In March it was announced that The Ann Arbor News, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, would be closing. The paper had been publishing since 1835. Sad as it was, it wasn’t an unusual considering the state of newspapers nationwide. What made it unique was what happened next.
The newspaper was closing, but in its place, AnnArbor.com would launch as a mostly online-only, hyperlocal news portal. As the industry remains in flux and more news executives are turning to the web, AnnArbor.com is being seen as a case study in online local news. Ed Vielmetti is AnnArbor.com’s blogging leader.
How is AnnArbor.com different from the standard newspaper web site?
The biggest difference is that the front page is more of a ‘river of news’ format,with current information at the top. We have a few ways of pulling out stories that are important or ‘breaking news’, especially in our daily newsletter and the twice weekly print product, and we let readers vote on stories that they consider popular. But for the most part the design is aimed at always putting new information at the top of the front page.
The other big difference from other newspaper web sites is that we work hard to link to other sources of information when we have them, even if that source is another rival newspaper or a blog. Most newspapers do a bad job of giving credit to and driving traffic to external sources; we’re working to do the opposite whenever it’s appropriate.
AnnArbor.com was born out of the ashes of The Ann Arbor News. From what I know of it, the newspaper had a fairly dedicated readership. However it was unsustainable. What is the approach AnnArbor.com is taking to ensure it retains that readership in a way that will allow it to be sustainable?
Building a sustainable news venture in an era when all news organizations are undergoing huge financial pressures is a big challenge. The biggest differences in the new AnnArbor.com are a greater focus on the online product and its relevance for the market, and a lower frequency of a print run. Most of the evolution you see will come from that set of changes.
How will the loss of Ann Arbors local newspaper effect the local business? And what do you foresee as AnnArbor.com’s role in nurturing local business?
The local Chamber of Commerce is going through a search for a new director, and their search committee has noted the wide divide between the traditional business community that has characterized that group and the younger, more technology focused group of businesses that the University of Michigan attracts or spins off. I am sure that divide – which happens on many levels typical of a town/gown split – will be a continuing challenge to cover.
Your official title is “blogging leader for the community team”. What approach do you take with the AnnArbor.com blogs, and what do you tell the other bloggers so that they are best representing the interests and needs of their community?
I try to do whatever I can to encourage people and to make what they write awesome, and to look for people who are experts with things to say who never ever thought of themselves as journalists but who have something to contribute to the community conversation. I’ll know a lot more about what to say to people after a year when we can see how people adapt to this medium which is neither their own blog nor a regular piece of newsprint and ink in a paper format.
Across the news industry, much attention is being paid to whether AnnArbor.com goes on to do well, or whether it falls victim to any number of potential problems. How aware are you of this? Have you had conversations with others in the industry about issues to be aware of and how to avoid them?
My background is in economics, not journalism, so I can think broad thoughts and read punditry about any number of broad trends that could have an impact on the news industry and the internet business.
From my experience with startup businesses, though, and this is something like my fifth, what I know is that it’s a lot less about strategy and a lot more about execution, getting little things right over and over again and making sure that when something goes wrong you notice and pay attention and figure out how to do better.
While AnnArbor.com is mostly online, it does have a print product, too. Why did AnnArbor.com decide to pursue a print product in a climate that isn’t favorable for it?
From my seat here I can see five other newspapers – USA Today, the New York Times, the Ann Arbor Observer, the Detroit News, and the Detroit Free Press – for sale on the corner news boxes. There’s definitely demand both from readers and advertisers for a print product. What I c
ouldn’t tell you is what will happen to that print product in five or 10 years.
Will AnnArbor.com institute a pay wall for its content?
There are no plans to do a pay wall.
Does AnnArbor.com have a 5 or 10 year plan? If so, how do you think AnnArbor.com will look? And if not, why?
When I went to college I studied the Soviet economy and its five year plans; after graduating and seeing the collapse of the Berlin Wall I got some reminder of the difference between what made sense as a model in a classroom and how the world really behaves.
If you look at the evolution of websites over time, occasionally you see gradual evolution with incremental changes towards more complexity, and occasionally you see radical reform towards simplicity where things are stripped down to their essence. I hope that AnnArbor.com reflects something close to the simplest thing that could possibly work, and that what you’ll see over time from here reflects gradual evolution again as we work through things that didn’t make it in for the launch of the site.
Will AnnArbor.com enter the mobile sphere by offering widgets and applications?
We already have people reading AnnArbor.com on the bus on their way in and out of town on their iPhones, and I read it on my Blackberry. In this case the simplicity of the design has worked for us.
Photo credit: Mark Bialek