Metro Times editor departs; tough times in the news industry

metro-times-cover

Steve Neavling at Motor City Muckracker reports that Valerie Vande Panne has parted ways with Metro Times, less than 9 months after being hired by new owners to transform the struggling alternative weekly.

On Jan. 8, Vande Panne tweeted:

Vande Panne, a Grand Rapids native and  former editor at High Times, told Neavling her departure was prompted by “differences in editorial vision and management style,” but wouldn’t elaborate.

Neavling says unnamed Metro Times staffers tell him morale is bad, with layoffs and a blurring of the line between editorial and advertising at the alt-weekly.  Motor City Muckracker says Metro Times has been  “running promotional features – even on the cover – without indicating they were ads.”

Like many publications, Metro Times is struggling with huge circulation and revenues drops. According to  Neavling, the weekly’s annual revenues have been sliced by more than half from an estimated $8 million in its heyday and circulation has dropped to about 50,000 from a high of about 110,000.

Of course Metro Times’ woes are far from unique. as mainstream news media companies continue to go through the same issues resulting from changing readership habits in the digital age.

In 2008 and 2009, Advance Publications gutted staffing at its eight publications in Michigan, including the Ann Arbor News and the Grand Rapids Press, sold off its newspaper buildings and moved into rented offices, with the intention of becoming a nimble, digital media company under the MLive.com brand.  Like most legacy newspaper companies, it still relies on the print product to pay the bills, even as the focus remains on building its digital presence.

Free Press newsroom

Part of the newsroom at the new offices of the Detroit Free Press. Photo by Steve Pepple

Similarly, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, which are operated under a joint operating agreement, moved late last year into rented headquarters in the heart of downtown. Detroit Media Partnership sold the  historic Detroit News building, which had housed both newspapers since 1998, to billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert and rebranded itself under Michigan.com.

The Free Press newsroom has shrunk by about half in the last decade through layoffs, buyouts and attrition, with staffing at about 160 or so journalists at the end of 2014. It circulation numbers are squishy, depending on how you count them, with paid Sunday circulation of the print edition averaging more than 400,000 copies, but total circulation at well more than 600,000 when other branded publications are included.

Meanwhile, the Freep’s parent company, Gannett, has spent the last six months implementing “Picasso,” its plan for the newsroom of the future, which stresses digital, reader- and community-connected journalism. It was accompanied by 15% staff cuts and a requirement that all newsroom staffers reapply for positions from a whittled list of retitled jobs, with many editor spots eliminated. Reporters are expected to be mostly “self-directed” and produce “publication ready” copy.

It has had a rocky implementation at some properties, such as the Tennessean, which was left with some 20 openings in the newsroom after a sea of veterans quit in protest.  The hiring of a “engagement editor” at the paper who proclaimed she doesn’t like “news that makes me feel sick to my stomach” was meant with howls of protest across the industry.

Other reading:

• Free Press, News circulation: Some numbers up, some down in past 6 months

Memo reveals major newsroom changes coming at the Detroit Free Press

Ex-Metro Times Editor ‘Not Particularly’ Surprised By Sudden Departure

• Troubles continue at Metro Times after top editor leaves, cites difference

•  The newsonomics of Gannett’s “newsrooms of the future”

Gannett’s Picasso Blog at Tumblr

About Steve Pepple

Steve Pepple is a working journalist, web designer and photographer based in the Detroit-Ann Arbor area. He works as a assistant metro editor and writing coach at the Detroit Free Press. He previously worked as the print director at the ground-breaking digital media company AnnArbor.com, overseeing the productions of the twice-weekly newspaper. Prior to that he was the metro editor at the Ann Arbor News and previously served as the managing editor of The Herald-Palladium in Benton Harbor-St. Joseph, Mich. Steve also operates a web design business at moonlightproductions.net and has a wedding and portrait photography business at stevepepple.com.
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