I’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.