united states project

What’s next in Ann Arbor?

Advance changes gears again, as media-savvy locals try to fill the gaps
September 17, 2013

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:

Hi Anna,

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

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Thanks again,

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.

Vielmetti is known, he said, for “answering mysteries about town that haven’t yet been reported on by the media. So I’ll see tweets like ‘I’ll bet @vielmetti knows about (incident)’ and I’ll retweet that and someone else who follows me and knows more will tweet some useful info. That goes back and forth with probably dozens of people who also have an interest in local news.”

As for changes at the city’s flagship news source: “I only see the move from AnnArbor.com to MLive.com as further shrinking of the news space,” Vielmetti said. (He wrote about the move to Mlive, and its impact on the AnnArbor.com archives, here.)

James David Dickson is the op-ed editor at The Detroit News and a former AnnArbor.com general assignment reporter, and a history columnist for the first iteration of The Ann Arbor News. (He also mined the first iteration of The Ann Arbor News for a history column at the news site.) He was surprised that the AnnArbor.com name was being dropped.

“What I liked about [the name] is that it’s synonymous with the community where you work. It means we are the news source for the city. With www.Mlive.com/AnnArbor, you’re just on a company list,” Dickson said. He said he would have thought that Advance might go the other way, branding its other local news sites by their city names: Flint.com, GrandRapids.com.

And it seems clear this is fundamentally a shift in branding and presentation, not substance. A “letter to readers” by top MLive.com officials hinted at a stronger emphasis on local news in the Ann Arbor newspapers, but there have been no major staffing changes. “No one who worked at the [old] Ann Arbor News is getting their job back,” Dickson said.

As readers like Armentrout noticed, layoffs at the News led to a younger, less experienced staff at AnnArbor.com. But Dickson pointed out that many of those younger writers–himself included–were given room to develop and ultimately were hired by The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, both of which maintain a strong Ann Arbor readership despite reductions to print delivery. Dickson gave AnnArbor.com credit for “developing the kind of talent the big papers would be interested in.” (Nathan Bomey, who shared a byline on a major Free Press project about Detroit’s path to bankruptcy that was praised this week here at CJR, is also an AnnArbor.com alum, according to his Tumblr.)

And there was legitimacy, Dickson said, to AnnArbor.com’s commitment to reader interaction. “When I was there, editors were on shifts around the clock to engage in the comment sections,” he said. “That showed that’s something they value, even when the comments were harsh. And some of those stories had 200, 300 people participating.”

Meanwhile, several Ann Arborites told me that since the News closed, they’ve turned more often to publications from the University of Michigan for local coverage. The Michigan Daily, the student-run newspaper (for which I worked while in college), and The University Record, published by the administration, are free, printed, online, and finding an audience even off campus.

Austen Hufford, a junior and the Daily‘s online news editor, said the Daily increased its Ann Arbor coverage after the News closed. It now has “a senior editor and a reporter or two” on the Ann Arbor beat, he said. There is also an Ann Arbor section on the Daily‘s website. “We are at every city council meeting and frequently talk to city leaders,” Hufford said.

The coverage, though, is always hooked on a connection to the campus community. “We don’t cover news about the local high schools because we don’t find it particularly relevant to the campus community, for example,” he added. And the Daily‘s Ann Arbor coverage is limited because “many student reporters aren’t interested in city coverage, they don’t have cars, and many of our readers only want University coverage.”

Hufford did check AnnArbor.com regularly for local stories that the Daily might have missed. Readers hungry for news about the city might need to do the same–checking in regularly on multiple sources, each with their own strengths and limitations.

“Finding the best Ann Arbor news is more complicated,” he said. “AnnArbor.com and its current reincarnation do provide the most complete coverage but there are also a number of small independent news sites to fill in the gaps: Everything from the Ann Arbor Chronicle for city government coverage to Damn Arbor for its funny commentary. … There seems to be room in Ann Arbor for more city coverage: there is a large Twitter presence for many people in the city and every AnnArbor.com article had lots of comments.”

What might that future local coverage look like? If Dickson has anything to say about it, it will be forward-looking, rather than infused with a too-rosy view of the former Ann Arbor News.

“It was never that good of a paper to begin with,” he said. “When you look at the amount of great local coverage it produced, it probably was a two-day a week paper.”

Correction: This article originally misstated a detail of James David Dickson’s work history. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.