Readership of AA.com Plummets 75% According to Execs—Site Loses Another Key Staffer to the Freep

by P.D. Lesko

If the down-sizing and attrition continue apace at AnnArbor.com, Laurel Champion, former publisher of the Ann Arbor News, will be left to head the organization as Executive Vice President in Charge of, Well, Everything. Steve Pepple (pictured below, right), former Print Director for AnnArbor.com, has decamped to the Detroit Free Press. You didn’t hear? That’s because unlike the fanfare that accompanied Pepple’s AnnArbor.com hiring, and unlike the departures of AnnArbor.com President Matt Kraner and then Kontent King Tony Dearing to NJ.com, Pepple’s departure went unreported—despite the fact that he gave the Ann Arbor community over 15 years of his life as a news editor. Since July 2009, when New York-based media company Advance Publications shuttered the money-losing Ann Arbor News and launched its self-proclaimed “successful experiment” in digital journalism, the news blog has slowly wasted away. The AnnArbor.com masthead now lists two editors, 12 reporters, three “news directors,” along with 10 advertising sales staff, and half a dozen other support staff (VP Champion has not one but two assistants). This head count is down from the approximately 272 staffers who produced the Ann Arbor News prior to the paper’s demise. The count is also significantly down from the 35 reporters and dozens of “community contributors” who produced content for AnnArbor.com when the site launched in 2009.

The question asked by news outlets from Michigan Radio to the Columbia Journalism Review is this: Is AnnArbor.com profitable after 40 months in business, or are Advance and MLive executives propping up the news blog, desperately hoping that revenue from digital advertising will grow enough to make the “experiment” successful? Advance Publications, the parent company that owns MLive which, in turn, oversees AnnArbor.com, has refused to provide information about whether AnnArbor.com is making money. Instead, MLive and Advance executives point to AnnArbor.com’s “market penetration” as evidence that their digital model is a smash hit, a better gauge of a newspaper’s success than audited circulation numbers. Sleuthing by A2Politico recently revealed, however, that the “market penetration” aka name recognition of AnnArbor.com fell slightly last year. Circulation of the company’s AnnArbor.com newspaper has fallen 40 percent since 2009.

In addition, A2Politico discovered statements made to various publications by AnnArbor.com, MLive and Advance executives between March 2011 and June 2012 revealed that unique visits to AnnArbor.com have plummeted by 75 percent. In short, the site went from hosting 2 million unique visitors per month in January 2011 to hosting just 557,000 unique visitors per month in June 2012—a shocker confirmed by MLive’s Dan GaydouIn March 2011 Matt Kraner emailed Crain’s Detroit that he was: “quite pleased with our (year over year) traffic growth. Kraner claimed that average daily unique users had improved from 42,613 in January 2010 to 68,045 in January 2011, or that AnnArbor.com hosted over 2 million unique users each month. If Kraner was telling the truth, between March 2011 to June 2012—in the space of 15 months—AnnArbor.com lost a whopping 72 percent of its daily unique readers, down from 68,045 in March 2011 (Kraner’s claim) to 18,566 in June 2012 (Gaydou’s confession).

The debate over the quality of the journalism produced by AnnArbor.com has been decided—the reporting was most recently referred to in the pages of the American Journalism Review as “anemic.”

Two rounds of staff cuts, the loss of many key, experienced reporters to the Detroit Free Press, and now the departure of Steve Pepple, have given rise to a different theory about why Advance is exporting the AnnArbor.com model to its other newspapers. It has been suggested that by implementing the AnnArbor.com low-budget journalism model across the company’s newspaper division, Advance can stave off financial disaster at the two dozen or so newspapers it owns. Under the AnnArbor.com “model,” staff has been cut by 90 percent, pay rates by 30-40 percent, and frequency of printed papers was cut by 71 percent. In short, the “experiment in digital journalism” is little more than a draconian scheme to cut overhead dressed up as a new business model. The cuts are coupled with selling online advertising using over-stated (perhaps) and misunderstood (definitely) “market penetration” gobbledygook to unsophisticated, small town business advertisers. In other words, now the debate rages as to whether the expected export of the digital journalism model as practiced at AnnArbor.com is a last-ditch attempt to keep the privately held Advance Media’s newspaper division from going under.

Selling advertising to pay for “anemic reporting” is, obviously, what’s best for the family that owns Advance Publications. Anemic reporting offered up by AnnArbor.com, however, is detrimental to the Ann Arbor community. However, the Ann Arbor marketplace is a lucrative one, and it has been suggested that Advance will not give up on it, nor will Advance Publications executives allow their “experiment” in digital journalism to fail. If AnnArbor.com were allowed to go under, where would that leave the company’s digital journalism sites in other marketplaces? Such a failure would leave Advance vulnerable in every marketplace in which the AnnArbor.com “digital journalism” model had been exported, including in much larger cities such as New Orleans and Cleveland (where Advance recently announced it was moving the Cleveland Plain Dealer to a digital model, much to the horror of Cleveland residents).

A 1987 profile of the Newhouse family in Forbes makes for some juicy reading. At one point, the IRS accused the family of tax fraud and imposed a $305 million dollar penalty on a $658 million dollar tax bill. The profile ends, almost too perfectly:

“By all accounts, Steve (Newhouse) is quiet and introverted. Single, he has an apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, and another in Manhattan, where he spends most nights. A true son of his father, he takes the subway to work early in the morning. When he goes to Newark airport, he sometimes hits the subway again and then a bus. The dynastic drama in which these young men have prominent roles may not play out for a while. Their fathers are still relatively young and unlikely to step down soon. It may not even matter that much which members of the Newhouse family next rise to run the empire. When the business is itself the stronghold, the question of who heads it recedes somewhat in importance. Most other enterprises have a character that tends to thwart dynastic ambitions. In these, the founder can deed the enterprise to his heirs but cannot will them the companion essential: management ability. Retailing provides an apt illustration. As the world knows, you can derail a Montgomery Ward or a Sears or a Woolworth’s. Maybe you can even over time derail a Wal-Mart. But it is almost impossible to wreck big monopoly newspapers. About all they will let you do is get richer and richer.”

It’s Steve Newhouse who now oversees the company’s “transition” to digital. In an August 2012 piece posted by Poynter.org, Newhouse writes: “The reason for AnnArbor.com’s strong readership is the high quality of its journalism…..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.”

Newhouse makes these claims about AnnArbor.com just two months after MLive’s President Dan Gaydou told the American Journalism Review that the news blog’s unique visitor count had plummeted to 557,000 from the 2 million unique readers per month claimed by AnnArbor.com President Matt Kraner in 2011 in his interview with Crain’s. One comment in response to Newhouse’s Poynter.org essay provides a more realistic interpretation: “You speak at great length of the maintaining a high quality of journalism throughout Michigan at the new sites. Every reader, every reporter and every former staff member, as noted above, knows this has not happened. The Michigan outlets are shells of their former selves. The communities they purport to serve hate them. And they serve up sensationalized, mostly-aggregated (stolen) content from other news sources. You’ve traded journalism for garbage content, but pretend to move forward as if nothing has changed. Shame on you.”

Meanwhile, at AnnArbor.com Print Director Steve Pepple is out of the Newhouse’s digital journalism petri dish and on to a job as the Assistant Metro Editor at the Freep.

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=14733

37 Comments for “Readership of AA.com Plummets 75% According to Execs—Site Loses Another Key Staffer to the Freep”

  1. anonymous is good

    Or lack of privacy policy I should say.

  2. anonymous is good

    Dave, wow… so the truth is that there are no anonymous posters online and at aa.com. Aa.com will take advantage of the clicks they get from the posters, who think they are posting anonymously, won’t they? But isn’t there a right to privacy? Maybe not, since they are agreeing to the privacy policy when signing up to comment, which was obviously drawn up by a slimy lawyer.

    What if an employee started an anonymous account to comment, and criticized a2.com? They could look through the IP addresses, recognize the name and make the employees life hell if they wanted to.

    I’m never going back to aa.com ever again. That is a terrible policy it seems they likely have, and they don’t deserve my clicks.

  3. Anonymous is good

    Another thing is that I’m not sure that people posting on aa.com are really anonymous. If you read the fine print in the How the “Service Uses Information About You” section, under the privacy policy when signing up for an account to comment, you’ll see that it wouldn’t seem that hard to identify someone if they wanted to. I don’t comment there because of this.
    I hope A2 Politico doesn’t identify anonymous commenters by their I.P address.

    • @Anonymous aa.com uses IP I’m sure of it. Whether A2Politico uses IP to identify people who post I have no clue.

      • This is a WordPress platform and when you comment your IP address is captured. The only time I do anything is when I see someone with the same IP posting on the same story using different screen names (manipulating the discussions, as it were). Otherwise, the comments are automatically posted by the system while I’m, say, gardening or sitting on my deck with a gin and tonic.

  4. Anonymous is good

    Some quick thoughts:
    1.) Paula is a good person and editor. Nobody is perfect. She and the rest at annarbor.com
    are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. At least they are still around,
    slugging it out in a struggling economy.
    2.) Going to the site is just not a good experience. You get slammed with flashing ads
    from every direction. It’s horrible. This Mlive is like a weed that’s slowly taking over the site.
    This ugly, hodgepodge site design is not working. People hate it.
    3.) The ability to post anonymously is good. It’s the best thing they have going on the site.
    Changing that would just silence people and let government get away with more. For example,
    on the U-M eminent domain story, commenters spoke out against it, maybe changing the way some
    perceive U-M. All the discussion is a good thing.
    4.) The same thing is happening at the Freep, just more slowly because of union contracts.
    Soon they will be just a small group of reporters just like aa.com because they are losing money too.
    5.) People are gonna have to just get over the typos, and the reduced coverage of everything.
    Just be happy that someone is still reporting. Because it can and possibly will get worse. When the economy
    tanks and America officially goes bankrupt, which it eventually will just like Detroit, what do you think
    aa.com will look like then? It’ll be all volunteers. So put things in perspective. Be happy with what you have. Despite aa.com’s flaws, they are still there reporting at least. Would you rather have a state-run operation, like AP? There are actually annarborites that think the new newspaper model should be like NPR. Leftist, government-run news in other words. So again, be happy it hasn’t come to that.
    6.) This is an excellent site (a2politico) but can you add some cool features? The government stuff gets to be too much.

  5. Elven is right re: counting unique visitors. You need to correct your article, or you lose all credibility.

  6. I grow weary of these empty and ridiculous assumptions about people who post anonymously. In this day and age, why would anyone put their real name on a post ANYWHERE, especially on a city “paper” in a city where cronyism reigns supreme? I don’t want my name (and therefore, my address and a lot of other publicly available info) known by either the staff, the staff’s friends, or nutcase readers. If you find it somehow noble to John Hancock your posts, great. But to express discontent or any opinion anonymously does not indicate any less veracity, value, or validity.

    • @Anonymous, when I began A2Politico I did so anonymously for just that reason. I wanted to focus to be on the content. Hieftje and his pals have worked mightily to discount A2Politico and its content. Now, folks post links to the content on the local news blogs and the site’s vernacular (Hizzoner, Hive Mind, etc….) is often used by others who have come to see that John Hieftje is a Republican dressed in Dem drag, as are most of his political allies and a good number of his donors. Now all we need is a real newspaper and we’d be on our way to a more responsive and honest city government. People are so afraid in this town of what will happen if they speak out. Here’s what will happen: people will thank you.

  7. I understand. But turnabout is fair play. You say you are disgusted at a reporter from an arbor.com rubbing elbows over a beer at a political fundraiser. Well, I am equally disgusted that you would CENSOR a viewpoint at odds with your own. Not fair!

    • @Andy, I’m not sure what you mean. A2Politico is censored by City Hall. The site can’t be read from any city computers. I’m not sure what you think is being censored.

      The parties I mentioned are not fundraisers. They’re social events that happen every year. I’ve never seen Stanton at a private fundraiser, though I can also say on election night he usually hangs out with the incumbents—except Mike Anglin, at whose election night parties Stanton is never found.

  8. Censorship? I totally agree with Kai! You exclude an opposing viewpoint? Is this journalism? Or, something else?

    • @Andy & @Kai the fine folks at City Hall are not journalists. Some of them are out-of-control empire builders who are wholly unaccustomed to having anyone ask questions that go below the surface of what they want the public to know. The mainstream media is not doing regular investigative reporting, and doesn’t want to jeopardize their cozy relationships or find themselves uninvited to the parties where the politicos and their donors rub elbows. It’s pretty disgusting to see the government reporter at AnnArbor.com throwing back beers with the people he writes about at Ray Detter’s Old Fourth Ward Party or Jeff Irwin’s annual fete.

  9. A2 Politico is censored at city hall? wow. that speaks volumes for itself. even if they don’t agree with you, it is important to know the ‘other side of the story’ — they need to know what others are thinking as well.

  10. When I worked as a managing editor in Detroit, we allowed use of anonymous sources only as a last resort…and only to advance or add clarity to a story. And then, only after exhausting every effort to get sources to go on the record. Sources were NEVER granted anonymity to criticize or take cheap shots at others.

    It sounds like Lisa has put a good policy in place in Chelsea. I think names provide a valuable touchstone for readers when they see viewpoints expressed by people they know.

  11. The reporter can dish it out…….but can’t take it. Very amusing.

  12. I agree. I have long been critical of annarbor.com’s policy of allowing anonymous posts. It was not editorial policy when I left the company. Shoddy reporting is another subject.

    • @Andy, I had lunch with Lisa Allmendinger today who launched ChelseaUpdate.com. Lisa, who worked at AA.com, and who speaks not-so-lovingly about the crackpot comments aimed at her and her reporting for AA.com, decided that folks who want to comment on her news site must use their real names. She told me today she has had just a few people “respectfully decline” to use their real names for a variety of reasons. I agree that it’s easy to respond when anonymous. However, I think there are certain times when anonymity is appropriate.

    • “Shoddy reporting is another subject.” The shoddy reporting dished up at AnnArbor.com is the whole point. The comments are the least of the problems the site has to deal with if you ask me. It’s not the kind of news outlet our community deserves or needs.

      • Dave D. (ANONYMOUS)

        I appreciate – and share- your frustration with news sites. Is there a model for a site that you would like annarbor.com to emulate? And, do you have a real name?

        Andy Chapelle

        • Andy I do have a real name and it’s Dave D. I work for the city, and as long as A2Politico is blocked by the city (no one on a city computer can view A2Politico) it’s best that I use Dave D. What I would like AnnArbor.com to emulate is a good question – how much time you got? I guess I don’t want the site to emulate but to *be* a reliable source of information about what’s going on where I work. It’s not and this is why I read A2Politico and why I imagine A2Politico is blocked by the higher ups where I work.

          I live in Ann Arbor and care about the city. Local news is not just press releases, puff pieces, prep sports and UM. But that’s what AnnArbor.com is selling. I’m not buying – I dropped my subscription to the newspaper, not because I don’t read a newspaper, I do. I just can’t see supporting that business with my money. I wish A2Politico postedmore often, but I’d rather see great stuff put up less often than shoddy reporting pasted up 50 times a day. Just sayin’

          • @Dave D. has been a long-time reader and poster of comments. It is true that A2Politico is censored by Ann Arbor city officials, and has been for quite some time. Then again, the city’s firefighters have been gagged and forbidden from speaking to the media. I wish I had more time to work on the site, because there are 1,000 things to write about. People take me aside at parties with story suggestions, tips and complaints about AnnArbor.com and what the site misses in its reporting. Anyone with a spare $1M dollars should contact me. With that kind of cash I could definitely make time to post more often. In the meantime, I will make an effort in the New Year to be more diligent. Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, lurks, and spreads the word about A2Politico.

          • I understand now. Thanks much for providing me with background.

  13. I strongly disagree with those critics who slander Paula Gardner publicly in print. She is a friend of mine.

    It was my privilege to work with her when I served as news editor at The Ann Arbor News and editor of The Oakland and Ann Arbor Business Reviews. She is an outstanding, hard-working reporter and editor…one of the best I worked with.

    I do however, question the credibility of any website that allows its readers to defame the professional reputation of an honest person…and slither away under a cloak of anonymity.

    • @Andy, thanks. You might send along this suggestion to AA.com, as well, which allows readers to post anonymously, but defames the professional reputations of honest people using bylines and shoddy reporting.

  14. I am so happy to read this article, I feel the same about Paula , I am glad that the readers of A2politico have called her out. Paula if you are reading this 😉 Karma stinks!

  15. I also work with Paula, Im glad she is being called out. She treats people like trash, she is all about her self. If you dont belong to her little group, she looks down on you. Alot of reporters are students, Paula seems to have a promble m with the younger female reporters, one would even say she has a complex promblem.

  16. I work with Paula, she wont put her name on any articles she is upset about this news peice. Alot of us find it funny she really deserves a payback! Merry X Mass A2politico!

    Best Wishes,

    The Unhappy Staff @ Annarbor.com

  17. @ Dshand that’s funny your so right about Paula’s profile pic, I met her at a event last summer and I was told “look that’s Paula Gardner from AA.Com ” I told my friend you don’t know what your talking about. Turns out is was Paula.
    ..she def looks like Joan Rivers

  18. Music to my ears…..I would like to see Paula Gardner fired she behaves as if she owns Annarbor.com. I wish she would update her profile pic its 20 years old. Paula you look nothing nothing like that pic! We have a joke in my office we all call her the “Joan Rivers” of Ann Arbor

    • @D. Shand, effectively Gardner moved into Tony Dearing’s old job without the title. I would make the argument that she’s getting the short end of the stick from her employer.

  19. Well, sure, the bottom line is to make the operations make money again. And no disagreement that reducing staff is reducing costs.

    But two things:

    — The size of the reduction in local reporting staffs isn’t the whole story. Advance is creating new kinds of jobs and shifting its reporting emphasis. And there’s a lot of money going into these changes. If Advance simply wanted to boost profits now, it could have just cut staff and kept doing the same things, only less of them. Sure, the motive is mercenary — there aren’t many papers run as philanthropy — but it’s a long-term goal. Indications are Advance plans to do this even in markets where its profits are relatively secure now, compared to the whole industry. If they were
    purely out for cash now, they’d let those places keep generating money until the wells ran dry.

    — The trend lines, not just here in Michigan but everywhere in the industry, prove that the old model is going bust, slowly. Both print advertising and circulation are falling everywhere. Some companies are coping by continuing to cut a little at a time. Advance, instead, is betting on a completely new model — one that relies less on local reporting and more on community engagement; one that assumes that digital advertising will never reach the levels that print advertising does, and so will never support such large staffs. In other words: Yes, they’re cutting staff — because they’re saying that markets like Ann Arbor and Flint cannot generate the kind of media cash flow needed to support larger staffs profitably, at least for the next 5-10 years.

    As far as page views — that’s a strategy that’s as serious or as sleazy as editors choose to make it. Newspapers have always had content that existed just to draw in numbers — whole sports sections, while business gets shunted to an inside page; horoscopes and other trash. Editors knew what they were doing — providing enough of the lighter stuff to keep an audience for the important-but-dull stories that won awards or pleased the publisher.

    If an Advance site’s editors can’t figure out how to generate page views out of great reporting and
    writing, it will be much easier to churn out celebrity items, posts on viral videos and sports opinion after opinion to churn up the numbers. But I am very familiar with Advance’s Michigan papers, and I would say that it’s not like they’ve been great, or even good, in many years. Granted, AA had an advantage — great town to live in, educated audience. But even there, the glory had left well before AA.com arrived.

    I guess, also, what I’m saying is don’t judge Advance by AA.com. There, the company appears to be stubbornly sticking to the site’s oddball status — of Mlive, but not completely integrated. I don’t know why; maybe someone just doesn’t want to see headlines about them “pulling the plug” on the AA.com experiment. But that’s effectively what they’ve done. I would guess that the current staffing of AA.com is roughly equivalent, adjusted for market size, to the size of the staffs in other mlive cities.

    Again, not to say that this is good for the communities. Or that 12 reporters can cover anything
    the way several times as many used to. But I think you’re overestimating the decline of AA.com, print+online, and overlooking the scope of what Advance is trying. Not to say they may not be greedy bastards, but they’re at least patient, risk-taking greedy bastards.

    • There’s sooooooooooo much to say, but I’ll begin by agreeing that being patient, rich, risk-taking greedy bastards has distinct advantages. My instinct tells me that Advance has never had competition for advertising dollars in this market place, and if the company did, it would either have to pour money into AA.com or go under. The site is reviled. People in this city are embarrassed by the paper. Advance can provide a poor product out of sheer hubris and arrogance.

      What I find interesting is that Gannett and the other large companies that have divided up the Michigan media marketplace don’t poach in any big way. Heritage came into Ann Arbor, but doesn’t focus on the city’s ad dollars as much as they focus on ad dollars from Chelsea, Saline and Dexter.

      What do you think would happen if a 4-day a week newspaper moved into town?

  20. I’m afraid this post repeats errors from the previous one. See the comment I just posted there for details, but fyi: market penetration does not mean “name recognition.” And monthly uniques does not equal weekly uniques times four.

    Also, it would be fair to point out, along with the real jobs lost at mlive, that since it’s now part of a statewide media group, its reporting is supplemented by a much-increased state capital staff and a statewide high school sports network.

    Those don’t at all make up for losing local news reporting strength, but they suggest that Advance’s strategy is not as completely cost-focused as you think. There’s also a definite shift of emphasis, focusing on the most-read items.

    Given that newspapers used to select stories based mostly on what their editors liked themselves or *thought* readers liked, basing decisions about coverage on what users actually read doesn’t seem like a completely wacky change.

    • @Elven, these are some great observations. However, Steve Newhouse’s own words suggest that the bottom line, as it were, is to make “local” products generate positive cash flow again—business growth. As for the MLive network, this consolidation is used for sporting reporting, and it irks purists who can’t believe that there are no dedicated reporters covering UM football and basketball. I’m not jumping into that debate. It’s just that the consolidation of the newsroom staff and production is primarily a cost-saving mechanism, I think.

      Most read items, again, is about page views. While there’s nothing wrong with page views, the news folks (at least they sound like news folks) who responded to Newhouse’s piece at Poynter.org present a different perspective that deserves our attention. Again, thanks for the comments!


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