A next generation in Ann Arbor

(First, full disclosure: I consulted for Advance Publications on its project in Ann Arbor and worked for the company for a dozen years as president and creative director of its online arm, Advance.net.)

AnnArbor.com launched on Friday. I think it’s a bigger deal than it seems at first glance. Advance folded the Ann Arbor News the day before and closed that company. On the next day, it launched AnnArbor.com as a new service, based online and in the community, structured very differently from a newspaper: smaller and more collaborative. As folks have noticed on Twitter, the home page looks nothing like a newspaper site of yore. It’s a blog and it’s intensely local.

Note also that the advertising is different. Rather than banners and buttons, AnnArbor.com offers local deals that are interspersed in the content and also listed in a directory. It happens that these deals are published as blog posts and they read that way. We need to try new and more appropriate means of serving local marketers.

The new company will still print two days a week, and that’s probably why people don’t notice just how much of a change this represents. As I said below, there’s still money in distributing coupons and circulars and in some print advertising, so the company will continue to grab that, at least in the transition. But this company is focused online and in the community.

Ann Arbor is a unique place: highly interested in news, highly connected, with a great university, not to mention a Google office, in town. That’s why it was picked. From the moment this shift became public, the project’s editor, Tony Dearing, and business chief, Matt Kraner, were out in the community to build with the community. I said sometime ago that if this works, the community didn’t help them build AnnArbor.com; they helped the community build it (and their own sites in a new news ecosystem in town).

It’s just a beginning. I hope we’ll see the service become more collaborative, more of a network and less of a site. I know they will experiment with new advertising and sales models and methods. And I hope they will find the way to create a sustainable journalistic enterprise serving the town for many years to come. It’s a brave start and I think it’s worth watching, so that’s why I’m drawing it to your attention.

  • I live in Ann Arbor and am friends with several people who are either employees or unpaid contributors to AnnArbor.com. Yes, it will be well worth watching. They made a few very public misstemps pre-launch (such as hiring an NYC firm to design its logo rather than a local), but these things will, one hopes, smooth out over time.

    It will be interesting to see how things play out with its much smaller rival, a2chronicle.com. a2chronicle.com was founded by The Ann Arbor News’ former business editor, Mary Morgan, and her husband, Dave Askins. It is strictly on-line, there is no print edition. a2chronicle.com does a superb job covering the city council, the county board, and other elected bodies, as well as community events. I hope both can thrive.

  • Can you talk a bit about the business structure side of things? I live in another Advance Publications town (Portland, Oregon) where The Oregonian and oregonlive.com are two completely separate businesses, albeit both owned by the same parent company. Having the print and web operations as two separate companies generally isn’t a recipe for success, and I’d be interested to hear whether the AnnArbor.com approach might be a part of a broader strategy. Thanks

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  • Thanks Jeff. As a former Ann Arbor resident, I’ll be watching this closely. The monetization method you describe “local deals that are interspersed in the content” is interesting… If these “deals” are actually returning value to readers, then I think this stands a fighting chance of working… There are quite a few interesting things at play here – thanks to bringing it to my attention.

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  • Jeff —
    I’m sorry, I had high hopes for Ann Arbor too, but I cannot reconcile why a Moveable Type blog needs 54 people, including at least three administrative assistants.

    I’m a former Advance employee as well, and this is what happens when the best and brightest newspaper folks spend three months transitioning to the web, I’m leery.

    Perhaps more important, nothing in the presentation of the site screams “Local” to me. The blog could like like anytown, USA — would it have killed to put one picture of Ann Arbor in the header or some such?

    I too wish it the best, but a re-launch opportunity and national attention has been squandered so far. Have you seen I WantMyrocky.com lately? Lots of initial buzz, and now not so much. I fear the same result in Ann Arbor.


  • Eric Gauvin

    It looks very nice. I love the look of this pristine blog. But it doesn’t seem all that innovative and calling ads “deals” and working them in as blog posts is kind of an insult. The linear format of a blog works great for something like gawker, which is a continuous stream of tidbits that drift past. A blog is basically a mini content management system and if used for a newspaper should be capable of a much more complex presentation of information. At least more than one column would be nice. Maybe a story that sticks around if it’s getting lots of comments. However, I think I might prefer this blog over http://www.courant.com

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  • I like their initiative on this. My only suggestion would be for them to close up some of the white space. For someone looking to get a scan of the news, there’s an awful lot of non-news above the fold.

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  • Rob Levine

    I have a couple of questions about this venture: Is it true, as has been reported online, that employees of the newspaper had to re-apply for lower paying jobs at AnnArbor.com? If so, don’t you think that’s worth mentioning when you talk about the new venture’s business model? And how do you think it will affect the quality of the journalism that is being produced?

    • It’s a new company with new jobs and new job functions and a new product with a new relationship with the community. The old company and product were shut down entirely. Some people went to work for the new company.

      • Robert Levine

        Is it an entirely new legal entity? If so, do you know why? Kind of odd, given that the new firm benefits substantially from the accumulated goodwill of the newspaper.

  • Mike Manitoba

    Rob: I read that as well. According to chief of content Tony Dearing, “a majority took a pay cut to join us.” (Which makes me wonder if there were pay cuts across the board.) Apparently some two dozen on the staff were either print-edition vets or had some experience in local news.

  • I gave the wrong URL in comment #1 for the Ann Arbor Chronicle – it is http://annarborchronicle.com/

  • I agree with Eric, the interspersed ads are a bit of an insult. It sort of screams “low-budget-blog-trying-to-make-money-anyway-but-loose.”

    On the other hand, we’ll all learn from their successes and failures at making money from local news on the web. So their approach is a welcome case study.

    As a professional news and information designer, I like the very clean and professional design. I really like the blog/list approach to news items as it reminds me of the Bloomberg website approach, which I find very functional. But I think it works most for the sections: news, sports, etc. as opposed to the home.

    The home doesn’t feel “complex enough” to serve the needs of the residents of Ann Arbor. If I am a resident of Ann Arbor I think I want a quick scan of the latest in different areas like news, business and UM sports, for example. With the current format, I have to click on three different tabs to scan by topic. And as a web surfer, I might be too lazy to do that.

    Finally, the “Featured,” “Popular,” and “Everything” tabs are very Web 2.0 but brilliant nonetheless and help me see what the web operators deem important as well as what readers/users see as important.

  • Bob Davis

    So far, annarbor.com looks OK. If you like the look of facebook. But it’ll rise or fall as a news organization. And so far, it’s pretty weak on that point.

    The stories are thin, bland, and can generally be summed up as “hooray for everything.”

    Ugh. We’ve just witnessed the total loss of news coverage in the city.

  • Rob: I read that as well. According to chief of content Tony Dearing, “a majority took a pay cut to join us.” (Which makes me wonder if there were pay cuts across the board.) Apparently some two dozen on the staff were either print-edition vets or had some experience in local news.

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