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Who Killed The Local Daily Newspaper?

During the course of recent Ann Arbor City Council candidate forums put on by local groups such as the League of Women Voters, as well as neighborhood groups, one question that popped up was this one: “How can residents get information about city government without a daily newspaper?” The sub-text is clear: how does city government get reported on in our town, and would a daily newspaper make the reporting more comprehensive? A snappy answer might be that when the city had a daily newspaper, residents didn’t get much ground-breaking reporting. The paper was, after all, dubbed the “Snews” by cranky readers who thought the content as compelling as watching paint dry. The “Snews” was a cash cow until it wasn’t, and then owner Advance Media decided to experiment with digital “journalism.” The results have been, according to news industry experts, an unmitigated disaster. Advance officials ain’t talkin’. The company just continues to “reinvent” and “restructure” AnnArbor.com. The news blog and newspaper resemble the main character in the Kafka story “The Hunger Artist.” Starved and on the edge of death, yet still sending out press releases lauding “readership,” and hawking ads to unsuspecting locals.

The Council candidates struggled with the question of the lack of a daily newspaper, trying to dance around the obvious. Many readers who comment on AnnArbor.com in response to the company’s “product,” consider the regurgitated press releases and incurious reporting on the level of the content produced by the now infamous Journatic. On July 13, 2012 media analyst Jim Romenesko published his “Afternooon Report” which included this link: “Yes, indeedy, America hates Advance’s news sites.”

The candidates, political insiders, often turned to the AnnArborChronicle.com as solace. “We have the AnnArborChronicle.com.” We’ll always have Paris. One leg is better than none.

Mary Morgan, a former employee of the Ann Arbor News, and her husband, took her buy-out and launched the AnnArborChronicle.com, a site that began by providing notes from a variety of meetings, including City Council, County Commission, Board of Education and the University of Michigan Board of Regents. The AA.Chronicle.com has evolved, and dabbled in “columns,” opinion and even original reporting. It also has a feature called “Stopped. Watched.” It’s vanity reporting for the peeps who frequent the site.

In May 2012, the AnnArborChronicle.com posted this “Stopped. Watched” snippet: “Northeast corner. A young man and woman are gathering petition signatures to put on the ballot a measure that would require a supermajority to raise taxes in Michigan without voter approval first”—Bear.  The site provided no other information, but the comments under the snippet did manage to piece together an interesting narrative.

BY ROD JOHNSON
MAY 14, 2012 at 8:41 am
(Yes Bear, I was being sarcastic, in case it wasn’t clear.)
Here’s a Free Press story on them, though it’s not very helpful in clearing up the mystery of who they are, I’m afraid.
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BY VIVIENNE ARMENTROUT
MAY 14, 2012 at 9:41 am
Agree with both of you, this is a really bad idea. Michigan already has lots of safeguards against unreasonable taxation.
The Citizens’ Research Council has a good nonpartisan objective summary of the Michigan tax system. [link]
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BY ROBIN HOOD
MAY 16, 2012 at 11:38 am
They are paying up to 2.00 per signature.
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BY BEAR
MAY 17, 2012 at 1:34 am
and the group is brand new, and doesn’t have any info about themselves. Sorry Rod, had to do a doubletake on that one. I wonder how many people signed that with good intentions without actually realizing what it’s about.
Certainly the people getting the signatures appeared not to know. Oh, and they had a slew of petitions to sign; didn’t catch what the others were about. At waterhill music festival though, I signed one to put collective bargaining into the state constitution. I highly recommend that one on principle.
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BY MERRICAT
MAY 19, 2012 at 12:28 am
According to Jack Lessenberry of Michigan Public Radio, the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity is rumored to be linked to the Koch brothers. I was approached by a petitioner today. He said he was being paid to get signatures. It sounded suspicious to me, so I didn’t sign it. Democrats usually don’t pay people to gather signatures. It looks to me to be a GOP trick.
152dd03e4364e0bf1d9d53b386e1ac83.png
BY BEAR
MAY 24, 2012 at 12:41 am
It is a trick. It is also funded by the Koch Brothers. It didn’t take them long to try their shenanigans here in Michigan on the heels of what they have been doing in Wisconsin and in funding/indoctrinating the Tea Party. They are sneaky and wish to spread their shadow wherever they think they might find profit & power. I believe this to be a spinoff of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers propaganda mill.

While the comments were obviously thoughtful and intelligent, in many cases they were simply pot shots. it was a case of the blind leading the blind. The “Stopped. Watched.” on that May evening was, in reality, a very important news story, one that is being hammered hard by the mainstream media, including the San Francisco ChronicleWashington Post and Mother Jones. AnnArbor.com, A2Journal and the Ann Arbor Observer, our “local” media, not so much.

The “Stopped. Watched” snippet was a Forrest Gump moment. Here’s why. This comes from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Michigan Alliance for Prosperity President Lana Theis said the group submitted more than 613,000 signatures and noted that requiring a two-thirds legislative vote to raise state taxes rather than a simple majority is good because it “will require agreement on both sides” of the aisle.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said he tried several times to get the measure on the ballot in the 1990s, but couldn’t get enough legislative votes. He said he it makes sense to require more deliberation and tougher requirements to raise taxes in Michigan.

But Zack Pohl, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, said the measure was just an attempt by Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, which has the backing of conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch, to deeply cut government spending for programs that enjoy taxpayer support.

“This extreme Tea Party proposal would hamstring future legislatures, and force drastic cuts to education, roads, and public safety,” Pohl said in a statement.

This coverage comes from a July 12, 2012 feature article published in Mother Jones:

Requiring more than half of a legislature plus one vote to pass everyday legislative business (as opposed to say, impeaching a president) may sound like a good idea to some, but if you read the Federalist Papers, or look atCalifornia or the United States Senate, there’s a strong case to be made that supermajority requirements are inherently anti-democratic. They give a very small group of lawmakers the ability to block laws that the majority of their colleagues support. In California, this led to gridlock and the slow-but-steady decline of America’s greatest public university system (which has accelerated with the economic crash). In the US Senate, it has also led to gridlock. Most modern democracies are set up so that if you win the election, you get to do what you want (subject to constitutional and political constraints). Supermajority requirements make this almost impossible, because they make it easier for losing parties to block winning ones from executing their agenda.

Lenny Goldberg, the head of the nonprofit California Tax Reform Association, was dismayed to hear that Michigan might be following his state’s lead. “Two-thirds vote, you’ve got to be kidding! It’s been a disaster for California!” Even loophole-closing and budget-balancing, Goldberg explains, require two-thirds votes in California. Since it only takes a majority vote to add a loophole to the California tax code, once they get in, they never get out….

“Lansing Republicans have spent the last two years cutting funding for our schools in order to hand out huge tax giveaways to wealthy special interests and corporate CEOs,” Zack Pohl, executive director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement to Mother Jones. “Now greedy CEOs like the Koch Brothers want to make sure their tax breaks and loopholes can never be reversed. Under this flawed proposal, a small minority of entrenched special interests can protect their special tax breaks and loopholes forever.”

Compare the reporting on Michigan from the California newspaper, as well Mother Jones’s original investigation to MLive.com political writer Tim Martin’s coverage of the same ballot proposal:

Lana Theis — president of the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity — said the proposal is short, simple and straightforward. Supporters of the proposal want to make it tougher to raise taxes in Michigan, saying the state has lost jobs to neighboring states with lower tax rates. Supporters say the measure would provide a more stable tax structure by requiring true consensus of the public and elected leaders on tax issues….

Opposition also will come from other groups.

“The two-thirds ballot campaign is a full-throated assault on Michigan’s working families,” said Zack Pohl, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan. “This extreme Tea Party proposal would hamstring future legislatures, and force drastic cuts to education, roads and public safety.”

Now, compare Martin’s political reporting to what was posted to AnnArbor.com on July 9, 2012:

The number of ballot issues that voters could face in November continues to swell.

Three more groups turned in petition signatures by Monday’s late-afternoon deadline.

The Michigan Alliance for Prosperity submitted signatures on a ballot proposal that would change the state constitution to require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to raise taxes, rather than a simple majority.

Then, we come back full circle to the May 2012 AnnArborChronicle.com “Stopped. Watched.” snippet: “Northeast corner. A young man and woman are gathering petition signatures to put on the ballot a measure that would require a supermajority to raise taxes in Michigan without voter approval first”—Bear.

The candidates who pointed out that Ann Arbor residents have the AnnArborChronicle.com, were hoping, perhaps, the coverage on that local news site would be more to their liking than on the mainstream news site. There, politics reporter Ryan Stanton routinely takes lumps from his own readers for coverage that is criticized as “wimpy,” “inaccurate,” and rarely “hard-hitting.” One of the site’s readers recently posted this: “When will you start asking hard questions? Your softball questions and your agenda allow people to look way too good. Start digging…pretend you are paying for the project…please.”

For the time being, the answer to the question posed to those City Council candidates requires Ann Arbor residents to read widely as opposed to relying on big box mainstream media dished up by Advance and Heritage or even local media—whose content is dished up by passersby and fleshed out in comments filled with speculation. Here some other suggestions from the gannettblog.blogspot.com:

Bookmark your local funeral homes’ websites so you can get local obits. Set up an account on nixle.com to get local crime reports and/or check to see if your city and county put crime reports online. If so, bookmark them. Go to weather.gov and search for your area forecast by Zip Code and set up a bookmark to that link to get accurate NOAA information. Bookmark local TV station websites and check their news of your area daily. Set up a Google news alert with the name of your community so you receive e-mails about stories written by sources you may have otherwise missed. Find or start a good local blog that will allow discussions with other community members about local interests in its comments sections. Learn to love Craigslist for classified ads

It’s sad and awful to contemplate doing all of those things, I know.

By taking the steps above however, you’ve got news, weather, crime reports, and obits available to you digitally: the meat of any daily newspaper.”

Would it be easier to subscribe to the Detroit newspapers? Not so fast. Crain’s Detroit recently reported that the Freep owner Gannett is losing money hand over fist and “changes are coming,” including cuts. For the moment, owners insist the cuts will impact the executives running the Freep and not the reporters who produce content. Several former AnnArbor.com staffers jumped ship to the Freep prior to layoffs made by AnnArbor.com owner Advance. The reporters may have gone from one ice flow to another, however. Crain’s Detroit writer Bill Shea predicts: “By all reasonable measures, it’s unlikely Detroit will remain a two-newspaper town much beyond 2015. Just a handful of cities have two dailies, and Detroit already isn’t a two paper city by traditional standards.”

By similar measures, it’s unlikely Ann Arbor readers will be rescued from their own journalistic ice flow. It’s a lonely place. Regurgitated press releases pass as news, and passersby stumble onto blockbuster stories that are ignored by the local media only to be enthusiastically reported by national outlets eager to connect dots, inform readers, and win Pulitzers. While AnnArbor.com claims to reach almost 70 percent of all Washtenaw County residents 18 and older (some 300K readers), it is now being run by Laurel Champion, the same women who headed the The Ann Arbor News— the first daily newspaper to fail in an American city with only a single for-profit daily paper. As for the AnnArborChronicle.com, it has about 4,000-14,000 readers per month, and readership has dropped 40 percent during the past year, according to web traffic tracking sites.

In truth, local candidates might have answered the question of “How can residents get information about city politics without a daily newspaper?” with a more honest reply: Who the hell knows?!? 

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AnnArbor.com —30—
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