Newhouse’s AnnArbor.com Enters a Crowded Field Next Week

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After four months of preparation and promises, AnnArbor.com launches in a week, aiming for some razzle-dazzle and a tighter community connection.

 
Both were missing from The Ann Arbor News, which will publish its last edition July 23, and its clunky MLive Web site, which is being phased out in the city. The new Web-first enterprise looks to be a test run for the Newhouse family’s Advance chain, well-staffed and backed by top design and technology talent from back at corporate headquarters.
 
But as AnnArbor.com steps out on the stage it will find lots of company — with more on the way.
 
“We’re seeing a lot more players — online-only and print,” Mary Morgan, publisher of the online Ann Arbor Chronicle, told me in a phone interview. “There already is some confusion among advertisers who are being approached by a lot of different people.”
 
Morgan, a former Ann Arbor News opinions editor, is both a sharp observer of the local media scene and potentially AnnArbor.com’s toughest competitor. In March, she wrote a gracious essay on The Ann Arbor Newsannounced closing (in transit to her mother’s funeral, no less) but earlier had delivered a devastating and prescient critique of the paper’s failings.
 
The Chronicle is less than a year old, professionally staffed only by Morgan and her husband, but it gained national recognition as a noteworthy small startup even before The Ann Arbor News announced it was closing. And it has some advertising — at the modest rate of $300 for a month’s run — enough, Morgan has said, to meet her goal of “making a living, not a killing.”
 
By Morgan’s description, the site’s tone is more “quirky and playful” than the typical newspaper-related operation. But inconveniently for AnnArbor.com, Morgan, husband Dave Askins and a few freelancers, volunteers and interns provide solid, on-the-scene coverage of the city council, school board meetings and other local issues. “We do go to a lot of meetings,” Morgan said. “We get pulled aside, and people like that you are there — just showing up.”
 
Other established Ann Arbor news organizations include the University of Michigan’s Michigan Daily and its Web site; the monthly Ann Arbor Observer and its Web site; an Arbor Wiki; several radio shows; and a host of bloggers, among them Morgan’s fellow Ann Arbor News alum, Jim Carty. Journal Register, just emerging from bankruptcy, earlier this month started a print weekly, A2Journal, to compete with AnnArbor.com’s new twice-weekly print product.
 
AnnArbor.com has been staffing up. By late last week 25 staff appointments had been announced, not counting ad sales staff. The site will start life with an education reporter, a health reporter, a university reporter, a two-person business team and a four-person sports department (whose coverage of University of Michigan sports will continue to be fed to Advance’s other Michigan papers).
 
Tony Dearing, AnnArbor.com’s content director, e-mailed me that he was too busy for an interview. But when the changes were announced, having already worked several months on site development, he told Carty, “What we’re going to do is not going to look like anything out there … We are creating a model that doesn’t exist … The one thing I guarantee you, when this thing launches, and people look at it, they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, it’s just another newspaper Web site.’ I can assure you this is going to be different from anything you’ve ever seen or can conceptualize.”
 
That sets a high bar for the coming launch. “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” as the slogan says, and AnnArbor.com will want to be arresting and intriguing but not downright weird. It is still the replacement source for the city’s news but aspires to be a community gathering spot with lots of participation and dialogue. The first floor of its new offices includes a drop-in chat room.
 
Dearing and others leading the effort turn the argument of my first post about the Ann Arbor changes on its head. Maybe well-educated, tech-savvy Ann Arbor is not so much a bad market for a conventional newspaper as a good opportunity for an innovative, Web-led approach.
 
Former president of Advance.net Jeff Jarvis does online consulting for Advance, and he may be offering a sneak preview of sorts for the site in his recent book, “What Would Google Do?”:
“What does a newspaper look like if it is no longer a newspaper? It will be more of a network with a smaller staff of reporters and editors still providing news and recouping value for that. Paper 2.0 will work with and support collections of bloggers, entrepreneurs, citizens and communities that gather and share news. A newspaper is no longer a printing press that turns out money. But as a network, it could be bigger than papers have been in years, reaching deeper into communities, having more of an impact and adding more value. To get there it has to act small and think big and see the world differently.”
 
Trickling out news of the site’s development (and earlier, the mother paper’s closing), AnnArbor.com has taken care to allow freewheeling discussion each step of the way. For instance, an item unveiling the new site’s signature icon — an acorn – drew more than 40 comments, most of them scornful, saying the look was unexciting and questioning why they hired a New York firm to do it instead of local talent.
 
And the site itself has let commenters broach the larger version of that question: Even if it is commendably bold to start over, layer in better technology and have a 21st-century-style and conversational content format, why think that a big corporation can get all that right? Especially Advance, whose earlier efforts in Ann Arbor arguably lacked a sensitive local touch and were backward in online design and functionality.
 
Local flavor is what the Chronicle, particularly, and others in the emerging media mix have in abundance. But money will matter too. “I’m aware of their resources,” Morgan said. “The Newhouse fortune can be brought to bear.”
 
But having plausibly cast the Chronicle as David to AnnArbor.com’s Goliath, Morgan caught herself. She is friendly with Dearing and has chatted about what each is trying to do. Viewing this as cutthroat competition may be old-media think. Maybe there is room for both and others too?
 
“Sure,” said Morgan, who has since explored a related thought in a 10-month anniversary column, suggesting there may be enough pie for all. Any way you slice it, the Newhouse empire will be serving less professionally-reported conventional news than before. If the company is right, though, this may be a time when readers are hungry for something different.

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