When we first heard about the layoffs at AnnArbor.com last Thursday – starting with cryptic comments on Facebook, quickly spreading through the Ann Arbor News diaspora and then the broader community – I had a sickening sense of déjà vu. It was two years ago this month that the out-of-state owners of our town’s daily newspaper announced their plans to close the business, tearing apart the lives of its workers, fraying some of the Ann Arbor community’s fabric, and drawing national attention for the decision’s fearlessness or folly, depending on your view.
I wrote about their decision at the time from a personal perspective. Even though I had left the News the previous year to co-found The Chronicle, it was still a place that employed many friends and colleagues I respected. Watching that organization get dismantled was emotional, for many reasons.
Although we began to hear about the layoffs on Thursday last week, we decided not to write immediately about that news. In part, we reasoned that it should be AnnArbor.com’s story to tell first, and I held out hope that executives at AnnArbor.com would be straightforward in letting the community know about their decision, and the rationale behind it.
I also hoped they would wrap into their coverage the news that three other key staff members – news director Amalie Nash, higher education reporter David Jesse and point person for reader interaction Stefanie Murray – had all been hired by the Detroit Free Press. All three left at the end of February. All had previously worked for many years at The Ann Arbor News, and had been initial hires at AnnArbor.com.
Considered separately, either the set of layoffs or the three departures would have had a significant impact on the organization. But with both events taking place within two weeks, it counts as the most dramatic personnel change since AnnArbor.com’s launch.
Community Wall “Reporting”
But the only “reporting” on the AnnArbor.com website – as of Sunday afternoon – was a brief post on Saturday by a reader called glacialerratic. The reader posted a comment on what AnnArbor.com calls its Community Wall, a place where anyone can post pretty much anything. It included a link to a Friday Michigan Radio report about the layoffs, which itself is scant on details.
It was this Community Wall post that prompted a response by Tony Dearing – the firm’s chief content officer, or what’s traditionally called an editor-in-chief – in the comment thread. Here’s what he wrote, in its entirety:
While personnel issues are an internal matter and we don’t discuss them publicly, I can confirm that we reorganized our newsroom this week to put our focus more squarely on local news coverage. As a new organization, we have tried a lot of things. Now that we are well into our second year, the community has told us very resoundingly that what it wants most from us is hard news coverage, particularly in the areas of government, education, police, courts, health, the environment, University of Michigan sports, and business. These areas of coverage account for all but a tiny percentage of our readership and revenue. Meanwhile, we also have put a lot of effort toward other things – including lifestyle topics like Passions and Pursuits, The Deuce, Homes and some areas of Entertainment coverage – that our community has shown much less interest in, and we are scaling back in those areas.
We have made tremendous progress since we launched, and we continue to be very happy with the growth we’re seeing in audience and revenue. But from the beginning, we said that we would be shaped by what the community wants, and the community wants us to focus more sharply on local news reporting. We have repositioned ourselves to throw our energy and resources into our local news coverage and that is how we will operate moving forward as we continue to grow.
That’s just insulting – to those employees who were laid off, to those shell-shocked employees who remain behind, and to the Ann Arbor community, which deserves better.
First off, a “personnel issue” is when your employee gets fired for looking at porn on a work computer. It doesn’t apply to the departure of more than a dozen people – whether they quit or were laid off. Their departure will fundamentally change what gets done at the publication, and how. The fact that most of these departures were from the newsroom has an even more direct impact on the publication. AnnArbor.com has marketed itself relentlessly over the past 18 months as being all about the community. It’s hard to trade in that currency while not being straightforward about decisions that readers actually care about – namely, how you’re reporting the news.
Dearing’s statement that they’ve reorganized is also specious. A look at the current staff directory shows no changes to the organization of the list. The only difference is the disappearance from the page of some people’s names who’ve been laid off.
To confirm exactly who’s missing, and what parts of the publication they worked for, we retrieved the Google cache of the staff page and “diffed” them out – those now missing from the page are highlighted in red: AnnArbor.com staff list highlighting departures. That list includes: Ed Vielmetti, the publication’s lead blogger; James Dickson, a general assignment reporter; photographer Lon Horwedel; two support staff for entertainment – Renee Tellez and Chrysta Cherrie; Pam Stout on the community desk; sports clerk Kaleb Roedel; and sales manager Lisa George.
If the idea of the “reorganization” is to focus more sharply on local news as Dearing contends, it’s not clear how eliminating a general assignment reporter (who in a traditional newsroom would fill in the gaps on local news) would serve that sharper focus. Perhaps even more puzzling is the decision to eliminate lead blogger Ed Vielmetti – whose name was the only one at AnnArbor.com that many members of the community even recognized.
Of those who are now missing, only the job of news director – formerly held by Amalie Nash, who’s now an assistant metro editor at the Detroit Free Press – is posted on the popular JournalismJobs.com employment website. The implication is that AnnArbor.com isn’t making other replacement hires at this point, though that’s unclear. Current K-12 education reporter Kyle Feldscher believes he will be covering David Jesse’s former University of Michigan beat only until a replacement hire is made.
Back to the Future
Dearing’s comment on the Community Wall was disturbingly evocative of a column written by former Ann Arbor News editor Ed Petykiewicz in December 2008, in the wake of buyouts at the newspaper and a shrinking staff. An excerpt [emphasis added]:
In the coming weeks, your News will begin to focus more on local people, local issues and local events.
Some of the changes include more stories about local government, increasingly local flavor in sections such as our Food pages and more columns from our staff.
Over time, we’ll add stories and columns by area residents, who will provide additional and varied views of our communities.
You’ll continue to find a mix of local, state and national news in your newspaper, but our ongoing evolution puts us on a decidedly local path that we’ve discussed for years. It’s what we do best. [.pdf of Petykiewicz's full column]
As it applies to local coverage, Dearing’s Wall comment sounds exactly like the doing-more-with-less motif in Petykiewicz’s piece.
In response to Petykiewicz, I wrote a column that asked a simple question: How can you provide more local content with fewer local reporters?
It’s hard to argue against more local coverage. Yet it prompts the question: does this just mean more local relative to non-local content, or does it mean more local coverage in absolute terms? The staff of the newsroom, during my 12 years there, at least, has been focused exclusively on covering local people, issues, and events. The state, national and international news was picked up through wires services that The News subscribes to. If we see a reduction in wire-service content – not an unreasonable move given that these are costly services – then of course we’ll get “more” local content, relative to everything else. But providing “more” local content in absolute terms requires the folks who’ve always worked exclusively to provide local coverage to provide even more of it.
The brute reality is that there will be fewer people in the newsroom after the buyouts. So how can there be more local news in the paper if there are fewer people to do the reporting? Ed doesn’t address this, so we’re left guessing.
For all the talk about how AnnArbor.com would be dramatically different from The Ann Arbor News in its interaction with the community, Dearing’s comments are all too familiar. We’re still left guessing.
Just a Business?
In my weekly interview on Lucy Ann Lance’s Saturday radio show this past Saturday, she asked why AnnArbor.com is different than any other private business. Why should a news publication be obligated to disclose their management decisions, any more than, say, Tios or Google?
I wasn’t very articulate in my response to Lucy Ann, so I’ll give it another shot here. There is absolutely a difference between a publicly traded company, where certain disclosures are required by law, and a private business like Advance Publications, a privately held Newhouse family company that owns AnnArbor.com. For private companies, there are no legal obligations to disclose internal staffing changes or to release financial information.
But a news publication, I believe, should be held to different standards – especially one like AnnArbor.com, that has tried so desperately to be embraced by the community. If your stated editorial mission is to respond to the community and give readers what they want, you ignore at your own peril some basic communication about these radical staff changes – communication that thus far has been almost completely lacking.
Most readers aren’t idiots. It doesn’t serve your interests well to treat all of them as if they were.
If you accept the premise that readers aren’t idiots, then you should trust that they’ll be well aware of the economic climate, and understand the business constraints at play. While I disagree with many of the decisions made by Steve Newhouse and other executives concerning first The Ann Arbor News and now AnnArbor.com, I certainly understand what it’s like to operate a business in this economy. Since we launched The Ann Arbor Chronicle in September 2008, I have new appreciation for the challenge of managing cash flow – it’s a worry for me every single day.
As a small online-only publication that focuses on coverage of local government and civic affairs, The Chronicle doesn’t have the corporate resources to buy billboard ads or rent two floors of a downtown office building or hire more than two dozen people to staff its advertising department, as AnnArbor.com has. Our plan was to start modestly, stay true to our mission, and hopefully grow our revenues steadily – through voluntary reader subscriptions and local advertising, including many businesses and institutions that support us mainly because they believe in what we do.
We didn’t anticipate the incredible upheaval caused by the closing of The Ann Arbor News, which has made the market significantly more competitive, and confusing for readers and advertisers alike. I’m proud that we’ve been able to establish a reputation for solid, in-depth coverage of the workings of local government, and I hope we continue to have the wherewithal to support our unique journalistic venture, and to grow.
AnnArbor.com has a more mainstream business model, one that seems cast from the same mold as traditional newspapers. It relies on driving traffic to its website – a variation of the old “If it bleeds, it leads” approach to gaining readers, or what’s known these days as “churnalism.” Their new weekly “Best Of” poll – asking readers to vote for different categories, like best brewpub or best grocery store – is designed to achieve the same goal. Advertisers are “partners” – not because they support the publication’s journalism, but because AnnArbor.com works with them to develop ad campaigns like the Groupon-esque “Real Deal.”
For all of that energy put into the advertising and marketing end of the business, the news of last week’s layoffs indicates that AnnArbor.com isn’t meeting its revenue or profit goals. The company hasn’t disclosed what those targets are – I wouldn’t expect them to; we don’t disclose details of our financial performance, either. But I would expect a bit more candor about their general outlook, starting with more openness about their staff changes.
In September of 2009, I participated in a panel discussion at the Kerrytown BookFest with Dearing and others, talking about the future of local media. When pressed about what kind of timeline the new AnnArbor.com would have to prove its financial viability to its owners, Dearing indicated some urgency – he ventured that they’d have about two years from their launch in July 2009 to prove the viability of the model.
If that timeline holds, then this recent retooling could reflect an effort to reduce expenses before the start of the next financial quarter on April 1 – the final quarter they’ll have on the books for an evaluation at their two-year anniversary mark.
I don’t believe the Newhouses will just give up this market – despite the struggles of AnnArbor.com, they still hold essentially a monopoly in the state’s most stable, affluent community.
But this community has been blindsided by their business decisions in the past, and it still stings. Whatever the future holds for them, they owe it to the residents of Ann Arbor to be upfront about what’s coming. Or, in this case, what’s already been done.
About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, which launched in September 2008. She previously worked for The Ann Arbor News for 12 years, where her positions included opinion editor and business editor.