Ten years ago, on March 23, 2009, the staff of The Ann Arbor News – then a daily afternoon print newspaper founded in 1835 – was summoned to an all-hands-on-deck meeting.
Naturally, there was rampant speculation across departments about a possible second round of employee buyouts, or scaling back to print the paper only two or three days each week. News metro editor Steve Pepple (who now works at the Detroit Free Press) pulled aside business team leader Stefanie Murray and assigned her to report on whatever was said at the meeting.
"I had no clue what I was about to cover," Murray says.
When the gathered throng finally fell silent and the News' publisher, Laurel Champion, stepped up to the lectern, the 272-person staff (including myself, who had worked at the paper since 2004) learned that the company would permanently shut its doors in July. As more readers turned to the internet for free news (and free classifieds, once a major income source for the paper), the News' business model had become increasingly unsustainable.
"I'll never forget the audible gasps from several in the packed room," says former News sports reporter Kevin Ryan. "Personally, I knew in those moments that my journalism career was going to end."
Some News staffers went on to take jobs at the then-new digital media venture AnnArbor.com, which integrated with MLive Media Group and adopted the Ann Arbor News name four years later. But for many, the News' closure indeed marked a transition into new careers and new markets.
"For me, it was about envisioning future job security," Ryan says. "With two young children, I knew right away that I didn't want to be stuck in a trend of looking over my shoulder at the next journalism job and the next journalism job."
Ryan mentions that one of his college professors had predicted an industry upheaval and an "ugly, turbulent time" for journalism within the next 15 years.
"He was so right," Ryan says. "And if it had come to fruition at a newspaper in a town as vibrant and stable as Ann Arbor, well, then this was the Armageddon he was talking about, and it's time to exit the industry."
Even when circumstances seem to make the choice clear, though, it's hard to leave a profession you love.
"I always saw photojournalism as a calling, a way of helping people, whether by putting a smile on their face when they notice an engaging photo, or by showing readers something they would not have been able to see and think about otherwise," says former News photographer Elli Gurfinkel. "So leaving photojournalism was not an easy decision."
Gurfinkel had a family to support, though, and a freelance photography career seemed far riskier than a job with a steady paycheck and health insurance.
"My mother underwent surgery, and when I was with her in the recovery room, I was impressed by the nurses who took such good care of her with compassion and professionalism," Gurfinkel says. "At that moment I decided to become a nurse, so I can still do something meaningful and help people at some of the worst times in their lives while also having steady employment."
Ryan also pivoted into a healthcare career. He now works as a physician assistant in Detroit.
"I'm more removed from journalism than I envisioned," Ryan says. " … I love the variability of my current job. You have to adapt on the fly and roll with the punches as they come. I like to think I honed those skills working at The Ann Arbor News."
Similarly, former News sports and features reporter Amy Whitesall eventually parlayed many of her journalism skills into a job writing web content for the University of Michigan College of Engineering.
"I do user research that informs design, and it happens to involve observing people doing things, probing with questions about what they're doing, why and how, distilling the information they give me, supplementing it with some other data and reporting it out to people who can apply that knowledge to make things better," Whitesall says. "Gee, where does one develop a skill set like that?"
A handful of former Newsies went on to study information science. Some (often reluctantly) retired early. Others shifted gears to become attorneys, teachers, urban planners, paralegals, and more, with many landing jobs at local universities. For example, longtime News columnist, sports editor, and higher education reporter Geoff Larcom is now director of media relations for Eastern Michigan University, which he often covered for the News.
Some News alumni worked in the industry a while longer, but ended up in a journalism-adjacent field. Murray worked at AnnArbor.com, the Free Press, and The Tennessean before landing her current job, running a journalism institute called the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J.
Murray's former fellow business reporter Mike Ramsey, meanwhile, worked for Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal before becoming an automotive industry analyst at Gartner.
"My decision to leave journalism in 2016 was very hard," Ramsey says. "I still write occasionally, but I was offered a very good position and one that could provide stability into the future. I had to take it."
Age plays no small role in the decision-making process at a professional crossroads. Former News entertainment team leader Roger Lelievre worked at the News for nearly 30 years and was 55 years old when its closure was announced. Following a short, unsatisfying stint as a writer and editor for a magazine based in northern Michigan, he poured his energy into what he described as a "hobby job that is now what I do full time" – editing and publishing Know Your Ships, an annual 200-page reference guide to boats that sail the Great Lakes.
In contrast, former News assistant metro editor and online editor Amalie Nash was 33 when the News closed its doors, and is among the few to have maintained a steady course in the industry. Nash has worked at AnnArbor.com, the Free Press, and The Des Moines Register. Now, as executive editor for local news at the USA Today Network, she oversees 109 sites, many of which are the only source of local news in their communities.
"My passion for the business has never waned," says Nash, now based in Denver. "But these days, I am more motivated by a strong belief that journalism is more important than ever and is in peril, so I want to do what I can to help the profession I love."
The long view
No matter what path these News alumni chose for themselves post-closure, most remain stalwart newshounds, looking to multiple local sources for news.
"Everything is so fragmented now," Lelievre says. "I pick up bits of news here and there. Chances are I will find out about major new developments first on social media, particularly Facebook. … I miss the idea of the central clearinghouse, where everything I needed to know was in one easily accessible place."
Interestingly, Larcom finds the tables have turned, so that he's now the one being called by local reporters. He praises the work of the reporters at the "new" News, including Lauren Slagter, Marty Slagter, and Ryan Stanton.
"I am amazed at the turnover in MLive over the years … but feel the current group works hard and deserves a lot of credit for that," he says.
But the issue that caused the News' closure is the one that still plagues the entire journalism industry: how to pay content producers when consumers are accustomed to reading for free.
"I think new platforms that focus on helping local content producers make money from the coverage of their community is badly needed," Ramsey says. "All the models today are set up to make the platform money, but not the content makers."
Nash says "a healthy journalism model simply will not be funded by digital advertising." She says the USA Today Network's sites have become "more aggressive" in asking readers to become paid subscribers, but it's still not enough to cover costs.
"If I can impart any message 10 years after the closure of the News, it's this: our industry is still challenged and evolving, but our mission has never wavered," Nash says. "We'll continue doing this in service of our communities and hope more and more readers understand the importance of valuing and paying for their local news coverage."
A community's stories are among the best conduits for connecting us, after all, whether you're the one reading them or writing them.
"I got to follow my curiosity and meet so many good, interesting and inspiring people," Whitesall says of her time as a features writer for the News. "It was real soul-feeding stuff. I loved that job."
Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.
All photos by Doug Coombe.