Michigan’s MLive cuts 29 positions in latest ‘restructuring’

Illustration: AP

The departures and job cuts in Michigan media keep on coming. MLive Media Group, the umbrella company for eight Advance-owned newspapers and the statewide website MLive.com, announced yesterday that it is eliminating 29 “content positions” as part of a broader set of changes. The news comes on the heels of recent buyouts at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, which removed a couple dozen veteran journalists from the state’s two largest newspapers.

The precise implications of the changes at MLive, including a full list of affected positions and even the impact of the moves on the size of the editorial staff, were not immediately clear. Company executives, who declined or did not respond to interview requests from CJR, in their statements elsewhere cast the moves as a “restructuring” rather than a retrenchment.

In an un-bylined article on the company’s site, John Hiner, the company’s vice president of content, said that most (though not all) cuts would focus on “management roles and jobs related to newspaper production,” and that “the number of staff members producing content—reporters, photographers and producers in video and social media—remains intact statewide, although some roles will evolve based on audience demands.” In an email to staff members, Dan Gaydou, MLive’s president, said the company plans to make some new hires and “will maintain our aggregate feet on the street,” even as total headcount is reduced. The online announcement also describes plans for “a new team that will focus on statewide investigative, political and data-driven journalism,” along with new efforts in video and social media.

Restructurings are sometimes necessary at news outlets, and some of these changes may pay off. But it’s hard not to feel skeptical at these words, in light of the acknowledged cuts—yet another pledge to do more with less.

It’s also hard not to feel concerned about the journalistic resources available in Michigan—a state that ranks dead last in the 2015 State Integrity report card from the Center for Public Integrity. This is the state where a city drank lead-contaminated water for nearly 18 months until a band of outsiders and citizen-activists forced dismissive public officials to admit that it was poison. Michigan is scarcely out of navigating the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, and it has made controversial use of emergency management over its distressed cities and school districts. Oh, and Michigan is one of only two states where both the governor’s office and the legislature are exempt from open records requests.

This is, in short, a place in uncommon need of sunlight. But the ranks of the media outlets with the biggest audiences are still declining.

At MLive, digital audience does not seem to have been a problem. In the email to staff, Gaydou championed online growth at the site. He said MLive passed the 1.3-billion page view mark this year, more than double the 2011 level. The site counts more than 11 million monthly unique visitors. Digital revenue growth has been “steady and healthy,” Gaydou wrote, with 2015’s digital revenues almost three times what they were when MLive launched.

But in the view of management, cuts and changes were still necessary. In his email, Gaydou cited both declining print revenues that led the company to cut costs and “complex analytics” that prompted MLive to, among other things, innovate new ways of managing from regional or central locations, taking advantage of a flatter leadership structure.”

The company has yet to spell out what that means, but the limited comments from leadership and posts on social media from staff suggest both a thinning of the editors’ ranks and a shift to more statewide content, alongside a promise to maintain “essential news coverage in local markets.” That includes an expansion of the “Michigan’s Best” food and travel series and a bigger emphasis on statewide business and entertainment coverage, in addition to the investigative team. Some editors and reporters who had local responsibilities are being assigned to statewide roles. (MLive also recently lost one of its standout statewide journalists when capitol reporter Jonathan Oosting shifted over to The Detroit News statehouse bureau this month.) The Detroit hub—an expansion market for a company with roots in Ann Arbor, Flint, Grand Rapids, and smaller cities—remains intact, according to an employee at the company.

The changes continue a process in which a local newspaper division, which still maintains print publications in places like Saginaw and Muskegon, has become more centralized. In its 2012 restructuring, when MLive was organized under one umbrella, each of its eight papers ceased to make statewide endorsements for ballot initiatives; in 2014, it did the same for political candidates. Those endorsements now come from MLive Media Group and are issued “from the perspective of which candidates are best for the whole state, not just for our individual markets.”

That approach appears to stem at least in part from a focus on growing the online “audience”—a word that appears frequently in MLive’s public and internal messages about the restructuring, though not once did they cite a specific impact of the company’s reporting. While it is essential for every news organization to be attentive to its audience, if that ratio is an indication of MLive’s priorities, it is a disservice to some of the talented journalists who remain on staff.

MLive boasts that it now has “the largest audience of any media company in Michigan.” If these new statewide efforts are about grabbing opportunities, as the company says, I’d love to see them leveraged for greater statewide impact.

The need for transparency, enterprise, and clear, comprehensive coverage of public affairs is ever more acute. In 2013, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law that protects the anonymity of donors to political “issue ads” that can freely praise or criticize candidates. As CPI noted, there are no laws in Michigan that require public financial disclosures by elected officials. There are also no laws preventing term-limited lawmakers from going to work for the businesses they may have advocated for while in office. And on the same day that MLive announced its restructuring, Gov. Snyder signed a law that restricts public officials from discussing ballot proposals in the two months before an election—a move critics have called a gag order on, say, public libraries that might have wanted to print material or host a town hall about an upcoming millage.

In the face of this culture, journalism is not just a matter of business; it is a democratic urgency. We can’t afford to give up any more ground.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.