Last month, news broke that owners of the New Orleans Times-Picayune are planning a major restructuring of that publication. The message arrived in Ann Arbor with an eerie familiarity. The same folks owned the former Ann Arbor News, a newspaper they closed in order to create a new company called AnnArbor.com.
The familiar part of the news includes severe staff reductions at the Times-Picayune and a shift in focus to online delivery, cutting back its printed edition to three days a week.
David Carr of the New York Times reported that changes at the Times-Picayune apparently would be modeled after the transformation in Ann Arbor. The Newhouse family – whose media holdings include the publications in Ann Arbor and New Orleans, among dozens of others nationwide – had made Ann Arbor its testbed for this approach in 2009.
Residents of New Orleans have my deepest sympathies.
The decisions about the Times-Picayune are disturbing, even if considered independently of other Newhouse operations. But especially disturbing is the idea that AnnArbor.com might serve as a model for anything.
The news from New Orleans coincided with an ultimately successful effort by The Ann Arbor Chronicle to push AnnArbor.com to correct a shockingly flawed analysis related to fire protection that had been originally reported by Ryan Stanton back in May of 2011. Within days of publication last year, Chronicle editor Dave Askins alerted Stanton to the likely source of the factual errors in Stanton’s piece.
Askins correctly analyzed the Ann Arbor fire department’s reports that Stanton had misinterpreted, and soon after that The Chronicle published that analysis. It wasn’t until this week, though, that AnnArbor.com’s “chief content officer,” Tony Dearing, wrote a column acknowledging the fact that the response times reported by Stanton were inaccurate. But Dearing’s accounting of AnnArbor.com’s errors is misleading and incomplete – in part because it fails to take responsibility for obvious reporting mistakes, blaming sources instead.
In that respect, Dearing’s column continues a pattern of disingenuous communication by AnnArbor.com with the community it purports to serve.
I realize there’s a certain etiquette I’m violating in calling out the leadership of another publication in this way. What I hear on a regular basis about the community’s perception of the quality of reporting and editorial oversight at AnnArbor.com ranges from idle snark to complete outrage. But our Midwestern culture exerts a firm pressure to make nice and get along. And for some community members, a certain fatigue has set in, along with a sense that it’s not worth the energy to rehash these things – it’s time to move on. To some extent I actually agree with that. It would be nice to move on.
But a polite culture and need to look forward do not justify turning away from some real problems with AnnArbor.com’s basic approach to community service. That’s especially true as the Newhouses roll out the Ann Arbor model in other markets.
What’s more, given the marketing resources of AnnArbor.com’s New York-based owners, there’s a risk that a funhouse-mirror version of reality will become accepted as accurate, and could inappropriately influence public policy in a way that causes long-term damage to this community. That’s unacceptable.
In this column, I’ll explain how the fire protection saga unfolded, what it reflects about AnnArbor.com and the state of traditional media, and the importance of being grounded in the community you cover.