The ghost of the Ann Arbor News is haunting AnnArbor.com.
The latest redesign of the website’s twice-weekly print edition added more state and national news and brought back travel and business sections–all staples in the daily newspaper that the Newhouse company killed off in 2009 in favor of AnnArbor.com, a web-print hybrid with a much smaller staff.
The new content is either shared with Newhouse’s other Michigan papers or drawn from the Associated Press and other wire services. The business section, for instance, combines a local front page with state news and pages reproduced verbatim from the Sunday Wall Street Journal.
“The response from readers overall has been positive,” chief content officer Tony Dearing writes in an email. In online comments, several readers enthused over the expanded Michigan and national news. Though the new, statewide comics section added new cartoons, a few also grumbled about the loss of old favorites.
The parent company must like what it’s seeing in Ann Arbor: in December, Newhouse promoted CEO Matt Kraner to run its nj.com operation in New Jersey. He wasn’t replaced, leaving AnnArbor.com to be run jointly by two News veterans: Dearing, who worked there for eleven years before a stint in Bay City, and executive VP Laurel Champion, the daily’s last publisher.
In February, Newhouse eliminated its last Michigan daily papers, reducing the Jackson Citizen-Patriot, Kalamazoo Gazette, and Grand Rapids Press to three print editions a week. As it did in Ann Arbor, the parent company framed the changes not as a cutback in print, but a move online. Tellingly, though, it isn’t trying to create unique websites for the other papers–instead, they’re folded into the statewide MLive.com. And up in the Thumb, Booth is moving in the opposite direction–it’s increased the frequency of the Flint Journal, Bay City Times, and Saginaw News from three days a week to four. (Dearing says there are no plans to increase the frequency of AnnArbor.com.)
Newhouse’s other papers also kept their historic names, a smart move given the number of people who can’t wrap their heads around the idea of a newspaper named after a website (the Observer still gets calls from readers asking how to find “the Ann Arbor News“).
Since the number of pages hasn’t changed, the syndicated content comes at the expense of local coverage–AnnArbor.com’s great strength since recommitting to reporting last year. But the loss isn’t as bad as it might have been, because the redesign also dropped many of the graphics and teasers previously used to make the paper easier to browse.
Those features were introduced back in the 1980s under the News’s last editor, Ed Petykiewicz, when local newspapers saw their future in imitating USA Today. Without them, AnnArbor.com, the paper, has a pleasantly old-fashioned feel–yet another step back to the future.