My thoughts on the death of AnnArbor.com

    582221_10150705452057073_78062422072_10053154_1667636880_nI’m still trying to wrap my head around today’s surprise announcement that, after four years in business, the big experiment in online journalism we’ve come to know as AnnArbor.com would be going away, and that, henceforth, all of the regional reporting done by the staff of Advance Publications would be distributed by way of their much maligned state-wide news portal, M-Live. That is, with the exception of their Thursday and Sunday print editions, which they’ll rebrand as under the “Ann Arbor News” banner. This, of course, is an homage to that once great paper of the same name, which was unceremoniously decommissioned by its owners in 2009, after 175 years of service, making Ann Arbor, in the words of Time magazine, “the first big town to lose its daily paper.”

    Here, before we start theorizing about what might be going on, is a short clip from a March 22, 2009 issue of the aforementioned national news magazine. The article’s title: “What Happens When a Town Loses Its Newspaper?

    …The answer is that it didn’t die. It was killed by its owners in a high-stakes gamble to try to create a new and more profitable enterprise. (In the past nine years, the paper lost more than half its classified-ad pages.) The Ann Arbor News ceased to exist on July 23. On July 24, AnnArbor.com was launched. The new website has a paper version — also called, oddly, AnnArbor.com — that comes out on Thursdays and Sundays. The News’s owner, Advance Publications, is betting it can rebrand the 175-year-old News as a Web publication, turn a profit and still satisfy its readers’ craving for local news. A lot of U.S. newspapers, and their readers, have a stake in whether the experiment in Ann Arbor succeeds…

    Instead of stanching the blood, the Newhouse family, which owns Advance — a group that includes more than 20 daily newspapers across the country — is using Ann Arbor as a lab subject to see if it might hurt less to tear the Band-Aid off quickly. Fixed costs such as paper, printing and delivery have been drastically reduced. From a staff of 316 at the News in May 2008, AnnArbor.com has a full-time staff of approximately 60, about 35 of them “content creators” (reporters) — plus some 80 from the “preferred blogging community,” the majority unpaid — according to AnnArbor.com president and CEO Matt Kraner. Rather than looking like a news-media website, AnnArbor.com deliberately reads more like a social-media site, with equal weight given to reports on a new diner and the proposed city income tax. Ads — known as “deals” — are incorporated into the feed, and users can vote for their favorite, with the highest vote getter scoring a place on the cover of the Sunday hard-copy edition. Not exactly Pulitzer material — yet…

    The backlash at the time, as you may recall, was huge. A number of good people lost their jobs, and, unfortunately for the folks at Advance Publications, they knew how to write. And that’s exactly what they did. They savaged the new venture, aided in part by their colleagues who remained in the media, like Detroit Metro Times columnist Jack Lessenberry, who called the new AnnArbor.com, “an appalling pile of crap.” It’s, “an insult to the intelligence of any functioning adult,” he said.

    For my part, I tried to keep an open mind… Here’s some of what I wrote at the time.

    …Before I go any further, I’d like to reiterate that I want AnnArbor.com to be wildly successful. I think that our region needs serious journalism, and I hope, with the loss of the Ann Arbor News, this new entity, AnnArbor.com, might step into the void and fill that role…

    I knew it was unlikely, but I didn’t see how attacking them would help the matter. The best we could hope for, I thought, was that the owners of the publication would find a revenue model that justified the expense of investigative journalism. I didn’t, in other words, see how the interests of the community would be served by killing the venture before it got out of the gate. So kept my fingers crossed, and hoped that they’d attract readership sufficient to sell significant advertising. In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s safe to say that didn’t happen.

    Here, because it’s late, are some relatively unfocused thoughts. Make of them what you will.

    1. There are good people at AnnArbor.com. I know them personally. I respect their work. And I consider them friends. They’d been asked to do the impossible these past four years, and I think they deserve our thanks. While it’s easy to sit at home and criticize the journalism that AnnArbor.com was putting out, the truth is, these people were being asked not only to turn in stories every day, but to stay involved in the often frustrating conversations which developed online in their wake. They didn’t, in other words, have time to develop thoughtful investigative pieces, like their predecessors at the Ann Arbor News, who, by the way, were paid a great deal more for their labor. It may not be the case for everyone, but the folks that I know wanted to produce good journalism, and they tried their hardest to do so in light of the constraints put on them. I respect them for that, and I hope that they’re able to continue, should they choose to, now that everything is being flipped over to M-Live. And, if they are forced out, I hope that they land on their feet, like my friends from the Ann Arbor News, like Scott Anderson, Geoff Larcom, Leisa Thompson, Jordan Miller, and Mary Morgan, all of whom have demonstrated that there’s life after the newspaper business.

    2. I know you might be tempted to be pissed off anew over today’s announcement, but I think it bears repeating that, at least in the short term, we need for M-Live and the new twice-weekly Ann Arbor News to be successful. We cannot have a functioning society without an active, engaged, well-funded press, ferreting out injustice and holding the feet of the powerful to the fire. While, like you, I have my doubts that this regime can deliver in this regard, I think we need to do our best to help push them in this direction… at least until such a time that a rival comes forward. (On that note, you might want to check out Mary Morgan’s Ann Arbor Chronicle, if you haven’t done so already. They’re doing a hell of a lot, and, in time, they could mount a serious challenge.)

    3. Let’s remember why this happened in Ann Arbor… Advance, as I understand it, chose to “go digital” in Ann Arbor because they could see the writing on the wall. They knew that we, as a culture, were transitioning away from print, and they thought that they should get out ahead of the curve and start testing out new models (that didn’t rely so heavily on costly newsprint). And, of all the towns across America that they published in, they thought that Ann Arbor was the best situated, given the connectedness of the population. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they failed to also take into account the fact that educated people demand quality reporting. If they’d kept their staff intact and gone all-digital, I think it may have worked, but they took the opportunity to cut everything that could possibly be cut, replacing veteran journalists with what, in many cases, were essentially just-out-of-school bloggers, and volunteers they referred to as “community journalists,” and that’s where they lost it. Their educated readership bailed on them, and, as a result, their online community began to take on some undesirable characteristics. Readers, from what I’ve seen, didn’t feel invested in the space. When people made stupid/offensive comments, instead of challenging them, they just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Damn, the people on this site are crazy.” And, when you hear things like that, you know you’ve lost the battle. People, broadly speaking, didn’t feel ownership. It wasn’t their hometown paper any longer.

    4. Why is AnnArbor.com melting into M-Live? The short answer is, I have no idea. I suspect, however, it has to do with money. Keeping up a separate web presence must cost the company considerably more than just rolling all of their Michigan content into one page. Simply put, this will allow them to let people go, thereby increasing corporate profits. It will also allow them to bring back the Ann Arbor News brand, which had value. If I had to guess, I’d say that the Sunday paper, which includes all of the grocery store circulars, has always been the cash cow. And, if that’s the case, putting it back under the Ann Arbor News banner makes sense. Having a print paper called AnnArbor.com never made sense, and I suspect that their revenues will increase in that regard once that name has been jettisoned.

    5. I’d feel a lot better about this change if the folks at Advance, at the same time they announced that AnnArbor.com would be absorbed into MLive, also announced a new design for MLive, which is still one of the least functional, clean and intuitive websites on the internet. That, I think, would have been a good move on their part. As much as people were frustrated by AnnArbor.com, they like MLive even less. The parent company either doesn’t know this, or doesn’t care. In either case, it does not bode well.

    Oh, and I almost forgot… Here are a few quotes from today’s big announcement, for those of you who enjoy corporate-speak.

    “Integrating Ann Arbor with its other media properties across the state enables MLive Media Group to leverage our unified strengths, ultimately offering readers a better news experience, both online and in print.”

    “We are bringing back The Ann Arbor News brand at a time when we’re reaffirming, as an organization, our commitment to local news.”

    And, here, just because I think it’s kind of interesting, is the 2009 video announcement explaining to the readers of the Ann Arbor News why AnnArbor.com was going to be good for local journalism.

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      25 Comments

      1. tommy
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        Dumbest thing newspapers ever did – all papers – was to give away their content for free on the web. Once that genie was out of the bottle, there was no turning back. That, coupled with sites like eBay and Craigslist that put the final nail in the coffin

      2. Glen S.
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

        Related to yesterday’s story — AnnArbor.com has already confirmed that the “Ypsilanti News” page (http://www.annarbor.com/news/ypsilanti) which aggregates news items from our side of the county will *not* be continued in the new MLive edition … although they claim that they will continue to focus on Ypsilanti-area news.

      3. Posted September 5, 2013 at 6:09 am | Permalink

        I rarely read Ann Arbor.com but I read Mark Maynard.com.

        As a result, I always though that the sole function of Ann Arbor.com was to make Ypsilanti look bad.

      4. Posted September 5, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        Maybe we can find someone willing to form a news paper/website called Ypsilanti News and have a section about what’s going on in Ann Arbor. Seems like a good opportunity.

      5. G.G.
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        We have a site called Ypsi News and it’s a joke.

      6. anonymous
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        I’d always heard that they changed the name of the print version from Ann Arbor News to AnnArbor.com because, had they left it, it would have been more difficult for them to fire all of their staff. They needed to demonstrate that it was a completely new business entity.

      7. Bob Krzewinski
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        The worst thing about AnnArbor.com was the policy of allowing anonymous comments to news stories, both online and in the print edition. Gee people can be so brave and bold in their comments when they are anonymous. But when you put down your real name, you have to stand behind your words in public.

      8. Tommy
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        aa.com was shit from day one. Watered down drivel that in no way, shape, or form would suit the desires of this educated market. Paying for quality, for investigative journalism, for in-depth and devoped articles is jusy something that this new model could not handle.

        ‘Content Creators and Preferred Bloggers’, (many of whom spent time monitoring comments from imbeciles). When I read that a few years back when this whole thing started, I just shook my head, called bullshit and moved on. Many others did as well. To think that just the sports department alone had Geoff Larcom, Amy Whitesall, and Jason Whitlock at one point on staff. Today, just a bunch of toadies who suck UM jockstraps all day long.

      9. Eel
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        They looked at the numbers. If they could post crime stories and the occasional football feature they could draw eyeballs and make ad revenue. The thing is the eyeballs they drew were connected to the heads of dummies and the whole thing imploded into a pit of stupidity. If I were an entrepreneur I’d destroy them. I’ve never seen a weaker business with no competition.

      10. Mr. X
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        Will they be auctioning off their trolls?

      11. Knox
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        Local news sources should not be owned by corporations that have no interest whatsoever in the health of said community.

      12. Posted September 5, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Agreed that there is a lot of talent over there, particularly in the food sections (Jessica Webster, Mary Bileyu and the lady who posts a recipe every day or something). But I think the line about how city tax codes and new diners are given equal space really says it all (for me at least). For instance, I love to drink alcohol. I enjoy reading about new beers and what beers are coming out and what the upcoming events are. I do not, however, enjoy reading about people *drinking alcohol*; to wit, they had a reporter “live blog” his St. Patrick’s Day drinking. Let me say that the writer is a GREAT writer and I love his writing style (Richard somebody…sorry, I forget his last name). I think he’s funny and has an engaging writing style. But I don’t want to read about drinking games in a serious newspaper. On a blog? Sure! In a ‘zine? Of course. On Facebook/Twitter? Absolutely. But this is an event that got the same “billing” as articles about car crashes, city council and crime. And that is the dot com in a nutshell–is it a blog? or is it a serious news site? I just don’t think you can be both for reasons I’m not sure I can articulate very well. Maybe I just need things portioned off…like how the Free Press had that “Way We Live” section which featured articles about “society” and funny columnists and crosswords but then my “hard news” was in the first two sections. I don’t know but I just never knew what the .com was trying to be.

        Also, the fact that anyone can now stick a piece of paper that says “Press” in their hat and call themselves a “journalist” irritates me. (I’m specifically talking about Peter Brady here…remember? He was all king shit when he was on the newspaper and I think he snitched on Cindy or some shit). I write for some beer periodicals…no way in hell am I a journalist. This leads to another discussion about titles and labels but it’s my new years bitches so off to eat some apples and honey!

      13. Another Anonymous
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        I thought the company would have merged annarbor.com into mlive last year when they announced the company, formerly known as Booth Newspapers, was becoming the MLive Media Group. But maybe they weren’t ready for it internally. I think annarbor.com was still top heavy in administration and they needed to find places for those people before integrating annarbor.com with mlive. It now looks like annarbor.com has been slimmed down to the organizational structure of the other mlive “hubs.” Like you, I think these folks are mostly good, smart people trying to figure out a new, sustainable business model for journalism. Their corporate owners, the Newhouses, have been widely criticized for shrinking the publication frequency of their newspapers from daily to (in most cases) three days a week. But companies such as Gannett that are sticking with the seven-day-a-week model are struggling as well. The Gannett-owned Lansing State Journal, which still publishes daily, is dying the death of a thousand cuts through continual layoffs.

      14. facebook stalker
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        The old Tony Dearing video at the end of your column, in which he makes his grand predictions for the future of local journalism with the launch of annarbor.com, has been changed to private. The rewriting of history has begun.

      15. Hiram
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        So-called mainstream media is quickly falling out of the mainstream. If this trend continues, soon enough the entire concept behind traditional media will have to give way to the quickly rising independent and alternative media, and of course this is an incredibly positive development.

      16. Mr. Y
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        Hiram, it’s not that easy. Bloggers don’t have the same access. When the Ann Arbor News demands to talk with the President of UM, they get to talk with her. When a diarist on Daily Kos does the same thing, they get told never to call again. It sounds good in theory that the alternative press will rise up and make everything right, but what we need are well funded journalists. As much as I love bloggers, it’s different. They serve a function, and they may even break stories on occasion, but it’s a different thing.

      17. Charlie
        Posted September 5, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        I had a hard time dealing with most of the so-called reporters I dealt with on AnnArbor.com – they always seemed frazzled, working in their spare time between doing other things, and some got quite rude with me when my business calendar of events didn’t line up with their deadlines. Interviews were always conducted over the phone, which I dislike. I can’t think of a single article about anything I was involved with that wasn’t speckled with misquotes, typos & other inaccuracies. I always edited “my own” articles after they published, more or less. In the old paper days I could have appealed to an editor, but there just seemed to be a level of integrity missing without the old chain of command & instead, there was just a production line of bland, low quality content.

      18. Posted September 6, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        @ Knox— and that is exactly where we are, isn’t it? Gannett is in the business of making money, not keeping those of us in the greater Lansing area informed. Just so sad.

      19. alan2102
        Posted September 6, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Mr Y, it’s not that easy. Why does a journalist have to be “well funded” to get access to the prez of UofM, or anyone else? Why do people without money get told “never to call again”? If they get told “never to call again”, I want to know that. That says a great deal about who they are. THAT IS NEWS. More important news than anything that would be covered at the interview that didn’t happen. If it is true that our “leaders” would not deign to speak with us under-funded commoners, then we should know that, shouldn’t we? Rather than having it continually, politely covered-up by a “well-funded” media. Truth is, the “well-funded” media has lied and been complicit in mega-crimes and frauds, continually, for decades now, so they deserve to go down in flames. Too bad a lot of good people are going down with the ship, true. But the ship itself is hopelessly corrupt.

      20. Stupid Hick
        Posted September 6, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        Jordan Miller is a friend of Mark Maynard? Even before her fall from grace, she was NOT an asset to annarbor.com. For someone who billed herself as a PR and communications professional she was actually pretty dense.

      21. Stupid Hick
        Posted September 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        I’m truly sorry I blurted that out, it was inappropriate.

      22. Posted September 6, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

        How could I not like Jordan, she’s the person who wrote the Ypsipanty story that made Linette and me famous around the world?

      23. Posted September 10, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        @alan2012:

        As someone who now considers myself an amateur journalist (on sports — in the greater scheme of things, a truly trivial undertaking), there is some truth to Mr. Y’s point. A busy public figure, whether a coach, a university president, or a governor, can’t drop everything to immediately take every interview request from some person with a website/blog/whatever. An established independent journalist might have built up the credibility and following to command that sort of attention, but that only works if the aforementioned public figure (or their staff) are aware of the journalist. That’s where one part of the value of traditional media organizations comes into play. We’re familiar with the notion of traditional media as gatekeepers for the public, screening out hoaxes and unimportant goings-on, but they also act as gatekeepers for the elite, providing an easy way for public figures to know that a particular individual is a “legitimate journalist”. I wouldn’t expect a “never call again” response, but without that legitimacy flag, you might get a 5 minute interview in a month instead of the 15 minutes you were hoping for this week.

        That’s “legitimacy”, but funding does matter as well. Most of us have to earn money somehow. If you’re not a professional journalist (whether paid by someone else, or able to monetize your work independently), and not retired, you’re probably working another job — which probably limits your ability to attend newsworthy events, even if you’ve overcome the “legitimacy” hurdle. Even if you are lucky enough to have a flexible work schedule, there’s still the issue of how much one can do in “spare time”. Commentary is one thing, but good investigative journalism takes time — sometimes during business hours — and there’s only so much most of us can squeeze in before and after our paying jobs.

      24. anonymous
        Posted September 11, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Meanwhile, here’s John Hilton of the Ann Arbor Observer:

        We do see an advertising opportunity in the incredibly low print circulation numbers released as part of the announcement: they now print fewer issues in an entire week than the old Ann Arbor News printed in a single day. That confirms what our ad staff has been telling us — that new advertisers are coming to the Observer because they’re not getting the response they want from annarbor.com. Changing the name may bring back memories of the old paper, but it won’t address their core problem — they’ve cut their circulation so much that it’s just a ghost of its former self.

      25. Posted September 18, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        When the Ann Arbor News quit publishing a daily paper, I was unhappy, and, eventually, we dropped our subscription to the ad-inflated twice weekly print edition, but I began reading highlights every morning on my ipad. I mourned the loss of better writing and saw even decent journalists goof up because they didn’t have time (presumably) to do the job right. However, the latest move to MLive is too much. I give up: Too little local news badly presented. Good luck to the Ann Arbor Chronicle and the Observer.

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