Photo by Shaw Lacy via static.panoramio.com
Even in these harsh economic times, the announcement that the Ann Arbor News will be closing its doors before the 2009 football season came as somewhat of a surprise to me. It shouldn't have. With the Michigan economy on the brink of total collapse, the media's wholesale move to the internet as a method for providing information, and the departures of several of the News' more established writers for non-journalistic endeavors; the Ann Arbor News' demise was a foregone conclusion.
And so, it seems, is the fate of the remaining newspapers throughout Michigan and possibly the country. The newspaper business is dying. Revenues were down even when economic times were stable. Advertisers have moved on to TV, Radio, and the internet to find their audiences. Even established papers, such as the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times are gasping. Both the Tribune (a paper in circulation since June 10, 1847) and Sun Times are in bankruptcy and their survival is uncertain. Locally, is anyone taking bets on the solvency of the Detroit Free Press or Detroit News? If so, call me. I've got a hot real estate deal for you on Three Mile Island.
Really, the death of the print media isn't much of a surprise. It's been written about, welcomed, paraded, and all but made dinner by bloggers and internet pundits. But the loss of the print media will have more of an impact on bloggers and the internet than bloggers are willing to admit.
As sports fans, we've had enough of the tired, trite, repetitive garbage that's come out of the print media over the last two decades. Since the death of Mike Royko in 1997, I'm hard pressed to name a single print writer I'd actually pay money to read. Over the past two decades the tenor of the columnists changed for the worse. Whether it's Jay Marioti shooting his mouth off, Drew Sharp writing something that an orangutan with a typewriter would be embarrassed of, or Skip Bayless picking yet another fight with someone who doesn't care who Skip Bayless is; there's been nothing worth reading.
Giving commentary instead of the news is what has driven the print media, at least the sports aspect of it, over the cliff. They forgot or chose to ignore the cardinal rule: the story is the story. But crap like this landed Marioti and Bayless on ESPN. And isn't gaining exposure for yourself more important than writing something relevant? It shouldn't be; but it has become so. It seems columnists are going to greater and greater lengths to draw attention to themselves and to a lesser extent their papers. Creating controversies where none existed. Picking fights with the teams and people they were assigned to cover. And generally annoying or boring the shit out of anyone foolish enough to pick up a paper.
As a result many people put down the papers and turned to the internet to voice their opinions on the sorry state of the print media; and perhaps, more importantly, to find prose worth reading. To a large extent they were rewarded. You need not look any further than the incredible work of EDSBS, Dr. Saturday, MGoBlog, Dawg Sports, the late RBUAS, A Sea of Blue, Hey Jenny Slater, Roll Bama Roll, Varsity Blue, Burnt Orange Nation, Conquest Chronicles, Bruins Nation, and countless others for evidence that good - ney, great - writing can be found for free, and outside the confines of newsprint.* With all this great writing out there, doesn't it seem like the current purpose of the newspaper has been supplanted?
No. Not really.
As much as we loathe the columnists that have colored our opinion of their employers, newspapers served a critical purpose. They facilitated the flow of information from people who had it to people who didn't. This is not meant as a plea to save the papers (far from it) but a valid point that with the disappearance of local papers such as the Ann Arbor News, specific information on an event/team/location specific interest will be harder to come by.
For myself, the disappearance of the Ann Arbor News will make Michigan Athletics much harder to cover. The News had access to the little things we as readers take for granted, but cannot obtain ourselves. Say what you will about some of the columns or pieces written by the News, but their ability to obtain quotes, injury reports, and insight into the performance of Michigan athletes was second to none. With its disappearance, that information will be harder to come by.
But on a broader scale the question among bloggers persists, "do we need the newspapers to begin with?" Sites like Rivals, Scout, and other pay services provide ample information to us. Universities are going to greater lengths to increase the amount of information they release to public over the internet. Even coaches are putting things on the internet. Isn't most of the information we're looking for available on message boards and fan sites?
Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation presented me with a valid point on this issue. During the NCAA basketball tournament he was able to obtain information on injuries, lineups, quotes, and media packages directly from the University of Texas' Athletics site. Then, he simply watched the games and offered his own thoughts on what he saw. His point is eloquent and simple: what type of access and information was the print media providing that we as bloggers can't access ourselves?
My answer is a little more complicated. The current information distribution system (for college football at least) is set up in three tiers: The University (school, coaches and players) possess the information; the credentialed press gets the first crack at it; and the rest of us are left to sort through what reaches us. That credentialed access let the News into the room, to observe first person what was going on. They had the right to pepper Rodriguez, Beilein, Amaker and Carr with questions and receive answers, where bloggers do not. The system is still set up to allow nearly unfettered access to the print media. And in return it bears the responsibility of using that access to relay the information we all crave.
Certainly any person with a notepad or microphone can record the players' and coach's quotes and stick them up on a piece of paper. But the Ann Arbor News didn't do that. They didn't give us the canned quotes we see on the University's websites. They weren't under the employ of the University to give us a happy picture. They gave us perspective on what was said and how questions were answered. They asked tough questions on decisions and results. They could observe the reactions from coaches, gage responses first hand, and had the ability to ask the questions where we do not.
Importantly, the News had the time and space to report news. How much time does the minutiae of Michigan athletics see on the national television or radio news? Frankly, how much time in a local broadcast do Michigan sports receive? Even locally the "over the air" reporting allocates a scant minute to minute-and-a-half to Michigan athletics. And that's if you're lucky. The News and other print sources were given a full page of news print to report, objectively what they discerned. And the News reported things as they were, taking between 500-1500 words per article to tell a story whether or not it was as the University wished the subject to be seen. Ask yourself two things: 1) if the print media isn't there, under the current system who's going to ask the questions; and 2) do you trust that the University, Scout, Rivals or the over-the-air media will ask the tough questions and give you sufficient information on those questions?
Even though universities have extended their information outreach, they are not objective sources of the information they distribute. A University website or press release will tell you a player has "moved on to pursue other academic endeavors" even if he was booted from the team for running a meth lab. Your team lost by fifty, yet the school's press release will tell you it was closer than the boxscore. You're not going to get objective reporting on the pay sites either. Sites such as Scout and Rivals won't ruffle any feathers because all that juicy recruiting information is based on amiable relationships with the coaching staffs. Piss of a coach, all of a sudden the inside source people pay to hear from goes away.
When was the last time you saw an article or quote on either that pointed out the obvious, Player X was horrid or Coach Y blew his cool at an inopportune time? Is a university website or Recruiting site going to post Mike Gundy's "I'm a man!" rant? Notsomuch. You can go to the University website or Rivals/Scout page for raw numbers, but after that you're peering through rose colored glasses.
Further, reliance on the pay sites is tricky. Most of the information they possess is pay-to-play. Recruiting news, former player interviews, "expert projections" are all paid for by the company running the site, and they aim to protect it. Blogs, such as this little tube of interwebs, are in direct competition with Rivals and Scout even if we possess a hundredth of their resources. Links to our sites aren't allowed, and if you are perceived as freely sharing their pay-to-play information your access to their site will be revoked. Reliance on these sites for information isn't just difficult, it's tenuous at best.
So, how can a blogger obtain actual, non-biased information? We can talk to people at the school, parse through the university's website for every quote we can find, we can scour the message boards for every "lead" or read every byline before it says [click here to get INSIDE THE FORT]. Frankly, there's not enough time in the day. And if there was it'd be a full time job; something many bloggers have already. The newspapers were an excellent aggregator of information. They had the time, they were paid to gather this information, and they produced it in a single spot; for free! Granted, sometimes the commentary that went along with the aggregation wasn't so hot, but at least it was there. Accessible. Easy to find and use. Now, that source seems to be going away.
Optimistically, you can say that while the News will disappear in hard copy, it will remain alive in some form or another as AnnArbor.com. The News indicated that they will retain a writing staff and report continuously as if they were publishing on a regular basis, just on the web. While I am hopeful this change will succeed, am I not particularly optimistic. If the resources of Ann Arbor are insufficient to support its local paper in one form, I am skeptical that it can survive in another. Especially in a form that is foreign to the persons running the News and now AnnArbor.com. The internet is not made of gold nor silver, and simply stripping away layers of expenses does not guarantee survival. Revenues and conditions for internet advertising are different that revenues for print media, and how those streams coincide will determine whether we can count on the perspective that at least I have come to count on. Again, I am not optimistic that this will succeed.
The Ann Arbor News is not the first, nor the last, newspaper that will attempt to make this transition. Throughout the country local media outlets are attempting to adapt to the changing economic environment. The papers have learned they can no longer be enterprises that focus on the world. They have to be streamlined, focused, and efficient to not just draw an audience, but to break even. Whether they are successful or not will determine the written "face" of local sports coverage for the foreseeable future.
Bloggers have more at stake in the papers successful transformation than they think. Bloggers have mostly been on the outside of established journalism. We have lain in the woods taking pot shots at the media. From time to time we've even marched triumphantly down Main Street flaunting the fact that we are not the media when it screwed up. We are not the hacks in the print press. We are independent. We are a collaborative voice of the fan; the fan that has been left out in the cold too long by the press.
Now the press as we know it is dying and our positions have changed. All of a sudden the information or commentary we relied upon for content is disappearing. In some cases we're gaining a new responsibility to provide information whereas before we simply commented on it. Bloggers will find they can no longer hurl stones at the print media; it's no longer there. We're not counter culture anymore. We're mainstream. Hell, some of us are the establishment now. But this is what many have fought for. Respect and relevance. It's closer than you think.
But this "victory" comes at a price. Before we could rely upon the establishment to provide the information and fodder we took for granted. Now, we must develop new ways to obtain the information that sustained us. That information we took for granted will no longer be in abundant supply, at least not in the way it used to.
Whether the loss of a critical information source affects internet commentary is up to us. Obviously the capital investment and workforce constraints are different here. If I stop writing, I've still got a job. But in a tangible sense, the fates of the newspapers and bloggers are somewhat intertwined. We, as bloggers, must bring you something to read. A lot of what we can bring you is based on what these dying herds bring to us for sustenance. Without them, the insight and information we can bring to you is limited.
Certainly, the preceding paragraph is a worst case scenario. The Associated Press, Bloomberg, FOX, CNN, and other news services and wires will not go belly up overnight. But bloggers will lose something as a result of local papers closing their doors. Who is going to bring us the inside unfiltered information we need to comment upon? There is no way the 800 lbs. Media Gorillas can cover it. Logistically, the cost would be prohibitive. Maybe Rivals or Scout may fill that void. Maybe some bloggers will become the "media" for purposes of interviews, quotes and inside information. Maybe, something new will come along that we simply haven't thought of yet. Technology seems to work that way.
The effects of this transition in the local media are already being mirrored throughout the internet and more locally in our own football/college blogosphere, though the transition has been more subtle. In three years time, a little less than the time I've been blogging, the blogosphere has undergone a newspaper-esque transition of its own. Just as the Ann Arbor News has gone from a general, Ann Arbor/World source of information to a narrow locally focused, web-based bi-weekly publication; so to have our websites.
Today our sites are narrowly focused. They have to be. There are those that may survive by being general, EDSBS for example, but those sites are few and far between and survive on the quality of writing rather than distribution of information. In the Michigan blogosphere there are hockey, swimming, baseball, basketball, and football sites; all focusing on a specific team or sport. But with the exception of MGoBlog, Varsity Blue and MVictors who actually have "contacts," we're all getting our information from the same limited sources.
All of this seems to indicate that the college blogosphere and the blogosphere in general will contract and begin to inch itself away from a more general world view and closer to specialization. This is not a criticism, it is merely an observation. I know MGoBlog welcomes such a change, and to an extent it may be inevitable. Those with the best information and insight should inherit the spoils. But, and not to seem like an old man shaking his fist at the clouds, a part of me feels we are losing something with that specialization. Part of the fun in this little endeavor is the diversity of ideas and voices that blogging possesses.
The more we specialize, the fewer outside voices we are able to allow in and the more our worldview shrinks. I hope this is not the path we follow, because we would lose much of the benefit the internet provides us if this happens.
In the end, what path will bloggers take? Will they become more specialized, more compartmentalized, more professional? As Graham Filler of The Rivalry, Esq., pointed out, blogs may well start bringing in campus reporters, hockey, baseball, football and other specialists to comment and provide insight on a limited part of their coverage spectrum. You can see this transition here at Maize n Brew, with the addition of MHNet's excellent hockey coverage. You can see it at MGoBlog with the addition Tom's recruiting pieces. Or you can turn to Burnt Orange Nation to see a site with 2 editors and 7 regularly contributing authors. Blogs are now breaking the news. Scooping the press. Getting out commentary and analysis before anyone else. Somehow, blogs have adapted before the changes in the media have really hit home.
But with these adaptations and successes come fresh responsibility, desired or not. When people begin turning to your blog for new information, you can't let them down. If you do, you lose their trust and their readership. Blogs have always fallen back on "we're not the media" when they get it wrong or are late on the uptake, but now that defense rings hollow. If sites are to take up the mantle of information providers, they must take the responsibility the media shouldered as well. And no amount of mea culpas can restore faith in a site once it is wrong enough times. If you question that, ask yourself how forgiving you were when your local paper missed the mark one time too often.
For those of us who do not pursue the risks and rewards of becoming the "new media," things will be more difficult. We'll have to put in more time to find the leads we used to have at the click of a mouse. We'll have to be more creative and inventive. We won't be able to fall back on bashing a columnist or rehashing the same set of quotes everyone else got from the papers. In the long run this will be a good thing. But it will take time and effort, and it may cost us a site or two we truly enjoy. It's not going to be an easy time for bloggers.
So it will be up to us, both blogger and reader, to ensure that in this period of transition the death of the newspaper doesn't mean the death of the blog as we now know it.
* This list is meant to be demonstrative, not exclusive. If I tried to list all the great writers out there it'd take a year.
** My thanks to Peter Bean, Graham Filler and Jim Carty for their eyes and their insights on this piece.