I think everyone knew, when it was announced a few days before Christmas that Laurel Champion, MLive’s general manager for Southeast Michigan, would be leaving the organization, that something was up. Champion, after all, had been with the digital media company since the very beginning… since the moment when she, as the Publisher of the Ann Arbor News, announced that the 175 year old newspaper would be closing its doors, firing its more experienced staff, and coming back as AnnArbor.com, a groundbreaking, aggressively-streamlined 21st century online news company. And, four year later, she was on the team that would pull the plug on AnnArbor.com, further cut the staff, and move the assets beneath the MLive umbrella, promising to do even greater things with fewer people and resources. So, like many, when I heard that she’d chosen to leave and pursue “other opportunities,” I suspected that something was up. And, then, when I read, buried in the text of the MLive announcement about her departure, that “her position (would) not be filled,” I suspected it was just a matter of time before there was yet another massive restructuring… Well, late this afternoon, word began to leak out that it was happening.
Calling it a “terrible blow to journalism,” the Columbia Journalism Review’s Anna Clark announced on Twitter that MLive would be eliminating 29 positions across the state.
Since then, MLive has come out with a release of their own that, as you might expect, puts a significantly more positive spin on things. Calling it a “restructuring that directs resources to emerging content and business opportunities,” the management of MLive assures us, their remaining readers, that by cutting these 29 “content positions,” they’ll actually be able to do more real, hard-hitting journalism, focus more on “emerging social media channels,” and increase their “video storytelling” capabilities… Again, it would seem, they’re determined to do more with less.
While it’s not yet official, as far as I know, word is that several of these 29 jobs eliminated across the company were in the Ann Arbor office. As I understand it, the two managing producers, Cindy Heflin and Julie Taylor, were both laid off, as was entertainment reporter Jenn McKee. And others have been reassigned to statewide positions. Paula Gardener, for instance, will be stepping away from her editorial duties to become a statewide business reporter. Likewise, I’m told that John Counts and Jessica Webster will be shifting to the statewide team. As for editorial duties, it’s unclear to me what they’ll be doing without Gardener in that role, but I’m told a few new people will be transitioning into the Ann Arbor organization, so perhaps one of them will be charged with such tasks. For instance, I hear that someone named Jen Eyer has been named the new “team leader,” which I’m hoping is something at least approximating an editor. [Without an editor, it might as well be a blog, right?]
Without being too negative, it sounds as though the local offices are deliberately being pruned back, and that MLive is becoming more of a single entity with a statewide focus. Yes, I’m sure there will still be local reporting on Michigan Football, and the University of Michigan generally, as it has value across the state, but I think we should expect to see less in terms of everyday local coverage, especially when it comes to issues of marginal interest outside of Washtenaw County. At least that’s what it’s looking like to me.
And, sadly, this is all happening on the same day that Rick Snyder signed SB 571 into law. This law, if you’re unfamiliar with it, would prohibit public entities in Michigan, like libraries, from distributing information on candidates and ballot proposals 60 days prior to elections… Because, really, why should librarians be sharing ballot language, when people can just watch the 30-second ads on television financed by the likes of the Koch brothers? Speaking of which, this same legislation would give people like the Koch brothers wider access to the voters of Michigan by raising spending limits, etc.
“Senate Bill 571 is designed to keep voters in the dark about important issues in their community, including school millages and bonds to fund police and fire departments. Because of Gov. Snyder’s actions, local governments and school districts will not be allowed to pay for materials to educate voters on these issues. Meanwhile, corporations face few limits on their influence on elections.” – House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel
It’s also worth noting, I think, that the Flint Journal, which has been so instrumental in getting word out about the Snyder administration’s poisoning of the children in Flint, is an MLive property, and, as such, will likely also see cuts to their reporting staff, making it more difficult for them to expose the issues that they’re dealing with as a community to the outside world.
So, just to recap, at a time when our state government is ranked 50th with regard to transparency and accountability, and the children of Flint are being poisoned, and the FBI is investigating the takeover of Detroit Public Schools, our state’s largest news organization is slashing jobs, and our Governor is signing into law legislation that both allows corporations to have a larger voice in politics, while, at the same time, making it illegal for public employees to tell people about upcoming elections…
This, my friends, is what the end of democracy look like.
I’d like to say quite a bit more, but I’m falling asleep. If you’d like to know more about the process by which we’ve slowly lost our local press over the course of the past decade, I’d encourage you to read some of the following articles that I’ve written here. I believe, collectively, they should give you a pretty good sense of the steadily downward path that we’ve been on.
One last thing… I respect the hell out of the people working on the front lines at MLive. They’re good people. I know them personally. I respect their work. And I consider them friends. They’d been asked to do the impossible these past several years, and I think they deserve our thanks. While it’s easy to sit at home and criticize the journalism that MLive has been putting out, the truth is these people were being asked not only to turn in multiple stories every day, but to stay involved in the often frustrating conversations which developed online in their wake. These reporters 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 at MLive want to produce good journalism, and they try their hardest to do so in light of the constraints put on them by their out-of-touch and increasingly distant managers. I respect them for that, and I hope that they’re able to continue, should they choose to, now that things seem to be taking yet another downward turn. And, if they are forced out, I hope that they land on their feet, like Nathan Bomey, Scott Anderson, Geoff Larcom, Leisa Thompson, Jordan Miller, Richard Retyi, Katrease Stafford and Mary Morgan, all of whom have demonstrated that there’s life after working for the Newhouse family.
The Ann Arbor News to Lay-Off Employees: Just What We Need, Fewer Reporters [2/8/2007]
The Untimely (or Timely) Death of the Ann Arbor News [3/23/2009]
MarkMaynard.com, a Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy [6/21/2009]
AnnArbor.com – Where News Breaks [8/10/2009]
The State of Journalism Today [3/16/2010]
AnnArbor.com Cuts Staff Considerably [3/13/2011]
What do people really think of Ypsilanti, how might those opinions be reinforced by Ann Arbor media, and what can we do about it? [5/8/2011]
The death of the American press and the corresponding rise in corruption [6/9/2011]
Please Write to AnnArbor.com and Ask Them to Cover the Eller Race [8/5/2012]
AnnArbor.com Heroically Pushes yet Further into the Post-Journalism Frontier [9/26/2012]
My Thoughts on the Death of AnnArbor.com [9/4/2013]
Clicks over Quality…. Will the MLive Follow The Oregonian, Demanding that All Reporters Post Three Stories a Day? [3/30/2014]
The Saturday Six Pack (episode three) with Former AnnArbor.com Reporter Katrease Stafford [2/3/2015]
The Ann Arbor News Does Not Speak For Ypsilanti [9/21/2015]