“It’s Embarrassing….” Says AnnArbor.com Staffer
In a February 2013 piece about AnnArbor.com, the Columbia Journalism Review called the site’s work content-for-clicks journalism. Perhaps the assessment was harsh because MLive leadership had refused the CJR reporter access to the AnnArbor.com newsroom or the opportunity to interview AnnArbor.com staff. Perhaps the assessment was made because AnnArbor.com reporters are required to include a minimum number of links to previous stories in every piece. Despite this strategy, according to web traffic data, AnnArbor.com hosted 625,000 visits in June 2013, down 21.4 percent over June of last year, and 35 percent over June 2011. In comparison, AnnArborChronicle.com hosted 5,000 visits in June 2013, down from 15,000 visits in June 2012. A2Politico hosted 455,000 visits total in 2012 up 12 percent over the same time in 2011. In June 2009, A2Politico hosted 3,900 visits.
It should come as no surprise that AnnArbor.com’s Editorial Director Paula Gardner recently announced that the site would go “back” to publishing editorials. Not all AnnArbor.com staff are happy.
“It’s embarrassing,” says a staffer who, for obvious reasons, asked to remain anonymous. “We’re supposed to be a local paper. One year we don’t do editorials, the next year we do. One year we have lots of community contributors, the next year we don’t. It’s like whiplash. Ann Arbor deserves better, and I’m sorry to say it’s not gonna happen anytime soon.”
In 2009 and 2012 AnnArbor.com, a new experiment in local journalism which was sold to the community as “local, local, local” didn’t publish endorsements in local elections. Now down to 18 “content producers,” one Executive Vice president, a webmaster, a marketing staffer, and a few support staffers, AnnArbor.com has been flayed alive regularly by the national media since 2009. The blistering assessments of media hounds, both local (think Charles Eisendrath) and national (think the American Journalism Review, Columbia Journalism Review, and Poynter) have by now been referenced and cross-referenced, linked to and commented on ad infinitum. One of AnnArbor.com’s better writers took to Facebook a few months back to complain that it was pretty tough having readers crab about the quality of AnnArbor.com’s content.
As a rule, the AnnArbor.com’s political endorsements are often contradictory and seem to be based on signals from the Mother Ship hovering above their offices. Candidates trot down and answer questions from the “editorial board” du jour, this year including AnnArbor.com’s Engagement/Social Media Manager, a genial young man who answers reader emails promptly, politely and who doesn’t live or vote in Ann Arbor. He has little skin in the game, outside of his job, and no experience writing about politics. In past years, the editorial board included select citizens—who were then excluded when political endorsement time came around.
In addition to weekly editorials, in her latest piece on the subject Paula Gardner promises that AnnArbor.com will recruit opinionistas from the community. While Bank President Stephen Lange Ranzini is an excellent writer, he appears to be the only community member invited to Paula Gardner’s opinion party. Either she’s not trying very hard to recruit community members with something thoughtful to say, or community members with something thoughtful to say have no desire to say it for free at AnnArbor.com. Then again, maybe Gardner and AnnArbor.com are unprepared to incorporate community voices in a truly creative way (other than letters to the editor). Any way you slice it, AnnArbor.com serves up editorials that are mostly unchallenging, predictable and disengaged from the community the site purports to serve. It’s a crying shame. As for AnnArbor.com’s self-aggrandizing efforts to be the arbiters of political taste, well, good luck with that. The site’s views are down. After A2Politico did a piece that dissected AnnArbor.com’s media kit, a kit that made some pretty wild claims about reach and readership, the media kit was taken down. You want to see a media kit, you have to email a sales staffer.
“We don’t believe in incumbency for incumbency’s sake,” wrote Tony Dearing in the .Com’s 2011 endorsements. After Dearing left, AnnArbor.com dissolved its editorial board. I thought it would be interesting to see who AnnArbor.com has endorsed since 2009 (with a little bit of commentary to put the endorsements into perspective):
2009: AnnArbor.com launches in July and endorses no one in local elections.
Ward 1—Sumi Kailasapathy was endorsed over incumbent Sandi Smith.
Ward 2—Tony Derezinski, incumbent, lauded as an “effective Council member.”
Ward 4—Margie Teall, incumbent, got the endorsement with this dizzy explanation: “She’s also worked to help keep the vacant Georgetown Mall from becoming a blighting influence in her ward, and has been responsive to neighborhood concerns.” This endorsement came one year after the Ann Arbor News revealed Teall had been caught up in an email scandal that included rigging votes and scripting Council discussions.
Ward 5—Newcombe Clark. Carsten Honke, the incumbent, lost out on the nod, but also snubbed the .Com’s one-and-only podcasted candidate forum, over which Tony Dearing presided. The candidate forum overseen by Dearing was an oasis in a desert of uncreative political coverage. The site never did anything like it again.
Ward 2—Council member Stephen Rapundalo got the nod. even after an email he sent to Tony Dearing, the Kontent King at AnnArbor.com. Rapundalo’s gaffe, revealed by AnnArbor.com on October 23, 2011 reads like a Greek tragedy:
Ryan Stanton writes, “Further evidence Rapundalo is taking the race seriously is an e-mail he inadvertently sent to AnnArbor.com’s Chief Content Officer Tony Dearing last week. The e-mail, intended for another recipient, reveals Rapundalo’s tactical response to discovery of Lumm’s efforts to get information out to residents about a restoration project planned along Malletts Creek in the 2nd Ward.
‘As for the Mallet’s Creek project — be sure to involve me in any meetings, etc., if there any, before the election — just so I look like I’m engaged,” Rapundalo wrote in the e-mail. “Is there something I can write up for my e-newsletter and make myself look knowledgeable and at least neutralize her for the time being?’”
Ward 3—Council member Stephen Kunselman
Ward 5—Council member Mike Anglin
2012: On July 7, 2012 AnnArbor.com Kontent King Tony Dearing was airlifted to NJ.com. Paula Gardner was put in charge of the site’s editorial content, and incredibly the local newspaper made no endorsements in the 2012 City Council races.
Extra credit: AnnArbor.com Spent much of 2011 chiding Conan Smith to pay back money he’d filched from the county coffers, and then endorsed him for the Washtenaw Board of Commissioners in November 2012.
2013: AnnArbor.com steps back in the local candidate endorsement game. Who will get the nod this year from the .Com? Vote for one candidate in each race in the poll below.
Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=15192