New Orleans Residents Out to Kill NOLA.com—Boycott Launched Of Site Modeled on AnnArbor.com
by P.D. Lesko
Over the past 24 months, AnnArbor.com has seen the departure of most of its experienced reporters to more prestigious and higher paying surroundings—such as the Detroit Free Press. There are media analysts, however, that expect the Freep to be closed by 2015, as Detroit is no longer able to support two daily newspapers. This is bad news for former AnnArbor.com reporters such as David Jesse (higher education) and Nathan Bomey (business), both of whom decamped to the Freep from AnnArbor.com.
What started as a “bold experiment” in the merging of print and digital media has devolved into a site which produces “churnalism,” or so sniffed the owners/writers at the AnnArborChronicle.com, launched around the same time the Ann Arbor News was shuttered. In June 2012, AAChronicle.com publisher Mary Morgan jumped into the editorial fray and posted a piece (again) lambasting AnnArbor.com for a variety of deadly sins, including sloth and pride. AnnArborChronicle.com’s owners suffer from a touch of envy, pride and lust while attempting to compete for ad dollars with a billion dollar conglomerate.
Advance Publications closed the Ann Arbor News because Publisher Laurel Champion couldn’t keep the paper profitable, and because someone in New York had a great idea for saving a buck by slapping content created by low-paid inexperienced journos and unpaid locals online. Then, the executives at Advance put Champion and two others (Tony Dearing and Matt Kraner), none of whom had experience in overseeing a digital news environment, in charge of AnnArbor.com. As you can imagine, there were promises aplenty; watching the “news product” sold to an unwitting Ann Arbor community was sad. It was nothing short of journalistic hucksterism. People in Ann Arbor wanted to believe that a news company with a handful of low-paid journalists could produce quality news. Keep in mind those journos would be only slightly better paid than the Journatic grunts who crank out “outsourced journalism” for major news outlets trying to save a buck on production costs.
Turns out your mother was right. You do get what you pay for. As it also turns out, clustering print newspapers into a porfolio and trying to turn on a profit on volume ad sales while leveraging often sub-standard editorial content across holdings and platforms is as failed a business model as there ever was. It’s not journalism that’s dying; it’s Big Box journalism and clustering that’s dying. Southeastern Michigan’s news market is controlled by three Big Box news companies (Advance, MediaNews Group and Heritage).
In the case of AnnArbor.com what the community has gotten, with a few exceptions, has been incurious reporting and an embarrassing reliance on press releases. In response to the May 2012 New York Times article that the T-P was slashing staff and cutting its print schedule (T-P employees were not notified before the news leaked), an AnnArbor.com reader posted this comment: “It is sad to see that journalism in another city is ending. Several years ago when the Ann Arbor News closed down, this city lost its main source of news. The company that runs AnnArbor.com has proven itself time and time again to sensationalize the most trivial issues, ignore facts and generally avoid printing anything that resembles fair, unbiased and accurate news.”
The quality of the Ann Arbor News under Laurel Champion was bad enough to prompt locals to refer to the paper as “The Snews.” Ann Arbor’s printed newspaper went from Snews to Coma. When Tony Dearing left, Paula Gardner (an Ann Arbor News hold-over) was moved up to oversee content. She supervises AnnArbor.com’s entire editorial staff. She’s got her hands full.
A2Politico has regularly fielded anonymous complaints from (I think) former Ann Arbor News reporters about the work of Ryan Stanton. The first complaint accused Stanton of plagiarism. Sure enough, he’d lifted quotes from an Ann Arbor News article written earlier by another reporter and passed the quotes off as his own work—as if he’d spoken to the city staffer himself. In response to a question about the piece in which the pilfered materials appeared, Tony Dearing had emailed back that he’d “worked with Stanton every step of the way.” The anonymous complaints about Stanton’s propensity to “borrow” the work of other writers (including citing press releases without attribution) have never stopped.
This June 2012 story about the quality of the journalism produced by AnnArbor.com comes from Poor Mojo’s Media Wire, a site written by Ann Arbor locals:
As an aside, this totally meshes with my experience of AnnArbor.com and Dearing. Soon after the site’s launch (it replaced our 174-year-old local print daily, The Ann Arbor News in 2009) I raised some concerns with the paper over an article that was 1) under a misleading byline, because it was 2) more than 85 percent copy-pasted from an AP Wire story, and 3) the three paragraphs of actual local “reporting” each contained substantive errors that 4) I was able to personally clear up in five minutes. I ended up conversing over email with Dearing. He was really remarkably pleasant and disingenuous, and it was really clearly implied that that he did not give a crap about clarity or accuracy at his paper. As I spoke with former News and then-current AnnArbor.com employees, my impression of the operation wasn’t improved. The paper has since basically devolved into a press-release reprinting service. The very best thing I can say about AnnArbor.com is that they are, as an organization, extraordinarily lazy.
In a June 2012 piece about newspapers cutting publishing schedules, the New York Times interviewed Geoff Larcom (who refused to take a position with AnnArbor.com because his $60K per year Ann Arbor News salary would have been slashed to $45K). He told the newspaper: “The more noticeable changes have been in its content. While the Web site AnnArbor.com has improved, the Web site and paper lost columns, features and investigative pieces. The dot-com is a much more news-hit-directed entity. It wants to get news up that will direct traffic. You don’t get a broad feel for the town.”
Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Knight Wallace Journalism Fellows at the University of Michigan, was more blunt. He told the New York Times that AnnArbor.com has become irrelevant to the community. “The quality of AnnArbor.com declined so much that I no longer subscribed and did not need to read the paper at work. Is AnnArbor.com discussed much in Ann Arbor? No. Is it an authority? No,” Mr. Eisendrath said. “I don’t trust anything that is done on the cheap.”
After Dearing decamped for NJ.com, AnnArbor.com got rid of its editorial board and stopped producing editorials. In three short years, AnnArbor.com has become a journalistic eunuch. The Ann Arbor News didn’t have particularly big cojones when it came to investigative reporting or editorial writing, but AnnArbor.com hasn’t got any balls at all.
Welcome to the “bold new experiment,” and please turn off the lights when you’re the last one out of the AnnArbor.com offices.
Advance Publications, the company that birthed AnnArbor.com as a “blended” news product, is trying to sell the idea to the fine folks in New Orleans, including the experienced reporters whom they want to hire at reduced salaries. In May 2012, Advance announced that the Pulitzer-winning New Orleans Times-Picayune, a 175-year-old daily newspaper, would follow in the footsteps of the Ann Arbor News. In Fall 2012 the T-P would morph into NOLA.com—AnnArbor.com with a southern accent. There, the paper would be printed thrice weekly and the rest of the time the thousands of poor and black people in NOLA without Internet access can go online and read the news (translation: go piss up a rope). In May 2012 The Lens reported that:
Post-Katrina, New Orleans officials planned for and began a municipal broadband effort to provide wide access, but that was dashed by harsh economic realities and then snakebit by political corruption. Statewide, a public effort to expand access in rural areas was canceled when Gov. Bobby Jindal refused to accept the terms of a federal grant for the work. Officials in Layfayette created their own municipal subscription network that’s been held up as a model effort, a service that was recently featured in USA Today.
Orleans Parish has 40 percent to 60 percent broadband subscription rates, which compares poorly with most metropolitan counties nationwide, which average in the 60 percent to 80 percent range. Louisiana is ranked 44th out of 50 states in terms of broadband subscription, with just 51 percent of residents subscribing, according to data compiled by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. The average state has 60 percent broadband subscription.
The New Orleans data show that wealthy, white Uptown New Orleans has subscription rates of between 80 and 100 percent, and suburban areas such as Metairie and Belle Chasse are similarly well served. Meanwhile poorer, more African American areas such as the Lower 9th Ward have broadband subscription rates of between 0 and 40 percent.
Selling the “bold, new experiment” in New Orleans has been more challenging than it was to the rich, white, educated, Internet-savvy rubes in Ann Arbor. While southern folks may have a reputation as being more polite, the New Orleans community has been flaying Advance Publications alive. In June New Orleans civic and business leaders led a protest and pressed the publisher of the T-P to reverse the decision to move to a reduced print schedule or sell the paper to a group of investors. Advance officials refused. Daily print circulation of the Times-Picayune has fallen sharply in recent years, from more than a 260,000 in 2005 to 133,500 this March 2012, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. If AnnArbor.com’s “success” is any indication, the print circulation of the T-P will fall by a further 35-40 percent after the paper moves to its “blended news product” model. When the Ann Arbor News folded, the Sunday circulation was 54,207. AnnArbor.com has 34,943 Sunday readers, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
The quality of the T-P reporting will suffer tremendously. There will be defections among the experienced reporters and editors as they find jobs at newspapers owned by companies that haven’t put a belts around their figurative necks, tightened them hard, and called the resulting strangulation “a bold, new experiment” in “blended media.” In 24 months after NOLA.com goes live, there will be layoffs and cuts. New Orleans, the Big Easy, will be stuck with a journalistic eunuch, while “blended news product” model moves like Ebola through the entire Advance portfolio of newspapers. There are rays of hope, however. New Orleans business owners are boycotting NOLA.com and withholding advertising dollars. The T-P recently lost a $1.2 million dollar ad contract. There’s a Facebook page for individuals interested in the boycott movement. A Baton Rouge, Louisiana publisher is hiring T-P reporters and preparing to launch a print newspaper to serve the New Orleans marketplace. Advance, interestingly, announced that NOLA.com would expand into Baton Rouge.
In July 2012 The Atlantic Wire reported:
Stephanie Grace, a former statewide columnist, declined a job as a reporter, and Bill Barrow, a longtime reporter who covered health care, is going to work for The Associated Press. Bob Marshall, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the newspaper’s outdoors editor, took a pass as well.
So how are those in power reacting to all this? According to New Orleans’ alternative paper, The Gambit:
The number of veteran personnel turning down the new company’s offer — particularly long-time metro reporters — is said to have taken those in the executive suite aback.
“Frankly, they’re shitting bricks,” said one person with knowledge of the meetings. A second person with knowledge of the talks told Gambit, “I’d say that’s accurate.”
Conglomerates such as Advance will cripple communities with on-the-cheap news coverage, that, as Charles Eisendrath says above, can’t be trusted. Company executives like Tony Dearing will declare the whole mess an unqualified success and writers like Ryan Stanton will describe Dearing’s loss thusly: “We’re losing a key member of our team, but we’ll march on with the values Tony instilled in us through his constant professionalism and journalistic integrity.” The AnnArbor.com/NOLA.com story is a cautionary tale in corporate greed. The boycott supported by the T-P’s most talented reporters and editors, as well as business owners and city residents is a lesson in organized protest. The goal of the boycott is simple: take down the Sometimes Picayune and NOLA.com, as if the “news product” imported from Ann Arbor were a rabid dog.
Can a community take out its own newspaper? Absolutely. Should it? NOLA.com’s own journos say “Hell, yes!” Ann Arbor business owners and residents should pay close attention to this, the latest Battle of New Orleans. It might just provide a road map for those interested in driving AnnArbor.com out of town and replacing it with, yes, a locally-owned daily newspaper.
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