Print Media Spring Update: Pressure, But Also Hope

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Early spring in Ann Arbor is especially welcome this year after what even diehards acknowledge is winter's dreariness (and the University of Michigan's miserable showing in football and basketball). At the western end of a time zone, it is still dark and cold at 7:00 a.m. But when sunshine hits the campus greens, you can feel spirits revive. With temperatures in the mid-50s, the first classes convene outdoors. Nearby is some sort of madcap student competition.

Of all Michigan's regions, Ann Arbor has the lowest unemployment rate, at 9.3 percent. By the standards of a state with the most devastated economy in the country, the city of about 115,000 is the best-off in Michigan. Ann Arbor is also a microcosm of the upheaval under way in how information is being distributed in the digital age, as I discovered on what is an annual visit with the Knight-Wallace Fellowship for Journalists and senior book sales executives at Borders, the nation's second-largest chain, which was founded there. Here is some of what I learned.

• One of the more imposing downtown landmarks is the Ann Arbor News building. Its major adornment these days is a "For Sale" sign. After 174 years, the newspaper was closed down last summer by its proprietors, the Newhouse family's Advance Publications. The seven-day paper--the first daily in a single-newspaper city to disappear--was no longer "sustainable" because so much of its classified advertising had shifted to Craigslist.

In its place, Advance established AnnArbor.com, a Web site supplemented by a twice-weekly (Thursday and Sunday) print publication, which carries a subscription price of $9.00 a month. The Web site is free. AnnArbor.com has a staff that is about 20 percent the size of what the newspaper had, and relies heavily on community-based bloggers. The site is organized as a string of story teases and data points. Advertisements are called "deals." The effect is tidy but bland. According to Quantcast, traffic has doubled since it was launched, to 102,000 visitors a month.

As befits a community with a great university and high-tech companies, there are other local Web sites, a free paper or two, and the student-run Michigan Daily. So Ann Arbor residents have access to local information. What is lacking, as nearly as I could tell, is an anchor that a full-fledged daily provided, with a committed focus on shaping coverage for a specific readership. Over time, AnnArbor.com might become more dynamic than it now seems to be. Clearly something of value is gone, and what will replace it still seems unclear.

• Wallace House is the comfortable headquarters of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships. Mike Wallace, a Michigan graduate, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supplied significant support for the program. In 25 years as director, Charles Eisendrath raised an endowment that secured the status of the fellowship. There are 24 fellowship recipients this year, including nine from overseas. They were chosen from a significantly larger applicant pool. A steady paycheck for the academic year is especially appealing in these parlous times.

My takeaway from conversations is that journalists, even those coming from major news organizations, now see themselves as responsible for their careers, rather than simply aligning with a corporate master. What is known as free-lancing is increasingly being defined as a small business, contributing to publications and Web sites, developing digital skills, and perhaps writing a book. These journalists are much less secure than those that preceded them, but the most enterprising of them seem (at least on the surface) confident they can make their way.

• Over the past five years or so, Borders has confronted a succession of serious problems that include top management turnover, downsizing, poor cash flow, a paltry stock price, the collapse of an international strategy, and the shift of retail business away from malls to other venues, particularly the rapid rise of online sales. Let me be blunt: I want Borders to flourish. They have been a crucial partner to publishers for more than a generation. The chain was founded in the early 1970s by Tom and Louis Borders with a store on State Street. They developed the first computerized trading system for sales, a singular advance for the publishing industry. The brothers sold the business for a fortune to Kmart in 1992, which spun it off a few years later. Superstore expansion was the trend, and growth was impressive for about a decade

Whatever other strategic missteps there might have been--a clumsy embrace of Internet sales and marketing, and a reluctance, until recently, to take advantage of digital initiatives--helped bring on the continuing distress. The core of Borders--the people responsible for buying in books and developing the merchandising plans--remains as dedicated as the best of book people elsewhere. My favorite promotion is a guarantee that any book not available in the store will be sent to your address postage-free. For brick-and-mortar stores to hold on in an increasingly online world, no sale can be turned away. Borders has another loan repayment deadline this week.

The information purveyors in Ann Arbor face pressures galore. But no one seems to be giving up. As the seasons change, that can be measured as progress.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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