MLive Prez (Accidentally) Confims That AnnArbor.com Unique Visitor Count Has Plummeted By 643,000 Since July 2011
by P.D. Lesko
The history of the telescope is fascinating. This piece is not about that. However, it is about The Ann magazine’s futile and ultimately disappointing attempt to give readers insight into AnnArbor.com using what amounts to a journalistic telescope. Don’t get me wrong. Writing about AnnArbor.com and getting the Big Brush Off from A. Matt Kraner (former AnnArbor.com CEO), B. Tony Dearing (former AnnArbor.com Kontent King) and/or C. Laurel Champion (AnnArbor.com VP in charge of Professional Conflicts of Interest) is a sport played by journalistic heavy-hitters across the nation who hoped to get the skinny on what the impact AnnArbor.com’s “churnalism” has had on the city’s news consumers. “Churnalism” is the clever description of AA.com’s content cooked up by AnnArborChronicle.com Publisher Mary Morgan. Every now and again, Publisher Morgan crosses the editorial barrier and pens a scathing indictment of AnnArbor.com. Morgan’s snarky tirades are always fun to read. She worked for the now defunct Ann Arbor News for a dozen years before taking a buy-out and launching a site where one can read “chronicles” of government meetings—among other content.
Despite cutting reporting staff, losing the majority of its Ann Arbor News holdovers to the Detroit Free Press, the departure of Matt Kraner and Tony Dearing (air-lifted out—no doubt—to save face and money) AnnArbor.com soldiers on, serving up pithy re-writes of press releases, and the occasional originally reported piece. Readers flock to the site to read crime stories, obits and stories about U of M sports—these posts often have the highest number of comments. The quality of the reporting drives the news blog’s readers, freelance writers (and national media analysts) to distraction and, often, readers dig into the stories themselves. Influential national media analyst Jim Romenesko has lambasted AnnArbor.com over business and reporting flubs multiple times. Most recently, Romenesko posted a piece titled: “COMMENTERS DISCOVER THAT MAGICIAN IN FEEL-GOOD FEATURE HAS LENGTHY CRIMINAL RECORD.” He reports:
AnnArbor.com posted a feel-good story over the weekend about magician Kip Barry setting up shop in space previously used by the Obama campaign. He tells freelancer Angela Smith that Kip Barry’s Magic and Performing Arts Center will be “a place to inspire creativity, imagination and the arts” — “a wonderful community-based combination magic studio/ performing arts center complete with a concession including cookies, cupcakes and soft drinks.”
That sounds really nice, but then AnnArbor.com commenters went to work and discovered that the magician (real name: Kristopher Paul Barry) has a lengthy criminal record, which includes telephone harassment, stalking, fraud, issuing a worthless check, and DUI. (He’s currently wanted for parole violation.)
So what does a news site do when “the rest of the story” is written in the comments section?
Get very red in the face, posits Romenesko.
The most recent issue of The Ann magazine has a piece titled “The New News.” Freelance writer Patrick Cliff, who fesses up to “four years of reporting” experience, penned a 2,500 word article that bobs and weaves, jabs and dances, and in the end eats up 6 perfectly good pages of the 38 page magazine and doesn’t include a word about AnnArbor.com’s print circulation (decimated), or a single quote from VP Laurel Champion.
“I tried unsuccessfully to get comments for this story from Laurel Champion,” writes Cliff.
To Cliff’s credit, he did dig up data from the 2012 Pew Internet & American Life Project study of “local news habits.” However, it would have been a much stronger piece had Cliff asked Champion the question: “So what does a news site do when ‘the rest of the story’ is written in the comments section?”
Patrick Cliff joins Michigan Radio’s reporter Jennifer Guerra and the Columbia Journalism Review editor Ryan Chittum as members of the “AnnArbor.com Dissed Me Fan Club.” In 2009, six months after AnnArbor.com was launched, Michigan Radio sent Guerra to get the scoop on the news site. She came up empty-handed. Kraner, Dearing and Champion refused to talk to the Michigan Radio reporter. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Chittum, in October of 2012, was given the bum’s rush by MLive execs. who told him that he couldn’t talk to AnnArbor.com staffers, and was barred from visiting the AnnArbor.com newsroom. Nonetheless, Chittum came to Ann Arbor to interview AnnArbor.com staffers, as well as other local news producers (including A2Politico and Mary Morgan, among others).
Oddly, unlike other reporters who’ve been stiff-armed by AnnArbor.com, The Ann’s reporter forgot to Google AnnArbor.com. Had he done that, he would have unearthed a plethora of spin from the gang at AnnArbor.com. Had Cliff used AnnArbor.com’s own article archive he would have turned up two glowing anniversary missives from former Kontent King Tony Dearing—who was transferred to NJ.com before he had a chance to write a third advertorial boasting about AnnArbor.com’s “successes.” In August 2012 Steve Newhouse, the Chairman of Advance.net—the company that owns MLive and AnnArbor.com—penned an opinion piece titled “Steve Newhouse explains Michigan transition, Times-Picayune future” for the Poynter Institute’s blog. Newhouse boasts:
Our efforts to deal with the changing media landscape began in 2009, when we announced the closing of The Ann Arbor News, a seven-day-a-week print newspaper, and replaced it with AnnArbor.com, a digital media company that also published print papers two days a week. Similar changes occurred at our papers in Bay City, Saginaw, and Flint.
We learned a lot in these initial Eastern Michigan markets. We learned, in concrete terms, about the power of digital distribution and the value of printed newspapers for consumers and advertisers on certain days of the week. AnnArbor.com scaled nicely; it exceeded our expectations for audience growth and performed well by increasing our digital revenue. 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.
The reason for AnnArbor.com’s strong readership is the high quality of its journalism.
Newhouse’s claim that AnnArbor.com has “strong” readership based on the site’s “market penetration” (aka name recognition) is questionable, at best.
Since the Ann Arbor News folded in July 2009, readership of the print AnnArbor.com newspaper has fallen from a high of 52,000 (Sunday) to 34,000 (Sunday) as of the company’s most recent information given out to advertisers. Newhouse and the fine folks who sell advertising at AnnArbor.com claim that the site has the “highest market penetration” of any newspaper in the county. Steve Newhouse writes, “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.”
There’s a huge problem with this libretto.
In July of 2010, AnnArbor.com Kontent King Tony Dearing wrote his first anniversary missive: “Taken together, our readership online and in print means that we reach 69 percent of adults in Washtenaw County on a regular basis.” In actuality, AnnArbor.com’s total readership is falling. On the site’s advertising page, the most recent telephone survey of 200 or so county residents by Media Audit on behalf of AnnArbor.com concluded that readership online and in print reaches 67.5 percent of all adults in Washtenaw County. It’s a minor dip, yes, but there’s more.
The Ann, while relying on quotes about AnnArbor.com from political insiders such as Laura Rubin, who heads the Huron River Watershed Council and Josie Parker, Executive Director of the Ann Arbor District Library (one of The Ann’s regular advertisers), missed the September/October 2012 piece about AnnArbor.com published in the American Journalism Review titled, “The Ann Arbor Precedent.” In that piece, which A2Politico covered here, writer Lindsay Kaltar asks (and answers) the tough questions side-stepped by The Ann. Kaltar writes: “With just 13 reporters listed on its staff page, AnnArbor.com has a much smaller news team than the News did, and the journalists are working for far less pay. So what impact has the transition from Ann Arbor News to AnnArbor.com had on the city? How good is the journalism at the digital-first news outlet? Does the demise of local print newspapers have a fracturing effect on communities, as many in New Orleans fear?” While MLive head Dan Gaydou refused to (you guessed it) talk to Lindsay Kaltar, he did provide audience and readership information. Kaltar writes: “According to Gaydou, the print edition of AnnArbor.com has a Sunday circulation of 37,003 and a Thursday circulation of 30,422, compared with 49,000 on Sunday and 39,000 daily just before the News closed. In June the Web site had 557,000 unique visitors, Gaydou says. Print subscriptions are $9 a month, and were $12 for the News.”
These stats are, frankly, shocking.
In his July 2011 anniversary advertorial, Tony Dearing writes, “Back then, we told you that our site traffic had grown from an average of 115,000 unique visitors a week in August 2009 to a little more than 200,000 a week in July 2010. This past week, we saw close to 300,000 unique visitors.” Thus, in July 2011, AnnArbor.com was hosting 1.2 million unique visitors per month. Thirteen months later MLive’s Dan Gaydou emailed the American Journalism Review’s reporter that AnnArbor.com had hosted 557,000 unique visitors in the month of June 2012. That’s a drop of 643,000 unique visitors per month from Dearing’s July 2011 anniversary message to readers. This means AnnArbor.com lost 65 percent of the site’s unique monthly visitors over the course of 11 months. Did Dan Gaydou make a mistake when reporting unique monthly visitors to the reporter from the AJR? Did Tony Dearing fib about AnnArbor.com’s monthly unique readership gains in July 2011?
Any way you slice the quotes from the MLive President and anniversary messages from AnnArbor.com management team in July 2010 and July 2011, it becomes clear that while AnnArbor.com executives sell the news blog’s name recognition and “market penetration,” the actual truth is this: While 67.5 percent of adults in Washtenaw County have heard about AnnArbor.com, fewer of them than ever subscribe to the newspaper and significantly fewer of them visit the company’s website than did in 2010. While Lindsay Kaltar, who did a very credible job of reporting on AnnArbor.com for the AJR, she missed connecting the dots between Dearing’s anniversary messages and Gaydou’s numbers given to her. Are MLive and its news site AnnArbor.com misleading local small business owners and non-profits by selling “reach” (name recognition) in order to hide the fact that the site has lost 643,000 unique visitors in 12 months, and AnnArbor.com newspaper Sunday circulation has fallen by 35 percent since July 2009?
In his opinion piece published in August 2012, Steve Newhouse concludes with this: “The changes we have made in Michigan have strengthened our confidence that we can secure a vital future for our local journalism elsewhere. While we believe that our print revenue will decline further, we are hopeful that our increased focus on digital will allow digital revenue to become an even greater revenue growth engine, and, eventually, turn our local companies into growth businesses once more, allowing them to continue to serve their communities with the quality of journalism that readers expect.”
In short, Newhouse hopes to milk more digital revenue from AnnArbor.com’s plummeting digital readership by, one realizes, hook or crook.
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