were "scoped" by another reporter because that's what you wrote. I was making a light-hearted joke about a typo. I'm fine with typos on blogs. We all make them. But this one was inadvertently funny. You were scoped by a reporter. Think about it. Laugh.

But no. You have to go into attack mode. I surely wasn't suggesting that you got only $1 a meeting. I was suggesting that newspapers, especially smaller ones, are notorious for the low wages they pay...particularly to reporters.

And, yes, it may have played a role. Newspapers, both good ones or bad ones, used to make huge margins. They were generally in a monopoly situtation; they owned a press and the newsprint and a distribution sytem; they paid low wages. That let them make a lot of money but it surely chased away some of the brighter folks who could make more elsewhere. It also made them complacent. Perhaps a more dynamic work force could have helped transition them better into the digital world.

I know editors who were making $20-$25K and who knows what their reporters were making?

Newspapers paid really low and their owners made a lot of money. Corporate newspapers made margins of 25, 35 percent and even higher. They made a lot of money, but they are tumbling fast.

kevins said...

By the way, your "blow to democracy" phrase is more melodramatic nonsense.

The Ann Arbor News did nothing to protect democracy. They offered relatively boring and mundane coverage while making huge profits for years. When the profits went away, their owners shut them down.

The Ann Arbor News gave 10 times more coverage to Michigan sports than it did to investigative or in-depth reporting. They were a passive news force that reported meeting agendas and passed on university press releases.

Some people in your county called it a liberal rag, but that's a laugh. It was pretty boring, usually mundane and relied heavily on wire service.

Democracy is as safe in Ann Arbor as it ever was.

Communications guru said...

You were “making a light-hearted joke?” I don’t believe that. You have personally attacked me, and now I’m supposed to believe you’re making a light-hearted joke?” That’s BS.

No, low wages didn’t play a role. “They were generally in a monopoly situation?” That’s 100 percent wrong. Many cities had two or more daily newspapers, but now some, like Ann Arbor, have none. The fact is there are few web-based products that do what newspapers do. I know 90 percent of the stuff I write here I would never write for a newspaper.

Once again, I have never, ever met anyone who went into journalism for the money. I have no idea who your editor friend worked for, but I made that much at my first full-time newspaper job. What hurt newspapers was consolidation and mega corporations worrying more about how much money they can make over any other concern.

Communications guru said...

Yes, the loss of the Ann Arbor News is a blow to democracy. Yes, mundane coverage of school boards, township boards, planning commissions, village councils and city councils. Who is going to serve as a watchdog on those government bodies now? The answer is no one, and no one but newspapers provide that kind of coverage. Republicans are the ones who hate governments and are always saying it is corrupt and incompetent, which I disagree with, but now you are saying they are free to operate with no scrutiny?

They may have relied on too much AP copy, but the huge mega corporations cut staff to make more money. It was never a “liberal rag.”

This is indeed a sad day and a blow to both journalism and democracy.