WHISPER: AnnArbor.com Slashes Staff, Fires Paid Contributors, and Loses Lead Blogger Ed Vielmetti
A2Politico readers read here last week that AnnArbor.com recently lost three staffers to The Detroit Free Press. Higher education reporter David Jesse, and editors Stefanie Murray and Amalie Nash were joined by their colleagues at Main Street pub Conor O’Neill’s at the end of February for a celebration. AnnArbor.com did not report on the loss of the three staffers to The Detroit Free Press. There was plenty of speculation on A2Politico, however, concerning the loss of the three, and the financial health of AnnArbor.com. Kontent King Tony Dearing recently told members of the Ann Arbor Democratic Club that AnnArbor.com was “on its way” to turning a profit. In July of 2010, he was similarly cagey in a piece he posted to the news blog concerning the progress the site had made in its first year. He wrote that he was not at liberty to disclose financial information, but that AnnArbor.com’s progress was “encouraging.”
In its media kit, AnnArbor.com purports to reach 69 percent of Washtenaw County residents who are 18 years or older. The claim is based, however, on a one-time phone survey of a few hundred people conducted by a media analysis company. The paper’s circulation is not audited, nor are its web site audience numbers audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), a well-respected company that verifies the print and online circulation numbers of a large number of the news publications/news web sites throughout the United States. Prior to the launch of AnnArbor.com, Executive VP Laurel Champion told the now defunct Ann Arbor News that AnnArbor.com would, indeed, have its circulation audited.
I had an email from a paid contributor at AnnArbor.com this afternoon. This individual was let go, and told that the only sections with paid contributors that would “survive,” would be AnnArbor.com’s “Food & Drink,” “Faith” and “Pets” sections. All paid contributors who were being let go were notified by Community Director Jenn Eyer via phone. An email, Eyer told the AnnArbor.com contributor whom I spoke with, was scheduled to go out this afternoon.
After confirmation from an AnnArbor.com staffer, I pulled up the news blog’s current staff listing page, and a staff listing page cached by Google. A look down the list of staffers, and one quickly notes the omission of one of AnnArbor.com’s initial hires, Edward Vielmetti. Ed was hired as the site’s “blogging leader” in June of 2009. The hire was announced on the site. The last entry by Vielmetti on AnnArbor.com is dated March 10, 2011.
A look at the staffing lists confirms that AnnArbor.com has let go of seven of its 31 content producers, including writers, directors (editors) and lead blogger Vielmetti. (Michigan Radio reported AnnArbor.com cut 14 jobs, total. Tip o’ the keyboard to Bill.) This means that over the past month, AnnArbor.com has lost/let go almost one-third of its staff that produces content. This leaves AnnArbor.com with a handful of paid content bloggers, and two dozen paid reporters and other content producers. AnnArbor.com’s Entertainment section, headed by Bob Needham, took the most serious hit, losing half of its staff. The three executives who oversee AnnArbor.com on behalf of Advance Publications (owned by the Newhouse family) survived the round of cuts. Interestingly, none of AnnArbor.com’s advertising sales staff was let go. It remains to be seen if AnnArbor.com will replace David Jesse, Stefanie Murray or Amalie Nash.
It’s clear now that AnnArbor.com is slashing overhead in an effort to further improve profitability. It’s also clear that Jesse, Murray and Nash jumped ship to The Free Press at, perhaps, a very propitious moment. Twenty months of financial losses (or minimal profits) suggests, one imagines, the outer limit of what Advance Media is prepared to invest in its Ann Arbor “experiment” in digital journalism. AnnArbor.com has been criticized heavily by readers concerning the accuracy, and reliability of its news reporting, and by those who comment on the site over what some perceive as an overly arbitrary comment moderation policy. The paper’s Sunday print circulation dropped from 52,000 in July of 2009, to just about 40,000 in July of 2010. Despite the falling circulation numbers, AnnArbor.com raised advertising rates.
AnnArbor.com, in letting go of one-third of its content producers, yet keeping what amounts to three executives who split the job of a conventional publisher, is sending a signal that the organization is willing to further sacrifice content quality to protect the jobs of top level managers. Like the city of Ann Arbor, whose officials claim that having fewer employees has had no impact on the quality of city services (well, until Roger Fraser recently blamed snow clearing problems on the fact that Ann Arbor has “fewer employees”), such claims are often made by those doing the cutting, not those whose jobs are impacted by the cuts.
As a long-time publisher, I can tell you cutting staff is never a good sign of the overall health of any publishing organization. If I were an advertiser, I wouldn’t sign a long-term contract with AnnArbor.com just at the moment. Signs point to AnnArbor.com going through, perhaps, another round of cuts (sooner rather than later) and then, if revenues are not where the parent company wants them to be, for AnnArbor.com to close.
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