American Journalism Review Asks, “How Has AnnArbor.com Worked?” Answer: It Has Had A “Terrible Effect On The City”
Charles R. Eisendrath directs the Knight-Wallace Fellows program in journalism at the University of Michigan. He’s a former Washington and foreign correspondent for Time magazine. Suffice it to say that Eisendrath has not shied away from opportunities to smack around Advance Publications and AnnArbor.com in the national media. First he told the New York Times in July 2012: “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. I don’t trust anything that is done on the cheap.” Then the American Journalism Review piled on. That piece begins: “Three years before it announced it was taking a digital-first approach and cutting back on print publishing at papers in New Orleans and five other cities, Newhouse’s Advance Publications adopted a similar MO in Ann Arbor, Michigan. How has it worked out?”
How has it worked out? If you don’t have anything nice to say, just sit next to Charles R. Eisendrath (pictured right), the Dorothy Parker of local journo-crit. He told AJR: “The News was never the New York Times and had been on the decline for some time, it was an adequate, serviceable local daily. But AnnArbor.com, has proven to be an insufficient substitute and has had a terrible effect on the city.” Eisendrath, as it turns out, was only just warming up. He saved his knuckleball for the final pitch: “If you pay people a third of what they were paid before, and you have a third as many of them, the results aren’t exactly rocket science. More specifically, the result has been anemic coverage. If this is the model for the future of traditional news organizations, they need to begin calling themselves something else. Not news organizations.”
There are, no doubt, people who would pay good money to see Eisendrath debate Laurel Champion, the AnnArbor.com VP in charge of rubbing elbows with potential advertisers, on the subject of whether AnnArbor.com is or is not a “news organization.”
Lindsay Kalter, a freelancer who wrote the piece about AnnArbor.com for the AJR, asked Dan Gaydou, president of Ann Arbor.com’s parent, MLive Media Group, if she could visit the AnnArbor.com newsroom and discuss the operation with him. Gaydou replied via email: “We’ve decided to decline your request to visit with our employees or release information about reporters, but I’m glad to give you current circulation and audience data.” This harkens back to former AnnArbor.com Kontent King Tony Dearing’s refusal to cooperate with the NPR show “Marketplace” in December 2009.
In 2009, A2Politico posted a piece about the stonewalling of Marketplace reporter Jennifer Guerra in which I wrote: “What does give me pause is that none of the Three Musketeers (Tony Dearing, Matt Kraner and Laurel Champion) in charge at AnnArbor.com would go on the record about how the site/newspaper replacement for the Ann Arbor News is faring. That’s too bad, because secrecy breeds speculation. It was a similar story when a writer from the Ann Arbor Observer did a piece about the plight of the Ann Arbor News, and then-publisher Laurel Champion refused to comment.”
It’s almost three years later, and now Dan Gaydou is stonewalling Kalter. No access to any of AnnArbor.com’s 13 reporters? Gayou did, however, gladly share information from the site’s media kit, filled with puffery and outlandish audience and reach numbers based on phone surveys of a couple of hundred county residents. It’s a shame Kalter didn’t simply pick up the phone and start dialing the extensions of the freelancers and reporters who whip up “churnalism” for the site. Those who have approached A2Politico for writing gigs have, uniformly, said they are embarrassed to be writing for AnnArbor.com. Kalter also got the cold shoulder from Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the digital division of Advance Publications, and Randy Siegel, president of local digital strategy at Advance. The boys, no doubt busy getting cut rate mani-pedis, did not return Kalter’s phone calls and e-mails.
In an August 3 column published on poynter.org, Newhouse depicted the Ann Arbor transition as a great success. “AnnArbor.com scaled nicely; it exceeded our expectations for audience growth and performed well by increasing our digital revenue,” he wrote. “The website has consistently ranked #1 in the United States for having the highest local market penetration (54.9 percent) among consumers of any local newspaper site in America, according to Media Audit.”
Newhouse bragged to Poynter.com: “The reason for AnnArbor.com’s strong readership is the high quality of its journalism. In the past two years, the site won 21 awards in the Michigan Associated Press Editorial Association’s news-writing contest, including first place awards in investigative reporting, breaking news and column writing, and second place in community service. Those 21 awards, in 2011 and 2010, represented the highest total of any newspaper in its circulation category.”
What Newhouse didn’t mention was that one of those editorial awards was for a piece so riddled errors the owners of AnnArborChronicle.com asked the Michigan Associated Press to review a 2012 award given for the piece to AnnArbor.com writer Ryan J. Stanton. Then, AnnArborChronicle.com blasted Stanton and his boss in a juicy op-ed that had the AA.Chron Publisher “spewing coffee” when she discovers Stanton’s AP award, and questioning whether Stanton’s boss, Dearing, needs lessons in ethics.
The owners of the AA.Chron and Charles Eisendrath aren’t the only locals who find AnnArbor.com lacking. Micheline Maynard, is a former New York Times reporter who now makes her home in Ann Arbor. She penned a May 24, 2012 Forbes column titled “What New Orleans Can Expect When Its Newspaper Goes Away.” In that piece she writes that AnnArbor.com has “less gravitas than its predecessor. No offense to its staff, but AnnArbor.com, online at least, is a constantly updated blog, which gives equal play to impaled cyclists and rabid skunks as it does to politics and crime.”
So how’s that strategy working out?
Gaydou told Lindsay Kalter that the print edition of AnnArbor.com has a Sunday circulation of 37,003 and a Thursday circulation of 30,422. When the Ann Arbor News folded, the Sunday circulation was 54,207, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. This means that AnnArbor.com has lost, perhaps as much as $5 million dollars in subscriber revenues alone over the past three years, if one calculates the number of lost subscribers by the current $9 per month subscription cost. Multiply those same lost subscribers by the $12 per month cost of a subscription to the Ann Arbor News, and subscription revenue losses top $6.5 million dollars over the past 32 months. Have deep staff cuts and advertising revenue made up for the loss of subscribers and their money? That is, literally, the million dollar question.
Analysts in the industry scoffed at Dearing’s claims that AnnArbor.com was doing just fine, thanks, and they’re rolling their eyes at Gaydou’s boasts of “quality journalism” and “strong readership.” Like the dilemma that haunts Facebook and Groupon, users that can’t be monetized are just so much surplus population. If Advance Publications were a publicly-traded company, Gaydou’s see-through platitudes about AnnArbor.com’s “reach” would be shredded by cranky market analysts who don’t care about the number of visitors to a site, but rather focus on the revenue each visitor/visit produces.
The bottom line? The Newhouse family is poised to do to the New Orleans news marketplace exactly what the company has done to Ann Arbor. Then, again, as Charles Eisendrath pointed out to the American Journalism Review, Ann Arbor has never enjoyed much accountability journalism from its local news providers. Even the sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued Professor Eisendrath is prone to a bit of the Gaydou blarney. Eisendrath tells Lindsay Kalter: “While residents are still warming to the idea of AnnArbor.com, other startups are reaping the benefits. Many in Ann Arbor are turning to…The Ann, a monthly magazine started in 2010 that sticks mostly to human interest features, with a tagline of “Inform, critique, amuse, inspire.”
What Eisendrath does not tell Kalter is that he serves as an advisor to The Ann, launched by a former Knight-Wallace fellow. The Ann’s business model, like that of the Ann Arbor Observer, and the AnnArborChronicle.com, is to distribute content to readers free of charge and pay the bills with ads—including ads from local government, county government and the school district. The Observer has taken in over $100K in ad revenue from the City of Ann Arbor in some years, and over half of AnnArborChronicle.com’s 2012 list of advertisers include local school district and government ads, as well as ads from companies owned by folks who routinely endorse local elected officials. It’s a business model that discourages investigative journalism and pointed questions about, well, most everything.
In that respect, it’s unfair to hammer AnnArbor.com as having had a “terrible effect on the city.” The company has had loads of help from other media outlets chasing a shrinking pool of advertising dollars by producing editorial content that won’t offend advertisers. In this respect, Ann Arbor was a news desert well before the Newhouse family began its march toward the systematic decimation of credible journalism in Michigan and Louisiana in order to keep Steve Newhouse and Dan Gaydou in their corner offices.
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