By TOM CHMIELEWSKI

There’s a saying among politicians that all politics is local. The same is true for news.

canstockphoto5414691So what happens when MLive Media Group announces yet another round of cutbacks in the state, including 29 layoffs in editorial staff –apparently divided among the eight news hubs in the cities that once had vibrant newspapers – and the relocation of “News leadership,” what we used to call editors, out of local offices?

That, of course, includes the Kalamazoo Gazette. MLive, in its carefully worded, cryptic announcement on Jan. 6, stated “the number of staff members producing content … remains intact statewide, although some roles will evolve based on audience demands.” Yet in the very next sentence, the announcement went on, “Overall, 29 content positions will be eliminated.”

I think MLive’s announcement could have used some better editing, though MLive said positions eliminated will be “primarily through reducing management roles and jobs related to newspaper production.” Perhaps more ominous for local news coverage, John Hiner, MLive’s vice president of content, said, “News leadership has been restructured around regional management.”

The emphasis is on statewide coverage. That’s important, but local communities also need local news if we’re going to make sense of what’s going on, in our towns, our cities, our state. Hiner said MLive will maintain “essential news coverage in local markets,” but the decision on what local news is essential and how it will be reported will not be made locally. But hey, MLive’s Michigan’s Best food and travel series will be expanded. So what’s the problem?

Michigan and each of its cities deserves good journalism. In fact, they desperately need good journalism. The MLive announcement gave a good, upbeat song and dance to what is essentially a retrenchment.

Terrible blow to journalism in a state that needs it more than ever.” – Anna Clark, Columbia Journalism Review

Anna Clark, a writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, summed up MLive’s “restructuring” more succinctly on Twitter, calling it a “Terrible blow to journalism in a state that needs it more than ever.” Her complete story in CJR goes into details about the troubles facing journalism in this state, and the response from MLive  is “yet another pledge to do more with less.”

Those pledges haven’t seemed to work so far.

Look, the entire newspaper industry has made dreadful mistakes as it adjusted to the digital age. The arguments should never have been how do we protect print from being undermined by online news, but those were the arguments when online news sources began appearing. Our job as journalists was never at its core about putting ink on paper. It was about reporting, distributing and selling news. Nobody has got it right yet in the digital age, but a few are getting closer.

MLive claims success on the digital side of the ledger. MLive president Dan Gaydou, as reported in an email to staff, says the company has reached and gone beyond the 1.3 billion page view mark in 2015, and counts more than 11 million monthly unique visitors. He claims digital revenue growth has been “steady and healthy.”

Yet the response was to make cuts, to conduct what MLIve euphemistically calls a “restructuring” to “innovate new ways of managing from regional or central locations.”

Even during the 10 years I was a copy editor and reporter at the Gazette, we knew the most important story on the front page wasn’t always the most read story. It could have easily been some food and travel story in the feature section that drew the most eyes that day. Yet it was the story we put on the front page, dug up by one or more reporters in the crowded newsroom we had at the time, read over closely by editors, sometimes looking over the reporter’s shoulders as the reporter typed, and front page placement decided by the editor in chief, that carried the most relevance. It was those stories, written and edited locally, that made any newspaper the most dependable and sought after source of local news.

Is MLive the most credible source of news today? Sadly, it seems the more clicks it gets, the less relevant it becomes. When I go to the MLive site today, it’s hard to tell what local section I’m at by the article display.

Success in journalism isn’t about the page clicks or unique visitors. Those statistics help show how you’re doing, but they’re not the whole story. They can even mask critical problems. I was editor of a website that was the portal for five special interest magazines with international circulation. The site had problems when launched, and my job as the new editor was to oversee the major redesign. The new design reduced the page clicks, but that just meant readers weren’t getting lost anymore. Readers became engaged and spent more time on the pages, and bought more subscriptions to the magazines. That’s how I measure success.

InterCom, the Association for Kalamazoo Area Professional Communicators, for which I’m a board member,  had Gaydou come to speak at one of our luncheons soon after MLive Media Group was formed and extensive changes and reductions at the local newspapers were announced. We had one of our largest crowds ever for that luncheon, and though members of the crowd had plenty of doubts about the move, everyone was polite and willing to give Gaydou and MLive a chance. A year later, Gaydou returned to give an update to about the same-sized crowd, The crowd had more doubts, and some were angrier, perhaps, but it was only a year.

If Gaydou came back to speak now, about the same size of crowd might show up, likely with even more questions – or maybe not. Perhaps there’ll just be some people asking for tips on where to go to find something good to eat.

MLive Media Group announces news restructuring

Columbia Journalism Review: Michigan’s MLive cuts 29 positions in latest ‘restructuring’

Ann Arbor blogger: A “terrible blow to journalism, ” MLive cuts 29 jobs at a time when Michigan desperately needs quality reporting

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