AnnArbor.com Grows Audience in First Year, Remains a Work in Progress

It’s been a year since The Ann Arbor News folded and a radical, new-look website took its place as the anchor of Advance/Newhouse’s coverage of the college town.
 
So how is the new kid doing? Those who know aren’t really saying, following a longstanding Newhouse tradition of keeping revenue and profit/loss numbers confidential.
 
Tony Dearing, the site’s chief content officer, gave me this summary by e-mail last week:
“Our online revenue is growing rapidly and constitutes a much larger share of our total revenue than you would typically see at a traditional newspaper. We still have a ways to go before we reach our goal of being profitable online, but we’re encouraged by the progress we’re making.”
 
In an interview with my colleague Bill Mitchell, Dearing was more forthcoming about lessons learned, content adjustments made and how the site has assembled an audience through several formats.
 
The site, as Dearing and others had promised going in, doesn’t look like a bit like most news sites. It has a social media feel, and stories, along with the occasional stacked ad for a “deal of the day,” are posted in reverse chronological order for the most part. 
 
A number of potential readers didn’t like that news presentation, Dearing said, so the site now offers top stories at the top of the homepage, and a free e-mail newsletter with a more traditional story hierarchy (and its own advertising). Dearing said that newsletter distribution has reached 21,000; he hopes to expand that to 30,000.
 
Though The Ann Arbor News went out of business and sold its downtown building to the University of Michigan Credit Union, the new company has reconstituted the News as a print edition on Thursdays and Sundays. These contain some original stories, Dearing said, together with recycled posts from AnnArbor.com.
 
The audience has taken well to the print product. Its circulation is 43,000 Sundays and 34,000 Thursdays, compared to 49,000 Sunday and 39,000 daily just before the News closed, according to Dearing. Subscriptions go for $9 a month, compared to $12 for seven days of the paper before the shutdown.
 
AnnArbor.com itself, Dearing said, gets 50,000 unique visitors a day, 960,000 a month. That is an unusually high figure for a 100,000-person city and its environs — possibly reflecting broad national interest in University of Michigan sports, assiduous search engine optimization and the site’s status as a primary news source five days a week.
 
As for content, Dearing found that free user-generated articles did not pan out as he had hoped, and he has since shifted to paying freelancers for that material. The site has the typical problems with incivility in its comment chains, Dearing added. Rather than ban anonymity, the site is putting in place a reader recommendation system that will stack the best at the top.
 
One twist in AnnArbor.com’s operations is that it took over and reopened a coffee shop space on the first floor of the building housing its new rented offices. Staff mingle with customers during the day, and coffee sale proceeds go to charity.
 
“We had reached the point where traditional newspapers had become impenetrable to their audience,” Dearing said. “I’d defy you to get past the security guards into newsrooms.”
 
To assess the merits of AnnArbor.com as a business move, one needs to remember its predecessor. The Ann Arbor News, according to publisher Laurel Champion and Advance executives, had been unprofitable for several years and had little prospect of turning the corner even when the economy improved. Its companion website, MLive.com, was a clunky and confusing afterthought.
 
With the new pattern, Advance saves big money in two ways. Publishing just two days instead of seven cuts way back on paper and distribution costs (printing is done at a sister Advance paper nearby). The reconstituted newsroom with 35 staffers is about half the size of the old, and many of those jobs are lower-paid.
 
From 1,000 miles away, I can’t assess the quality of AnnArbor.com’s content. The site initially got more negative than positive reviews (and, to its credit, published them). But Dearing’s audience figures suggest that the current setup has a family of products that penetrate the market well, with offerings for wired-up and traditional readers and those in between.
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Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn pointed out in a story Friday that no other midsized or metro newspaper has yet followed the trail of reduced print publication blazed by Ann Arbor and the two nearby Detroit papers. Long-term, print circulation and advertising will continue to erode, but for the time being, it’s critical to conserve print revenues.

 
Conversely, 2010 is shaping up as the year when the industry stopped jawboning about the search for new business models and got busy with real-time initiatives. Credit the Ann Arbor crew and its corporate parent with taking the plunge into fundamental change a year ahead of the pack.

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