5 things I think about the end of ‘AnnArbor.com’

AnnArbor.com headlines its own change-of-address form.

AnnArbor.com headlines its own change-of-address form.

AnnArbor.com, which started four years ago as a one-off experiment and ended up changing all of Advance’s newspapers, is going away as a brand. Its staff will continue to produce online news and the twice-a-week paper (now to be called, once again, The Ann Arbor News). But the site will be folded into the statewide MLive.com.

I have a lot of personal feelings here. The first director of content (read: editor) of AnnArbor.com was Tony Dearing, who was a colleague of mine on the suburban team at The Saginaw News. I know him as a strong journalist and a caring person. When he got the job at AnnArbor.com, I envied him the ability to launch such a radical change, but knew it would also make him the public face of an unpopular decision. I visited the site early on and had a chance to talk with several people there, all of whom impressed me. That includes Ed Vielmetti, a longtime blogger whose willingness to join the site intrigued me. (He later left, apparently in a layoff.) I watched what happened in Ann Arbor with hope that it would lead to needed changes in my own newsroom, while at the same time wincing at some of what I saw on the site.

In any new venture, missteps are unavoidable. And whatever AnnArbor.com may have done well or poorly, the long-term judgment about it will depend on whether the expansion of the digital-first program company-wide succeeds or fails. But, for now, here’s what I think:

1. Ann Arbor was hardly alone in reducing staff. But it was a worthwhile risk to go beyond Journalism Jenga — just continuing to pare away jobs while keeping the tottering old structure in place. I visited AnnArbor.com not long after it began, and it had the air of a startup, for good and ill.

2. AnnArbor.com set some good precedents for dealing with online comments. Jen Eyer continues that work as state community engagement director for MLive.com. Her willingness to talk about the rules (How to discuss abortionHow to discuss gay rights) and hash things out with users (Help us define the line between healthy rivalry talk and trolling) lift the veil on a process that can be baffling to commenters.

3. AnnArbor.com was never a good name for a newspaper. It’s good to see The Ann Arbor News name return.

4. The folding of Ann Arbor into the overall MLive umbrella was inevitable once Advance made the decision to go statewide. I have absolutely no inside information about this, but from a logistical point of view, maintaining a site separate from the infrastructure of all the others made no sense. That will become even more true as Advance updates its mobile apps.

5. Reading the comments on a post like this always reminds me of the old joke about the guy who’s asked how he liked his dinner: “It was terrible! And there wasn’t enough of it!”

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