Newspaper readers across the state have been reading about the changes coming to local newspapers. Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry is troubled by the changes to the Ann Arbor News.
I know a lot about the financial peril newspapers are in; after all, I have worked for them, sometimes in executive positions, for nearly all my adult life.
Nevertheless, I was shocked by the announcement that the Ann Arbor News was closing.
Not downsizing, not going to Internet-only publication. Closing, as in, going out of business. This is a newspaper that has been publishing continually under one name or another since 1835.
That's before Michigan was a state. That was before the University of Michigan moved to Ann Arbor. The paper brought the outside world, from the Mexican War to the moon landings, into Ann Arbor for more than 150 years before there was a World Wide Web.
Yet in the end, the web killed the newspaper. Killed it, in large part, because classified advertising migrated to the internet.
The newspaper, like other newspapers all over the nation, speeded its death by putting its content on the web for free. To young readers, paying for a newspaper is as alien a concept as paying to see the clouds in the sky.
They won't miss the newspaper much, not at first. The newspaper's core readers will, however. They are people over 40, who know how to read the internet, but prefer a paper in their hands.
They are people who like sprawling across the couch with it on a weekend. They aren't going to read it on their cell phone.
The Detroit papers are going to three-times-a-week delivery next week, in a clear effort to start weaning everybody off the paper product. But at least they say they will continue to give us a newspaper, just one delivered on line.
The Ann Arbor News isn't even doing that. After the paper folds in July, Advance Magazine Publishers, the vast corporation that owns it, will begin producing AnnArbor.com. This will have "social networking features", said Laurel Champion, the paper's soon-to-be ex-publisher. She said AnnArbor.com will be an "innovative community news and information service," that would feature "real-time conversations" and would be driven by reader input.
That's all very nice, but isn't really journalism. When I was in graduate school, my class uncovered an investment scandal involving the city of Ann Arbor, and then worked with the Ann Arbor News to expose and publish the truth.
I can tell you right now that the Watergate scandal would never have been exposed by WashingtonDeeCee.com, had that existed then. Nor do I see AnnArbor.com telling in-depth stories about what is happening with local government and education.
Those are the stories nobody but newspapers do. They aren't as easy to ferret out or as fun to read as the latest J. Lo news, but I think our democracy won?t long survive without them.
Back in the day, the Federal Communications Commission used to make broadcast stations provide news. Maybe we should assess everyone a fee to support independent and fearless community newspapers. Because if lose those, we may have Facebook. But we won't really have working communities anymore.
And that is the scariest thing I know.