The Future of Traditional Journalism in Ann Arbor

"I have seen the future, and it works."

That's a paraphrase from Lincoln Steffens, an American journalist who, upon his return from a 1921 visit to the newly born Soviet Union, enthused over the efficiency of a society based upon state compulsion.

We now know how that all turned out.

But that Steffens quotation came to mind when I dropped in on an April 2 "community meeting" organized by the three principals of AnnArbor.com, the successor to the soon-to-be-defunct Ann Arbor News, which announced that it would cease publication in July.

In the same way traditional journalist Steffens misjudged the true nature of the Soviet regime, traditional journalism as a whole has misjudged the changing nature of the craft and the market for it.

Economic reality is now forcing the hands of many newspapers, not just the Ann Arbor News. The bottom line – and the average age of the audience at the AnnArbor.com forum supported this conclusion – is that almost nobody under the age of 40 really reads newspapers anymore. They still get news, but they've abandoned the local "fishwrapper" in droves.

Much to their credit, AnnArbor.com's principals, Matt Kraner, Tony Dearing, and Laurel Champion (pictured above), clearly understand that the old business model is unsustainable. The $64,000 question, of course, is: What model is sustainable? Or put another way: What do people want, how can we deliver it to them, and how can we make it profitable to do so?

Most of the audience questions at the forum were naturally posed by the older folks and seemed to focus on what I would consider peripheral issues. If I could loosely summarize them in a single pithy question, it would be something like "I understand there's this Internet thing you're moving to, and it's OK as far as it goes, but how will I get a daily newspaper?" The idea that the daily newspaper is dead did not and would not sink in.

My own opinion is that the popularity of the Internet with younger folks is not the only reason for the demise of newspapers; the previously alluded-to journalistic misjudgment plays a role as well. But that's a much longer subject for another day. For now, I think it's a positive step that Mr. Kraner, Mr. Dearing, and Ms. Champion are embracing the possibilities offered by the Internet and the reality of a market that has moved on from traditional newsprint, at least in its current form.

Their task of essentially marrying the old with the new will be a tough one, and I'm not sure yet they appreciate just how tough. But Ann Arbor has a great number of independent, community-minded writers and bloggers (including yours truly, natch) who will be pulling for AnnArbor.com to succeed – and would be happy to help it achieve that success.

Update: Former Ann Arbor News sportswriter Jim Carty keeps a blog, and he published some thoughts from another journalist who attended an AnnArbor.com forum. They are worth checking out.

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