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Michigan Messenger Online News Site Shuttered—Why You Should Care (A Lot)

by P.D. Lesko

If you never read the Michigan Messenger, you missed some of the best investigative reporting around. Eartha Jane Melzer on the Benton Harbor and environmental beats outreported virtually every other news outlet in the state. Michigan Messenger belonged to a network of state-based online news sites founded by the American Independent News Network.

According to the Michigan Messenger web site:

Michigan Messenger received funding from the American Independent News Network (AINN), a not-for-profit organization. With independent outlets operating in five states and the District of Columbia, AINN fosters diversity in the local and national debate by training people on the use of communications technologies, such as the Internet, as an alternative publishing and distribution system to traditional broadcast and print media.

The Michigan program launched in September, 2007; its work has been cited by other state, local and national media outlets and influenced public policy in Michigan. Reporter  Earth Jane Melzer was awarded an Honorable Mention by the National Press Club for the Hume Award in 2008, for excellence in political journalism.

The American Independent News Network operates seven other sites besides Michigan Messenger: the Colorado IndependentFlorida IndependentIowa IndependentMinnesota IndependentNew Mexico IndependentTexas Independent, and American Independent, our national news bureau based in Washington, D.C.

Non-profit journalism was supposed to be the answer to the collapse of the traditional news industry’s shrinking readership and advertising bases. The closure of the Michigan Messenger, the contraction, as it were, of the American Independent News Network, is a loss for not only journalism in Michigan, but the non-profit news industry. AINN, with its 8 online news sites, claimed to reach a total of 500,000 unique readers per month, or 40,000 unique readers per site, on average. That’s a great readership for a niche site, but not enough for a statewide site to compete with Advance/Booth, the company that serves 200,000 subscribers in southeastern lower Michigan with its eight newspapers.

On November 16, 2011 David S. Bennahum, CEO & founder, The American Independent News Network, posted this to the Michigan Messenger site:

I am writing today to announce the closure of the Michigan Messenger. After four years of operation in Michigan, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news into a single site, The American Independent at Americanindependent.com.

This is part of a shift in strategy, towards new forms of journalism made available as technology has advanced, and an increasing emphasis on national coverage and issue-based coverage from our network. Over the coming months, AINN will announce a number of new journalism initiatives that will continue to advance our mission of producing impact journalism in the public interest.

Going forward, an archive of the Messenger’s reporting will exist on AmericanIndependent.com.

We are grateful for the loyal readership of the Messenger, and to the outstanding work of our reporters and editors.

We look forward to keeping you posted on our plans, which will be announced early next year.

Best regards,

David S. Bennahum
CEO & founder, The American Independent News Network

Like the early-November 2011 recent announcement of the Advance/Booth company that it was consolidating advertising sales and editorial production of it 8 newspapers published in southeastern Michigan, the market continues to batter traditional for profit and non-profit news sites. Advance/Booth, the owners of AnnArbor.com, put a happy face on what can only be described as a flat out restructuring to further cut costs. According to a piece by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute: “All eight of the papers, including the largest in Grand Rapids, will now drop home-delivered print editions; the paper will be printed daily but home-delivered only two or three days a week outside of Flint, where it’ll be delivered four days.”

In March 2011, AnnArbor.com tried to quietly slash staff and restructure its own news and sales staff (top management were not impacted). In a move that can only be described as Orwellian, the news outlet made the cuts without reporting on the changes on its own web site, or in the pages of its own newspaper. It wasn’t until two weeks later, that readers got an explanation from one of the site’s execs. A2Politico, tipped off by one of the staffers who had been axed, reported on the news site’s downsizing.

It’s clear that Advance, in creating a new entity that will focus on digital delivery, smaller reporting staffs, and curtailed home delivery is hoping to keep their Michigan properties profitable—a challenge both in the industry, as well as in the Michigan economy, where advertisers simply are not spending like they once did in print newspapers. Freefromeditors, a great news industry blog run by a former Booth employee, ferreted out in a November 16, 2011 entry what the “new” Advance newspaper group will look like:

Here are the total layoffs as reported to the State for the Jackson Cit-Pat. I will post links (the link to the Grand Rapids corporate layoffs is broken) as they come. It is a total of 71 for the Jackson paper and many from the newsroom.

A total of 91 of the current 142 employees at the Flint Journal received the layoff notices. The positions lost are listed here.

Saginaw News is reporting 12 positions gone.

Crain’s Detroit Business summed up the changes succinctly: “The analysis and interviews also indicate that MLive Media Group will accelerate a trend to have freelance writers, columnists and bloggers provide more locally produced news coverage than full-time reporters and editors. The new corporation is balancing the industry trend of lower revenue with reducing its fixed expenses, such as full-time salaries and benefits.”

Translation: Michigan readers can enjoy more news on the cheap so that an out-of-state corporate owner can turn a profit. Hopefully. We’ll find out within the next 24-36 months whether this move worked. If it hasn’t Advance will either break up the MLive media Group, then sell its news properties in the state, or try to sell the whole MLive Group.

The shuttering of The Michigan Messenger is an exponentially greater loss than the MickyDification and downsizing of the Advance Empire in Michigan. Why? The quality of the editorial product offered by Advance in the Michigan marketplace ranges from acceptable to sub-standard down to abysmal “aggregation” of other news sites’ content (journalistic shoplifting). Moving other Michigan newspapers in the editorial direction of AnnArbor.com will further degrade the quality of the news offered to the state’s readers.

The Michigan Messenger, as a news site owned and operated by a non-profit parent company, had a stated mission that puts people before profits, and the reported for the common good on page one, as opposed to “Who’s at whose Throat”—a marketing slogan used by AnnArbor.com:

The American Independent News Network investigates and disseminates news that impacts public debate and advances the common good. To accomplish its mission, The American Independent News Network operates an independent online news network.   An informed citizenry is a fundamental principle of civil society and American democracy; in the words of the Supreme Court in Garrison v. Louisiana: “Speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self government.”  Our reporting emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.

Michigan should miss you. 

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