The story earlier this week that the Ann Arbor News would be ceasing publication caught many by surprise. Michigan Radio’s Jack Lessenberry (who also wrote an essay on newspapers last week) writes that he was shocked by the announcement:
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.
It’s not just Ann Arbor, as the New York Times reports – 4 Michigan markets will lose their daily paper. The Center for Michigan details in their look at Michigan’s amazing disappearing newspapers. Their eye-opening report includes information on Booth newspapers requesting some employees take 50% pay cuts and their thoughts on the matter. They also linked to Ann Arbor News columnist Jo Mathis, who wrote the column she never wanted to write this week as she watched TV news crews film her building. She writes:
Most people don’t realize how much of the news you see online or on TV or hear on the radio started with a newspaper reporter. But we’ve seen it time after time. We hear the words we’ve written recited on local radio. Not long ago The Detroit News reported about the crazy low cost of housing in Detroit. The next day, the “CBS Evening News” reported the same thing. Coincidence? Doubtful.
And it’s also not just Michigan. Advertising Age’s Bob Garfield writes that the situation is downright apocalyptic. He doesn’t see it getting better anytime soon, either. The problem, he says, is that:
The (New York) Times and 99% of its brethren opted to give away all content in exchange for audience, neglecting to understand two structural facts of online life: 1) Nobody clicks on ads, because why would they? 2) The virtually infinite supply of online ad inventory will always depress the price even the best publisher can fetch. Always. Immutably. Forever. Mass media thrived on the economics of scarcity. The internet represents an economy of unending abundance.
As Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News boss Brian Tierney told me at the end of January, “Clearly a free internet model online — if you build it, they will come — I don’t think is working for media like ours. … I think we’re going to have to start to find a way to charge for it and not just rely on advertising.”
Garfield tours all media in this very thorough article and concludes that “We have the audience. All we need is a business model.”
In a recent feature, Interlochen Public Radio’s Linda Steffen recently had a talked with some folks in the industry about the future. She notes that although more and more we expect our news for free, journalists cost money. The program features Dave Paulson of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and Michael Casuscelli, publisher of the Traverse City Record-Eagle. It strikes an optimistic tone and is well worth a listen.
At the end of this rambling stroll through an industry that might be dead before it hits the ground, I’m leftfeeling a little bit miffed that the media that I’ve dedicated the last decade plus of my life to is somehow the new Love Boat or the Elephant Graveyard – the place where washed out media goes to die.
I’m also wondering if a lot of what we’re seeing is an industry that is way too big for the internet box it’s trying to pour itself into. And of course, what you think.