National Media Slam AnnArbor.com For Ethical Lapse & Conflict of Interest

March has not been a good month for Ann Arbor’s 18-month-old digital media extravaganza AnnArbor.com. Today, the digital site was lambasted by national media for a perceived ethical lapse and conflict of interest in appointing a U of M PR man to the site’s editorial board.

March started with the loss of three of AnnArbor.com’s best staffers to The Freep. AnnArbor.com reported nothing about the staff losses. Then, the site summarily tossed out 14 staffers and most of the paid community contributors (bloggers) on their digital behinds, leaving the company with only about one-quarter of the paid staff the old Ann Arbor News had before it was shuttered. AnnArbor.com reported nothing about the cuts—despite begging from readers, and a tongue-lashing from another digital news site run by a former Ann Arbor News editor. [Update: AnnArbor.com posted a “progress report”/press release on March 24, 2011.]

Oh, one of AnnArbor.com’s fearless leaders, Matt Kraner, did respond to a reporter from Crain’s Detroit Business, but not Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra.

When Crain’s asked about the layoffs, Kraner paraphrased the “explanation” AnnArbor.com’s fearless leader Tony Dearing posted to AnnArbor.com, first in a comment thread about a story concerning layoffs expected at Border’s, then shuffled around, as needed. Crain’s reported on March 12, 2011:

Management declined to discuss the specific changes with me, including how many people were affected, but did confirm there were changes.

Matt Kraner, president and CEO of AnnArbor.com, told me via e-mail that the organization continues to improve and is “quite pleased with our (year over year) traffic growth.”

He said page views rose from 3.9 million in January 2010 to 6.1 million this January.
Average daily unique users improved 42,613 in January 2010 to 68,045 in January 2011.

“We made changes to a few topics that account for a very small percentage of our site traffic, to focus on and expand our more popular features,” Kraner wrote. “Being responsive to the community has fueled our growth to date, as we expect it will in the future. Additionally, we’re working on several new features in the coming months.”

Everything’s fine. We’re happy with our “growth.” We just got rid of a few “topics” and people whose work didn’t really account for many visits to the site at all. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Move along.

The Crain’s Detroit Business reporter was kinder to Kraner than AnnArbor.com reader Ruth Kraut was to Tony Dearing when he provided pretty much the same explanation.

Kraut called Dearing’s explanation an absurd deception.

The Crain’s reporter ends his piece thusly: ” It’s unknown if the AnnArbor.com project (which includes a twice-weekly print product) is profitable, but getting rid of a sizeable chunk of the editorial staff raises questions. Ownership said the Ann Arbor News was losing money, and AnnArbor.com was the solution.”

Well, now that people all over Ann Arbor have concluded that AnnArbor.com has about as much reporting power as an electric toothbrush, and has no dedicated higher education reporter, in a city where the University of Michigan is the largest single employer, things have started to settle down. AnnArbor.com continues to pretend it’s the Prom Queen “paper of record” in Ann Arbor, and its readership and skittish advertisers sit around worrying whether spending money for renewals is the same as a turn at the roulette table at the MGM Grand.

This week, AnnArbor.com’s trio in charge of creating PR disasters, then pretending nothing unusual is going on, decided to shake up the editorial board. This is a group of individuals at a newspaper who decide what the paper or site will editorialize about, as well as the slant of the editorial.

At AnnArbor.com, half of the editorial board is comprised of the three Musketeers in charge, Laurel Champion, Tony Dearing and Matt Kraner. The other half of the board consists of “community members.” The “community members” are treated as editorial arm candy, participating in editorial board work when they’re told to do so, and excluded when it’s convenient. During last summer’s City Council candidate interviews, when the “editorial board” met with political candidates to decide whom AnnArbor.com would endorse, the “community members” of the editorial board were excluded. They could be objective about downtown development, but not, it seems, about whether Carsten Hohnke, John Floyd or Newcombe Clark should sit on City Council and make decisions about downtown development.

Don’t think too hard about it.

Every so often, AnnArbor.com’s Tony Dearing will announce new members of the editorial board. Like in episodes of “Bewitched,” new editorial board members pop in, much like Samantha’s (Elizabeth Montgomery) mother, Endora (Agnes Moorehead), or Sam’s dotty uncle, Dr. Bombay.

Dearing formally “announces” the prestigious appointments in a post to the site.

The most recent appointment to the AnnArbor.com editorial board made one media expert take notice. Poynter is a heavy hitter in the industry of media analysis, education and training, and Jim Romenesko is one of the most important media analysts in the United States. Romenesko’s blog is where media professionals go to get their news, and Jim Romenesko wrote a blog entry about AnnArbor.com’s appointment of University of Michigan vice president for communications David R. Lampe as an editorial board member.

It was former Ann Arbor News sports writer, Jim Carty, who (most likely) tipped Romenesko. Carty, posting under the username “Jim,” posted this comment in response Dearing announcement of Lampe’s appointment to the editorial board:

David Lampe spent a good six months fighting The Ann Arbor News at every single point of our academics and athletics investigation. He is a well-paid professional spinner for the biggest organization you cover….

Jim Romenesko asked Tony Dearing for a comment and writes that, (wait for it….wait for it….) “he’s yet to respond.”

Dearing, characteristically, posted an “explanation” in the comment section below his announcement. He writes in response to “Jim’s” criticisms:

We’ve had community members serve on our Editorial Board on a rotating basis since shortly after we launched, and some of them have leadership position in institutions we cover. We find that their knowledge of the community and local issues adds a valuable perspective to our discussions, and any time we are addressing an issue that they have any personal or professional connection to, they do not participate in our deliberations.

We have had people in leadership positions at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University serve on our Editorial Board in the past without raising any real or perceived concern in the community. While David Lampe is the communications officer at U-M, we are satisfied that his journalistic background and his integrity allow him to add to our discussion on local issues not related to U-M, and like all current and past community members, he will not participate in any discussions in which he would have a conflict of interest.

“Jim” is a bit kinder than Ruth Kraut, but the essence of the incredulity at Dearing’s absurd explanation is still there. “Jim” writes:

Tony, please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that David Lampe moved here in 2007. Is it possible for someone with that short a tenure here to have a depth of knowledge about the community and its issues? It’s really hard to take your explanation seriously given his lack of track record here. It looks like an attempt to cozy up to the largest power broker you cover and the office that directly controls your access to university officials. There is, of course, a history with Mr. Lampe that raises deeper questions that I mentioned above, but my guess is you could have been unaware of that, given your own short tenure in town.

Tony Dearing, Laurel Champion and Matt Kraner may be confident of Lampe’s integrity, but clearly “Jim” and James Romenesko are not. You shouldn’t be either. Romenesko tagged his blog entry under “ethics” and “conflict of interest.”

AnnArbor.com’s trio have shown time and again that they are prepared to overlook clear conflicts, and drift into areas where other newspapers just don’t allow their coverage to wander thanks to ethical standards.

With U of M’s PR guy on the job, we can look forward to future AnnArbor.com “infotorials” that will argue that it was for the best that U of M did not contribute money toward the reconstruction of the Stadium bridge. We’ll read that Ann Arbor should not expect U of M to make voluntary payments to the City in lieu of property taxes that would be assessed on the thousands of acres and buildings the U owns. Then, the editorial board will pooh pooh the idea that there is any conflict of interest for Hizzoner John Hieftje, Fourth Ward Council member Marcia Higgins and Third Ward Council member Steve Kunselman to work at U of M and vote on projects that benefit their university employer.

“Jim” summed it up best when he writes in response to Dearing: “The idea you would put him [Lampe] on your editorial board would be nothing less than mind-boggling if it weren’t for everything we’ve seen over the past year-plus. Pretty much epic fail on every front at this point, Tony.”

An epic on the level of “Went With The Wind.” Not Gone With the Wind. That was a real epic. “Went With the Wind” was a spoof of GWTW by comedienne Carol Burnett. There was Brashley Wilks. Miss Starlett. Captain Ratt Butler. You decide which of AnnArbor.com’s Three Musketeers is which.

Watch Part 1 of “Went With the Wind” below:

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=6821

5 Comments for “National Media Slam AnnArbor.com For Ethical Lapse & Conflict of Interest”

  1. Great article. Only meteorites and bludgeons are impactful.

  2. Those interested in this whole AnnArbor.com situation might like to look at this comment thread: http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=8086537183354417004&postID=7075419556064062673

  3. When it rains it pours. These poor people don’t seem to be able to make a sound decision to save their lives. There’s no question that putting the ‘PR man from U of M’ on the editorial board is a conflict of interest. He may never participate in deliberations, but he is inside the news organization that is supposed to cover the university. That’s not where Michigan’s PR man should be for any reason. At worst, he’s a spy who will influence coverage of U of M. At best, he’s a mole.

    @A2GOP is absolutely right that this is about trust. I’m not prepared to say I have none for AnnArbor.com, but they’re making it more difficult to trust their judgment by making these kinds of decisions then trying to rationalize them.

  4. Isn’t the issue one of trust, really? Tony Dearing claims Lampe will not be involved in editorials that are about his employer. Do we trust that this is true or not? At this point, and I am very sorry to say it, the AnnArbor.com track record over the past year and a half has shown that the paper, where reporting about city government, elections and particularly U of M are concerned, simply cannot be trusted to provide the community the reporting it needs (and wants). Editorials in the paper are light-weight as it is. Frankly, I don’t care who AnnArbor.com puts on its editorial board. I’m reading the site less and less, and we stopped subscribing to the paper many months ago.

  5. Robert C. Smith

    Dearing’s explanation, to someone who is not a journalist appears to be reasonable. That is probably why he posts them on his site and doesn’t try to get them past people like Jim Romenesko. I have to suppose that a guy like Romenesko would really have some tough questions for Dearing. At this point, AnnArbor.com is a three ring circus. Good for Jim Carty! That story on U of M athletes and academics was some of the best sports writing the Snews ever did. Here is a link to one of the stories. http://www.mlive.com/wolverines/academics/stories/index.ssf/2008/06/university_of_michigan_officia.html

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