Environmental News in the Digital Age

Without a Daily Newspaper Nine Months Now: Ann Arbor Learning to Adapt

Tracy Davis vividly remembers her reaction when she got word nearly a year ago that The Ann Arbor News, where she worked for nine years, primarily covering the environment, was closing.

“I stood there with my mouth open for an hour.” With the closing of The News, the town of 114,667, home to The University of Michigan, became the largest market in the country to lose its only daily newspaper. It now has only an online newspaper. The online version goes to hard copy twice a week for delivery to subscribers.

The Ann Arbor News was owned by Advance Newspapers, a division of the Herald Company. Herald saw an opportunity to start an online medium with much smaller overhead and in a town with a well-educated and internet-savvy population. A day after The Ann Arbor News shut down on July 23, 2009, Herald launched Ann.Arbor.com as a free-standing company.

“All the things we thought would keep us safe from the newspaper shutting down were the very things that caused that,” says Davis.

Less than a year into this experiment, it’s fair to ask if the new online medium is having a significant effect on the way the public learns about environmental issues in this town.

The answer is Yes, no … and maybe.

People ‘Will Have to Work Harder’ to Get Their News

Media-watching city officials, environmentalists, politicians, and academics generally say the verdict remains unclear – though there’s simmering concern about the possible future direction of environmental news.

“I wasn’t sure the model was one that would work,” Davis said, explaining why she chose not to apply for work with AnnArbor.com. She’s left journalism altogether and now writes software programs for HealthMedia, a private company that provides online health coaching. She said that so far, AnnArbor.com appears heavily focused on local news in Ann Arbor, a news trend some refer to as “hyper-localism.”

“People will have to work harder at getting information and education about complex issues,” she says, as it’s no longer delivered to their doorsteps.

Geoff Larcom, who had worked as a reporter for The Ann Arbor News for 25 years, also decided not to apply at AnnArbor.com.

Salary was a factor, he said, as he would make one-third less working at AnnArbor.com than he was earning at The Ann Arbor News. He’s now executive director of media relations at Eastern Michigan University, earning about one-third more than he had earned at The News. He credits the new news site with having hired an impressive staff of productive reporters, and he thinks launching AnnArbor.com was a smart business decision – a leaner operation that in time could become self-sustaining. He says the website provides frequent updates on top issues of the day.

What remains to be seen, Larcom says, is whether the online publication, with limited staff, can sufficiently cover complex environmental issues not prominent on the radar of city managers, as the print newspaper had done on issues like urban sprawl.

Environment ‘A Core Beat’ …

But Finding it Online A Challenge

The new news site’s staff appears more optimistic.

“We consider environmental coverage to be one of our core beats,” as important as government, education or crime, says Tony Dearing, chief content officer of AnnArbor.com.

Tina Reed, AnnArbor.com’s health and environmental digital journalist, who had worked for The Ann Arbor News for two years just out of college before heading to AnnArbor.com, says the site’s approach to covering environmental issues differs from that of the newspaper: it’s more of a team effort, with collaboration among various beats touching on the issues.

Reed said, for example, that in addition to her following the issue, a business reporter might cover clean energy and a government reporter might tackle a controversial proposal to remove a nearby dam. She said this approach lets her target a broader swath of topics, even if they’re outside of her actual beat. Also, being online allows her to share information immediately and update it frequently. And, she said, the site’s coverage is “constantly evolving. What we’re seeing now won’t be what we’re seeing in July.”

According to Reed, the AnnArbor.com managers fully support efforts to pursue quality journalism, and she said she has several in-depth investigative pieces in the works.

It makes a difference, she says, that she’s “no longer working for a company that’s managing decline,” but instead for one that is focusing on growing. Getting news online “is where the news is going and where the world is going,” she says.

According to Dearing, AnnArbor.com is attracting some 200,000 unique visitors a week. Circulation for Thursdays is 38,000 and 48,000 for Sundays – the two days the paper is delivered – comparable to The Ann Arbor News’ Thursday and Sunday print circulation numbers when it stopped publishing.

But Dearing cautions against simply comparing print and online media circulations. The real goal, he says, is to have a reach in the community along the lines of that of traditional newspapers in communities of comparable size. “So far, we are achieving that goal, and we are optimistic that our audience will continue to grow.”

The city’s environmental coordinator, Matthew Naud, says AnnArbor.com does well covering local issues. He points out that with articles posted online immediately, the public can read about a city council meeting right after it’s over

Last fall, Poynter Institute ethics group leader Kelly McBride took part in an Ann Arbor workshop exploring implications of online journalism.

The issue addressed at that meeting: “Your paper closed. What’s going to happen next?”

And part of the answer: “Whether it’s an advocacy organization or a county government or a school district, these organizations that previously would try and get professional journalists to tell their story are now saying, Let’s go straight to the public.” As expected, the vacuum left by the disappearance of a daily newspaper in Ann Arbor now is being met in part, at least, by a variety of different organizations.

City Official Posts with ‘No Real Gatekeepers’

That includes city officials. Naud, for instance, now writes a periodic column for AnnArbor.com, a column he says is posted unedited, with “no real gatekeepers.”

And some environmental activists are expanding their Web presence and writing their own pieces to make up for what they see as a void in coverage of environmental issues, taking their messages directly to the public, without an independent editor’s intervention.

Poynter’s McBride points out that, while journalists may have had loyalties to a broad audience, each organization likely has its own agenda. And there’s just not the same level of scrutiny or independence.

For now, it remains to be seen whether AnnArbor.com, or comparable efforts in other towns, can provide independent news coverage and analysis, McBride cautions. She says there is still great uncertainty about how new media will work these issues out, and about whether enough concerned citizens will take on a watchdog role in the absence of a vigilant press.

Concerned citizens, though, are a central component of AnnArbor.com. Readers can quickly and easily comment on posted articles, keeping their own identities anonymous. The comments are published without review, so they’re often more blunt and more heated than those signed by their author and vetted by an editor.

Environment as Part of ‘Passions and Pursuits’ Section

One challenge with the new site may simply involve finding its environmental coverage in the first place. Curtis Brainard, science and environment news editor for Columbia Journalism Review, said he thinks a visitor to the site needs to extensively wander through it to find a well-researched article, for instance, on expansion of a local airport; there’s no separate tab linking to environmental stories.

The city’s environmental coordinator, Naud, says it doesn’t help that environmental coverage is part of the “passions and pursuits” section, so environmental news can be found amidst quilting and fitness articles.

In addition to AnnArbor.com, other publications are also trying to fill the perceived void left by The Ann Arbor News.

Just two weeks before AnnArbor.com started publishing, The Ann Arbor Journal, a free weekly run by Heritage Newspapers, which publishes in surrounding communities, was launched to compete on local coverage. More residents are turning to The Ann Arbor Chronicle, a year-and-a-half-old online daily publication that specializes in in-depth coverage of local politics. And Charles Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellows at the University of Michigan, says he plans to launch a website and weekly news magazine, The Ann Arbor Rose, this fall.

In addition, the university’s public radio show, the award-winning “The Environment Report,”  was trying to expand its coverage, running twice a day and reaching 25,200 Ann Arbor listeners each week.  But after handsomely subsidizing the program, Michigan Radio now has completed extensive audience research; many of some 1,600 polled indicated the program is “important, but not essential,” Senior Editor Lester Graham told The Yale Forum. Without national underwriting to fund the broader national program, one staff member now will do a scaled-back Michigan-based version, to air twice a week rather than twice daily. Other staffers are being reassigned within Michigan Radio, said Graham, who will head-up a new investigative unit.

In the end, some part of the population likely will remain unserved and underserved in the absence of the daily newspaper. University of Michigan Professor Emeritus of Geophysics Henry Pollack says he misses Ann Arbor News environmental coverage even though he had found it to be weak.

“I like the feel of a newspaper in my hands,” he says, no doubt echoing the views of many habitual newspaper readers. It’s a feeling many may have to learn to do without as more and more news outlets increasingly go digital.

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi.
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