From the May 2009 issue of
Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
(Photo by the author)

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The News, The Blues, and a Changing of the Guard

By Mike Gould

A2 News headline: We're Toast

The upcoming demise of the Ann Arbor News is a continuing shock to the area community. Local businesspeople have come to depend on the News as a distribution means for their advertising, as well as the source for local news, announcements, and information about, well, everything in the Ann Arbor area.

Here's a recap: on March 29, 2009 Laurel Champion, the publisher of the Ann Arbor News, announced the end of its daily delivery in July, the sale of its building, and the start of a new company called Ann Arbor.com LLC. There will be delivery of a Thursday and Sunday print edition, and a weekly advertising supplement, but everything else is going onwards and web-wards. The closure will also affect The Livingston Community News. This ends a 174-year print run and is an example of the intersection of hard times and a changing technological landscape.

This is an interesting reversal of the usual situation where a print media company has an online presence; this is a web company with a bi-weekly print presence. One wonders if this is an transitional solution and the print part will fade as the web side becomes more popular.

AnnArbor.com is already up and running, and features a lot of information about the evolving situation: the whys, the hows, and the scope of things to come. This is all very Meta: news about the News, and currently, little else. Which is understandable - the News story is the current hot news story. The News' content currently appears (along with a few other Michigan newspapers) at http://www.mlive.com/ann-arbor/. Local news is due to appear on the new site when print operations change in July.

One interesting item on the new site is the inclusion of social networking: there is a Twitter feed and a Facebook presence. this is a clear effort to stay relevant to the online community, which is a younger and more attractive demographic for advertisers.

But a lot of current readers have the blues. To many, the News is a relaxing read on the sofa after a hard days work in front of a computer monitor. Soon, it will be back to the monitor for more typing and clicking in order to find out what's happening in tree town. Those with laptops won't find it too off-putting, but those with a computer tucked in a corner of the rec room or home office will find themselves chained to a keyboard after a long day of much the same.

And not everybody has a computer, although that number is shrinking. The AnnArbor.com site claims 92% of Ann Arborites have the "skills and technology set-up to receive and engage with online news". Everybody else can go to the library, one supposes. The digital divide—those online vs. those offline—is fairly narrow here, due to the presence of the University.

So the big question is: can the News pull it off? Will the things we count on in a daily newspaper continue to be delivered digitally as they were on paper? And can the News make enough money in online advertising to pay for the above? Remember that the New York Times is having trouble making money from its site, and they are not alone. The problem of monetizing online media is still being worked out.

And of course, to make it all really uncertain, all the above is unfolding in the midst of the worst financial crisis in decades. Which is not to say the Wall Street collapse is the total cause of the Huron Street implosion. Newspapers in general have been under increasing assault in recent years from online media, ranging from national sources such as CNN.com to the blogosphere, where news can be finely-tuned to the interests of the readers.

We have seen the recent phenomenon of the incredible shrinking newspaper: first the size itself was reduced, then pages, and finally entire sections disappeared as the paper narrowed its focus to local-only reporting. The current News could be delivered by carrier pigeon.

One would expect the paper version to bulk back up come July. It is no coincidence that Thursday and Sunday are the designated delivery days: those are the days the advertising inserts always appear. Thursday is aimed at the folks food shopping for the weekend and Sunday gets the attention of shoppers looking to see what is on sale for the coming week. The Sunday heap sometimes contains as many as twenty inserts, which has got to be a major income source for the paper.

Back to the financial backbone of the newspaper industry: advertising. The new site says: "We believe that done right, AnnArbor.com will offer better solutions for advertisers." And it just might. With online advertising you can track how many people click on a given ad, and how many then actually buy something from the advertiser's site. This gives advertisers finer control over their pitches, with measurable results from each ad.

People not downloading the canned beans coupon from last week's ad? Fine; let's see if they like the frozen corn offer this week. With print, you place your ad and then see how many coupons are redeemed or look for an increase in foot traffic; with online advertising, you get precise metrics (click-throughs and fulfillments) from the previous efforts. In addition to offering online coupons, you have the opportunity to gather email addresses for further efforts: "Click here to join our specials club: exclusive savings for our online partners". It's a lot easier to gather that sort of marketing data online than it is by filling out paper coupons.

But there is a downside; not everyone is enamored of online ads. When was the last time you clicked on a banner ad? People have trained themselves to largely ignore most online advertising. You have to really want something to click on it these days.

The trick is to make the advertising compelling enough in a tiny space that people will click on it, yet not obtrusive enough that it will drive people from the page, or the site, for that matter. One big difference between reading on-screen and holding up a newspaper page is that you have much less real estate to work with. A 6-inch paper ad will find itself greatly reduced to fit into an online ad space, so print graphics people will have to learn some new miniaturization techniques, and ad copy people should start brushing up on their haiku skills. Doing more with less is the mantra here.

How does this affect other print media, such as the magazine you now hold in your hands? Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly intends to hold the line, offering our usual hands-on hard-copy edition. This is supplemented by our online site where you can read the lead story of each issue. We have a better financial footing in that we have a much lower overhead than your average newspaper, and publish monthly, so we can have fewer staff. As we believe in the continuing power of print, we offer local businesses an alternative to online advertising.

Magazines will probably survive in print form long after the last newspaper delivery person passes away. People will always appreciate the appearance, convenience, and comfort of print media. After all, TV didn't kill movies, radio didn't kill live music, and the Internet won't kill ink on paper.

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