When The Ann Arbor News announced March 23 it was closing after 174 years, it left local readers at a loss for where to turn to for city news.
But never fear, the News’s upper echelon declared. Ann Arbor’s only daily wasn’t really dying — it was being reborn as AnnArbor.com, a web-based media company that would be a pioneer in the news industry’s inevitable turn to paperless production.
It was a bold plan, one that tried to find a silver lining in the otherwise consistent doom and gloom of faltering newspapers across the country. True, Ann Arbor is so far the largest city to lose its only newspaper. But perhaps also true is the fact that the publication’s transition to something like AnnArbor.com was bound to happen eventually anyway. And in a brave new world of web-based news outlets, a head start in mastering the market could only help.
But as a business, the road to AnnArbor.com’s prosperity is laden with obstacles. The website not only has to win former News readers over to a new format but also has to solve the riddle of how to finance a company almost exclusively through online ad revenue.
Since making the transition July 23 from The Ann Arbor News to AnnArbor.com, questions press the publication: how well is Ann Arbor’s new news source serving the community? Could it stand to do it better than its predecessor? And when AnnArbor.com does get it right, will former News readers appreciate it?
What the News was not
The Ann Arbor News and the majority of its readers were not the most agreeable of bedfellows. The News’s conservative editorial board — which endorsed George Bush in 2000 and 2004 — alienated the liberal epicenter it wrote for. In a large way, confrontational conservatism in the face of local values helped to put the last nail in the News’s coffin.
But politics aside, Ann Arbor still valued its local daily as any medium-sized city with a high level of community involvement would.
Karin Aarrak, an Ann Arbor resident of 35 years and a long-time News subscriber, was disappointed by the News’ closing and didn’t understand why it had to happen.
Former subscribers like Aarrak may miss the thud of the News landing on their doorstep each evening. But when it comes to accessing articles around the clock online, the replacement of mlive.com, the News’s former website, is nothing to cry over.
AnnArbor.com currently posts articles on mlive.com as well, which undoubtedly helped direct old readers to the new site.
But the host site for Michigan-based Booth Newspapers, mlive.com is an online news source that might actually detracted from publications’ accessibility. It is ugly, cluttered and confusing. Its search engine often redirects News readers to articles from other newspapers that are years old. The current mlive.com has gotten a face-lift, but the same problems with searching and finding articles persist.
The face of AnnArbor.com
It may seem suspect that the company that owned The Ann Arbor News — Booth Newspapers’ parent company, Advance Publications — would choose to stage an experiment in Internet-only journalism. But they have, and AnnArbor.com is it.
AnnArbor.com hasn’t completely abandoned print. It still publishes a print version (with the awkward masthead “Ann Arbor.com”) available to purchase Thursdays and Sundays. But the publication’s hopeful breadwinner is its website.
According to Tony Dearing, the chief content officer of AnnArbor.com, the purpose of the site is to offer hyper-local news that will present that news in a variety of different mediums.
AnnArbor.com is different from the standard newspaper website, Dearing said, because it provides readers with tools to access news coverage in ways that traditional journalism has shunned in the past. The site features articles, blog posts, videos and more from AnnArbor.com’s staff, community bloggers and even The Michigan Daily.
As unnatural as it may seem for two competing news outlets, the Daily and AnnArbor.com have made a content sharing agreement through which the publications will link to selected articles from the other publication to offer more to their web readers.
It’s one more unconventional step in many that AnnArbor.com has taken to deliver the news. The site pushes its top local stories every morning to those signed up to receive the digital newsletter. Viewers can browse posts like local concert reviews complete with MP3 links in the site’s entertainment section, The Deuce, or skim through a photo slideshow of the most unique storefronts in the city.
“We want to be people’s source for news and we are as committed to news as we ever have been,” Dearing said. “But we kind of want to use all of the tools of the digital age and take advantage of social media to really reflect the community and life in the community in a way that is really everything that’s happening in Ann Arbor — and not just news in Ann Arbor.”
Innovative content production is more important than ever for AnnArbor.com, which has a much smaller staff than what the News used to boast. The site employs a full-time staff of about 60, including 35 reporters — a drastic decrease from the News’s 316-member staff.
Rather than emulating a more traditional, hierarchical style of layout, AnnArbor.com features what Dearing calls a “river of news” concept, which updates the homepage with headlines by both staff reporters and blog contributors as they come in. Resembling Twitter or a Facebook.com news feed, the site is fairly easy to navigate, featuring headlines in the center of the homepage with topics of interest at both the top and right-hand side of the page.
“One of our goals with the new layout and just the whole site was that the site be fairly intuitive, fairly easy to navigate, and I think people that are comfortable with computers and websites have not had much trouble getting around our site,” Dearing said. “It’s pretty simple and it’s designed to be simple.”
Tepid community reception
Since the launch in late July, residents have perused both the website and print edition to see what Ann Arbor’s first e-newspaper has to offer, and being about seven weeks in, opinions vary about the design and content of the site. But residents seem to be most uncertain as to where AnnArbor.com lies on hard-hitting issues.
The News was known for a fairly conservative voice, which was not always well received in such a liberal town. AnnArbor.com’s opinion section is a far cry from that, consisting of daily blog posts by staff members linking to other publications’ editorials. Whether or not these “opinionated” posts offer a much-needed liberal respite is a question that residents like Vicki Honeyman can’t yet answer.
“I don’t really have a sense of its editorial position yet,” Honeyman said.
As an Ann Arbor resident for forty years and local business owner, Honeyman was an avid News reader and was aware of its conservative tastes. But even though she often disagreed with the opinion of the News, she felt that its strong editorial voice catered to the wide spectrum of opinions in the community. To her, AnnArbor.com can’t fully reach out to the community until it has found its voice.
Other readers have a lot less to say about the site because its content is catered to an online-oriented readership. Aarrak reads the print edition of AnnArbor.com and said that she thinks the style of the paper is very similar to The Ann Arbor News, but has to get used to not receiving it on a daily basis.
She couldn’t offer an opinion of the website because of her inability to access the Internet.
“I’m waiting for my husband to set up the computer,” Aarrak said.
Aarrak falls in the 8 percent of Ann Arbor residents who don’t have online access at home and who don’t read some of their news online, according to an estimate made my AnnArbor.com administrators last March. It was the other 92 percent that led Dearing and co-executives at AnnArbor.com to believe that the site would be successful in the web-savvy Ann Arbor community.
“One of the reasons we did this here is because so many of the people in Ann Arbor are web savvy,” Dearing said. “But, that being said, we still knew there would be people who have been traditional newspaper readers who weren’t very comfortable online and who would now have to be going online to get their news.”
Dearing said that the print edition of AnnArbor.com provides news access to readers who aren’t online-savvy. For those readers who were accustomed to reading their news in print, but had access to the Internet and decided to try out AnnArbor.com, the site offers an online tutorial video that demonstrates to new users how to use the site.
But some of the most common reader-submitted feedback on AnnArbor.com is that the Web site’s layout is confusing.
Ann Arbor resident Christine Wickram said that she prefers a more traditional layout to read her news online.
“The way they designed it, it’s confusing to navigate the different sections and cross-referencing doesn’t really exist on the site,” Wickram said.
She said she would prefer AnnArbor.com to function like other newspaper sites, such as those of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. For Wickram, AnnArbor.com’s blog-like character detracts from her expectations for quality journalism.
Other residents, like Ypsilanti resident Lois Plantefaber, refuse to read their news online.
“I still have not gotten to reading newspapers online — I don’t like reading The New York Times online, and I don’t like reading AnnArbor.com online,” Plantefaber said. “I go there periodically because it has local news.”
Plantefaber explained that she thinks the print edition of AnnArbor.com doesn’t seem to deliver the hard-hitting news stories that she had been accustomed to reading daily in The Ann Arbor News, which may be a reaction to AnnArbor.com’s ability to print only two days a week.
But based on the circulation of the print edition of AnnArbor.com, which, according to Dearing, stands at about 40,000 copies daily and 50,000 on Sundays — at or a little bit above what used to be normal for The Ann Arbor News — the community seems to be responding well to print.
As a forum for the community and by the community, AnnArbor.com has vowed to evolve based on readers’ feedback. One change that’s already on the agenda, according to Dearing, is to add clear bylines to stories on the homepage so readers can more easily differentiate between professional journalists and bloggers.
With all of the community involvement and even national hype regarding the launch of AnnArbor.com, many wonder where it stands in terms of site traffic, to get a sense for the site’s popularity.
AnnArbor.com won’t publicly release numbers representing site traffic, such as the number of unique viewers on an hourly and daily basis and how long readers stay on the site, until the company has had more time to determine traffic trends with another month or so. Dearing said that so far the site activity he has monitored is promising for the e-newspaper, and that site traffic numbers have far exceeded original expectations.
Although promising numbers can suggest an optimistic future, the community will determine the fate of AnnArbor.com, and Dearing knows this.
“What we’re seeing is that people are coming to the site, people are using the site, we’re hearing encouragement from people,” Dearing said. “But I think that people are still judging us and still waiting to see us really prove ourselves, and I understand that.”