Rivals step up online and in print
by Vickie Elmer
From the July, 2009 issue
Heritage Newspapers, which publishes the Saline Reporter, the Chelsea Standard, and other area papers, will debut its weekly A2 Journal on July 9, less than two weeks before AnnArbor.com 's July 20 launch. Heritage, whose parent company is in bankruptcy reorganization, isn't saying much about the Journal but promises a free home-delivered circulation of 20,000. Editor Michelle Rogers also oversees seven weeklies in Washtenaw and Wayne counties.
Online, AnnArbor.com, the successor to the Ann Arbor News, will compete for ads and news with an expanded AnnArborChronicle.com, launched last year by former News opinion editor Mary Morgan. Though she and her husband, Dave Askins, remain the Chronicle's only staff, they have begun to employ freelance writers and commission-only salespeople, and Morgan says they hope to soon begin covering high school sports.
AnnArbor.com's staff will be tiny compared to the News, but next to the Chronicle and other online competitors, it's a giant. Tony Dearing, the chief content officer, says he's hiring between thirty-one and thirty-five full-time and part-time "digital journalists." There will also be some local "experts," including former Shaman Drum owner Karl Pohrt.
Dearing says he expects to produce at least four "major investigations or [research] project reports" a year. News director Amalie Nash, a respected News veteran, is already working on early enterprise stories to set "a tone that this is a serious journalism site," says Nash. "You need to start out strong."
One big challenge will be balancing the divergent demands of a 24/7 website with those of a traditional printed newspaper. While research shows people "don't want to read more than 100 words online," says Nash. AnnArbor.com will publish Thursday and Sunday print editions that will have longer features, profiles, and more standard newspaper stories.
The Thursday paper will bring back the Spotlight entertainment tabloid, along with food and home features, prep sports, and previews of weekend games, as well as more "look-ahead" stories on events and issues,
The Sunday paper, also to be called AnnArbor.com, will have a section devoted to local news, opinion, and editorials. The second section may be national and international news, Dearing says, and there will be a robust sports section, too, plus entertainment, travel coverage, and "one or two general interest columns."
Laurel Champion, outgoing News publisher and executive vice president of the new company, says print subscriptions will cost $9 a month, a bit less than the News's current Sunday price. (AnnArbor.com subscribers can opt for Sunday only, but there's no discount-so the Thursday paper is essentially free.) Those who currently get the News delivered will have their subscriptions transferred to AnnArbor.com unless they opt out. Dearing says AnnArbor.com hopes to match the News's Sunday circulation-54,000 as of March 31, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, with about half of that home-delivered in and around Ann Arbor.
While the News tried to be a regional paper, covering all of Washtenaw County and beyond, Nash says AnnArbor.com "will be kind of hyper-local, pretty Ann Arbor-centric." Her reporters will cover police and crime, city hall, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and U-M, but are likely to skip most Saline and Ypsilanti stories or use freelancers for them.
Arts and entertainment news will be produced mainly by freelance writers, and readers or nonprofit organizations will be asked to "contribute news or calendar items," says Nash. They also hope to strike partnership arrangements with the Chronicle and other media outlets to share their online stories via an RSS feed.
There may be more such deals in the future. "It's going to be wild and chaotic for a while," the Chronicle's Morgan says. She expects to see "more choices" for news and information as other former News staffers start up their own sites.
While web publications are easy to launch, Tom Gantert, a News writer, thinks that the upstarts may have trouble holding out against the deep pockets of the Newhouse family, which owns the News and AnnArbor.com. Gantert believes nonprofit journalistic enterprises such as the Michigan Messenger may be one future possibility.
Gantert himself is pursuing investors for a conservative political online outlet. "There's a ton of interest," he says. "But I need to have someone write the check."
[Originally published in July, 2009.]