What happened to Advance’s papers in Michigan

In 2009, Advance announced an ambitious plan to decrease print frequency, cut staff at four of its Michigan newspapers, including The Ann Arbor News, and move much of its publishing online. Last November, similar changes took place at the company’s Booth newspapers, when about 550 people received layoff notices. Advance subsequently created two new companies, the MLive Media Group and Advance Central Services.

MLive Media Group President Danny R. Gaydou said at the time that the layoffs were “not representative of the actual number of employees who will or will not continue with one of the new companies.” The company planned to hire about 200 people and encouraged the employees it laid off to apply for those jobs.

In a commentary piece published last Friday, Advance Digital’s Steven Newhouse said “we still have as many professional journalists in Michigan, out in the community covering local news, sports, business and culture, as we had before these changes were announced.” I asked Newhouse in a follow-up interview whether those journalists were full-time employees. He referred me to people at the MLive Media Group for specifics but said cuts mostly came to jobs like copy editing, page design, and editors. “We chose to focus our content spending more on coverage and journalism and less on producing the newspaper every day,” Newhouse said.

John Hiner, MLive Media Group’s vice president for content, told me in an email that after the reorganized MLive Media Group launched in February that the company actually added reporting jobs. “Taken together, 94 percent of reporting and photography positions in our local hubs and on our state team are full-time jobs,” he wrote, adding, “We have a separate, central high school sports desk that has about 30 part-time journalists.”

The company’s also “adding some positions in our central copy desk,” Hiner wrote. That copy desk replaces three regional copy desks, and there were reductions in “mid-level and topical editors” and clerical positions.

How well those news organizations are covering their local markets is a subject that demands serious reporting. The closest case study I can construct is of what happened in Ann Arbor in 2009. That’s when The Ann Arbor News laid off about 55 and was replaced with annarbor.com, which produces a print edition twice weekly.

A year after the transition took effect, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn said AnnArbor.com was not “a bust”:

As it approaches its first anniversary Saturday, the publication, which hired about two dozen of the 274 Ann Arbor News employees who lost their jobs, has had “no furloughs” according to president and CEO Matt Kraner. In fact, he said he’s even added a few employees to a staff of 60 that includes 35 journalists.

Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds assessed AnnArbor.com at the one-year mark, too, and found “The audience has taken well to the print product.”

Its circulation is 43,000 Sundays and 34,000 Thursdays, compared to 49,000 Sunday and 39,000 daily just before the News closed, according to [content director Tony] Dearing. Subscriptions go for $9 a month, compared to $12 for seven days of the paper before the shutdown.

But writing in Forbes at the time news broke of Advance’s changes in New Orleans and Alabama, Ann Arbor resident Micheline Maynard said AnnArbor.com lacks heft:

No offense to its staff, but AnnArbor.com, online at least, is a constantly updated blog, which gives equal play to impaled cyclists and rabid skunks as it does to politics and crime. The printed edition is newspaper-like, but with a different style and less gravitas than its predecessor.

Advance clearly considers the transition a success. Newhouse pointed in his commentary to AnnArbor.com’s traffic and the awards the site has picked up:

In the past two years, the site won 21 awards in the Michigan Associated Press Editorial Association’s news-writing contest, including first place awards in investigative reporting, breaking news and column writing, and second place in community service. Those 21 awards, in 2011 and 2010, represented the highest total of any newspaper in its circulation category.

Newhouse made it clear that this success may foreshadow changes elsewhere. “We’re facing the same conditions everywhere,” he said. “We’re looking at every market and trying to figure out what the right model is.”

The question of what constitutes success, then, may be the central one in Michigan, New Orleans, Alabama and everywhere else journalism is undergoing a radical makeover.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.