Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

A reader laments the closing of his town’s newspaper

COMMENTARY | August 01, 2009

Some suggestions on what papers elsewhere might do to avoid having to pull the plug. Among them: ‘keep the audience enthused, even angry – but always involved.’


By Robert Faber

ANN ARBORMudville may be lacking in joy, but it’s a carnival of pleasures compared to the mood in Ann Arbor. In Mudville, after all, they only lost a game. In Ann Arbor we lost our newspaper.
After 174 years of amusing and informing and advising our town, The Ann Arbor News has pulled the plug. We are now left to the mercy of anonymous beams of electronic energy that power the blogs and Web sites that are our primary connection to the world beyond our sight. Until now, after all, we could ease our anger or manipulate our many moods by damning the editor or sending notes of love or hate to targeted columnists or educate the world through the wisdom of our Guest Columns, but the paper’s closing robs us of too many human connections. 
It’s not just the habits or tastes of the public that accounts for the changing times – it’s the science that facilitates the collection and distribution of the news. Earlier days of the newspaper industry depended upon armies of people to have stories set in type, then printed on paper, finally distributed by foot-soldiers, or sold from street-side boxes or through stores that were only open part of the day. Now, the electronic media can cover world events constantly, almost instantaneously and at a small fraction of the costs of traditional newsprint, making the role of newspapers extremely challenging and open to reconsideration.
Unfortunately, the magnitude and appeal of that change has left representatives of the industry awash in debt and confusion and self-pity — and the humility of obsolescence. But whereas the earlier and more imaginative entrepreneurs in the print media would have fought back with ideas new and exciting, today’s losers – remaining forever loyal to long-dead traditions – just shed big tears of red ink and give up. Such an attitude of resignation demeans and defeats the traditions of both our nation and the industry. Even without guarantees, or perhaps even the likelihood of success, new approaches should be fashioned and tried.
In the early days of his “Pennsylvania Gazette,” Ben Franklin saw the paper’s purpose as an examination of the several sides of each issue, then publishing a full range of diverse opinions, an approach that makes even more sense for our moment than it did for his. Ann Arbor, the playing field for the now dead Ann Arbor News, may not be a fair model for all those other small communities about to lose their papers, but there is enough in common for others to study and perhaps to develop a few alternative routes to survival. 
Ann Arbor, a city of 114,000, is home to the University of Michigan with its staff and faculty of 13,000 (plus their families) and a student population of 30,000. With such prominence and magnitude, they should have been recognized and embraced as a major player in the community. Unfortunately, during the preceding decades the now antiquated traditions of “Town and Gown” saw two separate and often antagonistic entities, one representing the stability of long-term residents and the other the interlopers whose interests and loyalties belonged elsewhere. Reflecting the larger community inclination to embrace one and reject the other, The News chose to largely ignore faculty members’ academic activities, treating them much like a family member living in the attic about whom nothing is ever said.
Yes, our paper bragged about the U’s occasional athletic victories and its outstanding theatrical productions and the great symphony orchestras they lured to town, but it rarely recognized the people or the programs that made the U of Michigan the rare and valuable asset it is. It should have done very much more to include them in our community, to encourage us all to take pride in the scientific and intellectual accomplishments that defined them worldwide and to somehow utilize the benefits that were contained therein. We should have embraced them and worked with them, forming a partnership to utilize the many benefits that are theirs and that flow from their institution. Unfortunately, neither our community nor its newspaper did anything to narrow the gap, so now one is weaker and the other dead.
There are plenty of college towns in the U.S., and no doubt some facing the threat of their local paper going extinct. Perhaps they can explore a potential partnership – one never tried in Ann Arbor – that would benefit the school and the community. For example, The News could have run front page discussions by notable University experts on major, highly controversial social or political issues, then inviting townspeople to contribute their opinions in response. Things like universal health care, alternative methods of taxation, gay marriage, abortion, or the facts surrounding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict come to mind. The key to such discussions is that the issue be important, that the presentation be by recognized experts and that they be fact-based – and kept light on the emotional. Ann Arbor has lost this opportunity but other college towns haven’t.
To a degree, preference for the electronic media over newspapers is a generational thing. The young are familiar with blogs and Web sites and generally are not addicted to having newspapers with breakfast. Thus, newspapers could devote continuing space on issues of special interest to the senior population (the largest segment of subscribers) on a variety of age-related issues. They could then invite older readers to submit pieces on past experiences, or to recount memories of long-lost moments that had stirred the local population decades earlier. Or they could simply deal with such matters as “Facts and Myths of Aging” or “The Perils And Pleasures Of Senior Athletics” or “Senior Views a Lifetime Later” – all ploys to re-energize and suggest a future for a population too often focused on the end – and once again encouraging readers to participate by asking question or submitting their own suggestions or stories. The key to this approach is that it should try to keep the audience enthused, even angry – but always involved. 
O.K., Mudville is long gone and it’s a few weeks too late for Ann Arbor, but newspapers in other towns still have a chance to avoid disaster. Web sites can disseminate local news but they cannot effectively replace the relationship with an audience built up over the years. Instead of concentrating on the details and mechanics of publication – cutting staff, reducing pages, redesigning layout – I suggest revamping each paper’s purpose and procedure to better fit its unique population. Even a new and improved Ann Arbor News, for example, would never have been a serious competitor to The New York Times in print or to the Internet’s Huffington Post. But as a valuable community member, a redesigned and  recommitted local newspaper could have been a major asset to the citizenry – and a profitable one to its investors.
And while not every town is blessed with universities on the scale and diversity of the University of Michigan, most have some special characteristics that could profitably and honorably be mined and harvested. It takes courage and imagination and investment, but significant payoffs could lie down the road.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.