DETROIT, MI — The Ann Arbor News was back on newsstands last week, four years after Advance Publications closed the 174-year old daily that once boasted of being older than the state of Michigan. The revival of the bygone print brand (though not the daily frequency) was one of two moves Advance recently announced for its Ann Arbor publication; the other was a decision to integrate a standalone website into the statewide MLive.com. So, a few years after pioneering a digital-first model that has spread to other Advance cities, AnnArbor.com—and AnnArbor.com, as the twice-weekly print edition had bizarrely been named—is no more.
CJR’s Ryan Chittum has a sharp critical take on the news here. But I was curious about what folks in Ann Arbor—an engaged, highly educated city of 115,000, with an active if diffuse media ecosystem—make of Advance’s unfolding experiment, and how they’re going about finding news on their city. I talked last week talking with local residents, independent reporters, and current and former employees at Advance’s Ann Arbor operation.
Actually, make that trying to talk to current employees. Paula Gardner, who is continuing as top editor in Ann Arbor, told me that she and her staff were directing media inquires to Jenn Cornell, who appears to be a contracted PR rep. Cornell initially told me that she’d be happy to find someone on staff for me to talk to, and asked me for a list of questions. I gave her the gist of who I wanted to talk to, and what about—how work for reporters and editors has shifted, what they’ve heard from readers, priorities and challenges for local coverage, etc. There was some back-and-forth about my deadline before I received this email:
Your interest in the rebranding of AnnArbor.com is very much appreciated. Thanks so much for reaching out.
Unfortunately, I’m writing to decline your request for an interview. We do appreciate your desire to learn more about MLive.com/annarbor; please find information online at http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2013/09/letter_to_readers_annarborcom.html
Seems like shades of Gannett’s approach to message management—a bit surprising for a news organization with a reputation for reader engagement. (Laurel Champion, an executive for MLive.com, did talk to Nieman Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan; you can read her post here.)
But Ann Arbor residents were much more forthcoming, and not just in the spirited comments beneath the announcement about the move to MLive.com.
Vivienne Armentrout has served on the county board of commissioners and works as a book and copy editor. A former Ann Arbor News subscriber, she now reads the Ann Arbor Chronicle (a five-year-old online publication focusing on civic affairs) and the Ann Arbor Observer (a website and a monthly print magazine delivered free to residents), while also keeping an eye on Twitter for local news. She said she’d also read AnnArbor.com since it started in 2009.
“The change from an afternoon daily newspaper to an online news feed was a shock. I have to work harder now to get local news,” Armentrout said. “I check the Chronicle and AnnArbor.com several times a day but the return is relatively low.”
She said that some young AnnArbor.com staff broke through with decent reporting, even as slipshod editing and “cut-and-paste reporting” muddled the quality. Much of the coverage, she wrote in an email, “has been trivial filler (they kept on shedding their more experienced staff) and there is now virtually no investigative journalism. A real low was when they had 4 different stories in one week about a local hamburger place closing.”
“The old Ann Arbor News had plenty to complain about but they did have investigative reporters and the occasional real in-depth stories. They also served a community purpose with reminders about such things as delayed trash pickups… that we now must sign up to get emails about or go repeatedly to the city website,” Armentrout said.
To fill that gap, a host of locals have themselves become self-styled news “organizations”—like Julie Weatherbee, who has become known for live-tweeting city council meetings twice a month, as well as other local events. Edward Vielmetti is a longtime Ann Arbor blogger and Arborwiki editor who, for about 18 months, was lead blogger for AnnArbor.com. (His position was cut during an earlier round of reorganization and shrinking.) Vielmetti, on his own initiative, leveraged his strong network and became a go-to source of local news. People “feed me information, either directly via email or via @ messages on Twitter, ” he wrote via email.