by P.D. Lesko
In 2009, AnnArbor.com Kontent King Tony Dearing announced the “future of journalism in Ann Arbor”:
“Ding. Dong. The Witch is dead,” wrote an A2Politico reader in response to a December 2012 piece about the falling readership of AnnArbor.com. On September 4, 2013, MLive President Dan Gaydou announced AnnArbor.com would be closed. He said: “Integrating Ann Arbor with its other media properties across the state enables MLive Media Group to leverage our unified strengths, ultimately offering readers a better news experience, both online and in print.”
Former AnnArbor.com VP Laurel Champion told Deadline Detroit: “It’s as much an organizational issue as anything else. According to Champion, now general manager of southeast Michigan for MLive, nobody is going to lose their job and none of the content is going to change. AnnArbor.com had just been able to avoid the larger consolidation of Advance’s Michigan properties under MLive.com in 2011. About a year ago, some of AnnArbor.com’s sports coverage was moved to MLive; as of this Thursday, the rest moves, too.” AnnArbor.com was launched as a bold, new experiment in digital journalism. Advance abandoned a 174-year-old print brand (Ann Arbor News), and tried to replace it with AnnArbor.com. Now their reversing that strategy.
Part of why the news blog is being shuttered is because AnnArbor.com was supposed to build an engaged audience. However, A2Politico revealed in December 2012 that 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 Gaydou. About six percent of the site’s visitors generated the majority of the comments.
In March 2011 AnnArbor.com executive 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).
David Askins editor of the AnnArborChronicle.com, who, together with his wife Mary Morgan, often criticized AnnArbor.com, and they didn’t shy away from yet another opportunity to take a swipe. Askins told a reporter from the Neiman Lab, “It’s just that AnnArbor.Com is a magnificently dumb name to print on a masthead and to deliver to people’s doorsteps. And it took four years for that basic insight finally to sink in.”
Meanwhile John Hilton at the Ann Arbor Observer reported visions of advertising revenues to be wrestled away from MLive: “We do see an advertising opportunity in the incredibly low print circulation numbers released as part of the announcement: they now print fewer issues in an entire week than the old Ann Arbor News printed in a single day. That confirms what our ad staff has been telling us — that new advertisers are coming to the Observer because they’re not getting the response they want from annarbor.com.” Never mind that the Ann Arbor News went digital precisely because print advertising revenues were falling, and Hilton’s business model (free distribution supported by ad sales) is as outdated as the Victrola.
Ryan Chittum, who writes for the Columbia Journalism Review, predicted in a conversation, that Advance would never close AnnArbor.com. Chittum had come to Ann Arbor to write a piece about AnnArbor.com and its digital first model. He was barred from the AnnArbor.com newsroom, and kept away from staffers. His somewhat snarky piece about the shuttering of AnnArbor.com appears here. Chittum pulls no punches: “Advance is now about to fold AnnArbor.com (the website) into MLive.com, the company’s Michigan portal based on its hideous website template.”
Over the past four years, the AnnArbor.com “model” has been roasted alive by media analysts, reporters, readers and academics alike. During those four years, the reviled model has been “exported” to other Advance marketplaces, including New Orleans and Cleveland. In New Orleans, after a competitor muscled in, the News Orleans Times Picayune — re-branded as NOLA.com — went back to seven day delivery of its newspaper. Reactions to Advance’s money-saving digital first “model” among readers have been startlingly similar, with subscribers falling away. When the Ann Arbor News was shuttered in July 2009, it had a Sunday circulation of over 52,000 and a weekday circulation of about 40,000. Two years later, AnnArbor.com had lost 35 percent of its weekday subscribers.
After A2Politico did a piece that combed through AnnArbor.com’s media kit, the company took the electronic version of it down, requiring anyone who wanted to see the information to send an email to a marketing representative.
On September 12, 2013 AnnArbor.com will be shuttered as a stand alone site and “brand.” The operation and staff are to be absorbed by MLive.com. At least that’s what the public is being told. The truth is that many of AnnArbor.com reporters are leaving or being let go. One of the site’s best reporters, Kellie Woodhouse, is staying. Woodhouse, hired to replace higher education reporter David Jesse, who left AnnArbor.com for the Detroit Free Press in 2011, does an excellent job covering the University of Michigan and, to a lesser extent, EMU and Washtenaw Community College. Her coverage of the search for a new superintendent to lead the AAPS was simply superb. She live-blogged during interviews of the candidates, and provided videos, as well (tip o’ the keyboard to Kelli Woodhouse).
Another of the site’s other excellent writers, Jessica Webster, Community Content Coordinator, is transitioning over to MLive, she said in a message. Webster’s food writing is well-crafted, creative and wide-ranging. From beer to heirloom tomatoes and recipes for serious comfort food, Webster’s pieces are engaging, informative and, yes, tasty.
Advance destroyed a 174-year-old newspaper in order to give birth to a “new” model that focused on digital journalism. They cut the paper’s seven-day print run down to two days per week. In retrospect, the model wasn’t new, nor was it better local journalism. Any publisher will tell you that cutting overhead, including printing and delivery costs, is a way to restructure a publication’s finances. Money is saved and a portion of it shifted to creating digital delivery platforms. Ryan Chittum agrees. He writes, “I’ve argued that the Advance plan was effectively a liquidation of the paper that could make more money riding down declining revenues than through a sale.”
The million dollar question is whether Advance will eventually implement some kind of a paywall at MLive considering the successes other mainstream news sites have had asking readers to pay to read online content.
The closing of AnnArbor.com was no surprise. AnnArbor.com executives and Advance higher ups churned out press release-like copy to keep up the facade of a growing, healthy news organization that claimed to “reach” 69 percent, then 68 percent, then 67 percent of all Washtenaw County adults over the age of 18. Advance and AnnArbor.com higher ups often stiff-armed members of the national media who asked for more detailed information or access to AnnArbor.com staffers and the newsroom. They did so up until the end. MLive advertising information now claims that advertisers can reach “51 percent of Washtenaw County adults” advertising in the Ann Arbor News and on MLive.
So why did Advance close down AnnArbor.com? In publishing, the formula is simple: turn a profit or fold. Deep pocketed parent companies are less inclined than ever before to throw good money after bad. The New York Times just divested itself of The Boston Globe, unable to “leverage” that “brand” into, well, an actual profit margin. Ann Arbor city is left with Annarbor.com re-rebranded as the Ann Arbor News, which Advance plans to publish twice weekly, A2Journal (published by another large media company that declared bankruptcy several months ago), the Ann Arbor Observer, AnnArborChronicle.com, The Ann, The Michigan Daily and the Detroit papers. It’s a hodgepodge of media coverage that requires readers to search out information.
A regular AnnArbor.com reader summed up the site’s coverage of local news somewhat pointedly in a comment in response to the press release announcing the closure of AnnArbor.com:
I’ll surely miss the good old days of annarbor.com. Remember the Nate Bomey kiss kiss coverage of SPARK? The wonderful lynch mob coverage of the 2010 Mayor’s race? The free pass ‘local’ Rick Snyder got in the 2010 Repbublican primary and the 2010 election? The great ‘he’s just folks’ article on a local militia member? The city employee Lucy Ann Lance ‘interview’ with her boss at the time, the Mayor, that raised the term ‘soft ball journalism’ to an entirely new level? Their coverage of the court appearance date for the ex-DDA member that was almost like a Three Stooges skit? All the hollow promises that were made when the Ann Arbor News was shut down, primarily to get rid of their older staff members in a neat, efficient lawsuit protection sort of way? The lovely way comments were ‘disappeared’ if you were critical of reporting lapses? The spelling and gramatical errors that dotted the stories? The photographer who made up the story about the homeless man death for a tear jerking column, only to discover the guy wasn’t really dead just yet? The biased reporting on the anti-Mayor’s Party slate for council? The ‘if it happens on a weekend we’ll get to it on Tuesdsay’ reporting style for crime stories? Last week’s coverage of Labor Day in the Sunday print edition that included not one story or word on Labor Day? If you read some of the comments on yesterday’s dot com you’d think this was the death of the New York Times or Congress repealing freedom of press from the Bill of Rights. The return to calling it the Ann Arbor News is just a cherry on the top of the cake. It was a dishonest business failure that resulted in weak and cowardly journalism for the most part and the move to MLive and being the “News’ again isn’t going to change anything. Anyone who believes yesterday’s press releases should call me, I have some Pall poisoned swamp land I’d love to sell you.
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