For nearly two hours on Thursday afternoon, three people leading the new online venture formed to replace the Ann Arbor News fielded questions at a public forum, trying to assuage concerns over news that shocked this community when announced last week.
“Community” and “local” were two words frequently repeated by Matt Kraner, Laurel Champion and Tony Dearing of AnnArbor.com, which is gearing up for a late July launch. “Local journalism is not dead in Ann Arbor,” said Champion, current publisher of The News who’ll be executive vice president for the new company. “We’re just serving it up in a very, very different way.”
About 75 people attended Thursday’s forum at Weber’s Inn, the second of four now scheduled. Several current and former Ann Arbor News employees were in the audience, as were a few community leaders like Patricia Garcia, publisher of the Ann Arbor Observer, Ann Arbor school board member Susan Baskett, and Maura Thomson, head of the Main Street Area Association. (News reporter John Mulcahy filed an article about the event for the Ann Arbor News.)
The forum began with brief remarks by Kraner, Champion and Dearing, followed by questions from the audience. Kraner, CEO of the new business and former chief marketing officer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (owned by Advance Publications, the same company that owns the Ann Arbor News and that’s funding AnnArbor.com), said he was “very impressed with Ann Arbor so far,” and emphasized that for the new venture, the “quality of local journalism is really our paramount focus.” He also said they planned to build new revenue opportunities for advertisers, and would be able to push advertisers’ messages out “like you’ve never seen before.”
Champion said it’s been a sad week at the Ann Arbor News, but that because they’d had to cut costs and taken value out of the newspaper in recent years, it wasn’t serving anyone very well anymore. The new venture, she said, puts them in a position to do things well. Noting that she loved this community, she said AnnArbor.com would be “of, by and for the community – and we really need your help.”
Dearing, chief content director for AnnArbor.com, underscored the importance of sustaining community journalism, and said that fundamental reporting would be combined with new tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogging. He said bloggers complement traditional newspapers, and that AnnArbor.com wants to engage them, link to them and maybe even employ some of them. But to be successful, he said, “we have to do news and we have to do news well.”
Here’s a sampling from the forum’s Q&A. For this report, we’ve paraphrased audience questions and responses, and grouped them by topic, not sequentially.
Content & Staffing
Q: Will there be an editorial point of view? Dearing said he had mixed feelings about that. He described Ann Arbor as an opinionated community, but said they hadn’t decided how important it is to tell readers what they think via editorials. However, he said if they hear from the community that they should be taking the lead on an issue, that will be a factor.
Q: Will there be national and international news? National and international news is heavily commoditized, Dearing said. The mission of this new venture is “local, local, local.” He also said he was looking at ways to incorporate state news, especially as it relates to this area.
Q: There’s an awful lot of weird bloggers out there – I worry about that. Be careful about giving all bloggers a bad name, Dearing said. Some provide credible, valuable information, and if AnnArbor.com thinks readers would benefit from that, they’ll link to those bloggers. He said if you really wanted an understanding about AnnArbor.com, you wouldn’t be reading only the newspaper – you’d be reading blogs and other sources as well.
Q: You’ve mentioned the site will have elements of social networking – what do you mean by that? The site will take advantage of Facebook and Twitter, Dearing said. For example, if you register on AnnArbor.com, you’ll be able to pull in your entire Facebook profile, if you want. And if you post on the site, you’ll be able in one click to post the same thing on Twitter and Facebook. (The connection with Facebook came up again when an audience member said she’d tried to register online for this forum, and was directed to the Facebook log-in page. “I had no idea what that was about,” she said. Dearing said they’d fix that.)
People who want to can also create their own content on AnnArbor.com, Dearing said. For example, if you want to create a page for your 8-year-old’s wrestling team, you can do that – you can post photos, schedules, results of meets – and “we’re not going to touch it,” he said. Kraner said they knew it was important to differentiate between content that their own staff posted versus the content posted by readers and bloggers.
Q: What’s the geographical reach of Ann Arbor.com? All of Washtenaw County – but starting in Ann Arbor. Since they’re building from the ground up, Dearing said, “I don’t want to over-promise.”
Q: Will there be a health reporter? How about strong investigative reporters? Dearing said they’d cover personal health issues as well as the local health industry. They’d heard from people that business reporting was important, so they’ll staff that “more adequately.” He said he wants some top-notch reporters who’ll get the story – if they aren’t trained in technical skills, “them we’ll teach,” he said.
Q: I haven’t heard anything about arts & culture – will you be covering that? Absolutely, Dearing said. Ann Arbor is one of the most culturally rich communities in America, he said, and that will be a part of AnnArbor.com. He said they’ll have an “exceptional” arts calendar, and that the Arts Alliance has already reached out to them.
Q: I found out about today’s forum by reading about it in the newspaper. How will you communicate events like this? Dearing said that most people get their information online, and that overall combined readership in print and online is going up. Kraner said that AnnArbor.com has to be the source for community information, including events. Being a rich, thorough resource is a high priority, he said.
Q: How many Ann Arbor News employees are losing their jobs? The Ann Arbor News is closing, Champion said, and most employees will be laid off. Kraner added that News employees are being encouraged to apply for jobs at AnnArbor.com, but “it’s a different company. It’s a clean break.” They’ll be outsourcing printing, copy-editing and page layout functions, he said, and will be solely focused on creating content, and on sales and marketing.
Q: How many reporters will be on staff compared to now? Dearing said they would employ fewer people than are now on staff, but that they’re still trying to figure out how many. They want to be transparent, he said, and will have that answer in two or three weeks. (Editor’s note: AnnArbor.com is interviewing now for four positions that will manage coverage in four areas: News, sports, arts & entertainment, and community.)
Dearing said that some people expressed concern because they’d seen the newsroom at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer – which recently ended its print edition and is now online only – drop from 140 people to 20. “We’ll certainly have more people than that,” Dearing said. (Not including the sports staff, there are about a dozen full-time reporters at The News. In addition, there are about 40 other newsroom jobs, including photographers, editors, support staff, and part-time reporters.)
Q: What about Geoff Larcom and Jo Mathis – I enjoy reading them. Will they be hired? Referring to Larcom, Dearing said it’s a pretty strong indication of your grounding in this community when city hall is named after your father. Dearing said he hired Mathis into the Ann Arbor News, and described Larcom and Mathis as “special people to me.” He said they’d had conversations, but didn’t explicitly say what their roles, if any, might be at AnnArbor.com.
Q: A lot of us in local businesses and nonprofits have relationships with reporters at the Ann Arbor News. How much will you be meshing the old with the new? Dearing said he understands that they can’t bring in a bunch of 25-year-olds who don’t know the community. He said they’ll need both experienced reporters as well as people who can help reach a new audience.
Q: Will carriers now working for the Ann Arbor News have to reapply for their jobs to deliver the Thursday and Sunday papers? Carrier jobs to distribute AnnArbor.com’s print editions will be outsourced. Kraner said it’s important to have a strong carrier force, to ensure the papers are delivered “on time and dry.” He said one of the regional newspapers (presumably one owned by Advance Publications) would handle staffing for carriers.
Q: What will the website look like? Dearing said the site would be uncluttered, intuitive and easy to use. There will also be tools allowing more sophisticated users to customize the site. The site will be constantly updated, he said – the home page might look dramatically different within an hour or even a half hour.
The site will be organized around topics, locations and people, Dearing said. There will be different levels of sophistication within those areas. A basic page might just contain a story with links and a photo. Another tier might focus on video, with links to bloggers. A third level could be customizable, with videos, text, photos, statistics and more.
Kraner said the challenge is to increase not just the size of their online audience, but also the frequency of use. That means breaking news will be a significant part of their overall mission. He described the site as elegant, and said it would include tools to “connect and communicate.” However, he said they weren’t going to finish building the site until they’d gotten feedback from the community. He said that although AnnArbor.com will launch in late July, they will likely come back with a second version in October and additional changes after the first of the year.
Q: MLive is pretty cumbersome and hard to navigate. How will AnnArbor.com compare? Dearing said they’ll have a “superior” site search and that the site would be easy to navigate. It’s one of their highest priorities, he said, and they’ve hired a firm with a national reputation to help do that.
Q: Are there any plans to make the site more accessible to the visually impaired and for people with other disabilities? Dearing said they hadn’t discussed that, but he wanted to know more and asked the person who’d posed the question to stay after the forum and talk to him. Earlier in the meeting, Champion said that at a Thursday morning meeting with residents at Glacier Hills retirement community, people were concerned about their ability to use computers. The new entity will be prepared to help make that transition, she said. “We’re not going to leave you behind.”
Q: I sit at a computer all day and am not inclined to do that when I get home. Have you thought about using a wireless e-reader? Dearing said they’re looking at delivering content in a number of ways, including Kindle and Plastic Logic. That’s a fairly easy thing to accommodate, he said, and if it wasn’t available immediately, it would be soon.
Q: What will the print editions look like? The printed papers will be broadsheets, like the current newspaper, Kraner said. There will also be a “total market coverage” (TMC) product which will be distributed once a week to non-subscribers. (Currently, the Ann Arbor News has a TMC product called “Food, Fun and Fitness,” which includes reprinted articles from the daily newspaper as well as advertisements.)
Dearing said the Sunday paper would look like a traditional Sunday paper. Thursday’s edition would likely be heavy on entertainment and prep sports. It’s hard to say how much emphasis there’ll be on breaking news for the print editions, he said. There might be more news features and analysis.
Kraner said the print edition will be available in newsstands and stores, as well as by subscription.
Q: Financially, how will you make AnnArbor.com work? The site won’t charge to access content. It’s primarily an advertising-supported business model. They’ll charge subscriptions for the Thursday and Sunday printed newspapers – when asked specifically what subscriptions would cost, Kraner said they didn’t yet know. Kraner said he expects Sundays will still be a dominant vehicle for advertisers, as it is now. He said they’ll be very aggressive on pricing for ads – ”expect to pay less.”
Later, responding to a different question, Champion said that the Ann Arbor News’ printing plant in Pittsfield Township is being spun off as a separate company, which will essentially be a commercial printer. The plant currently prints the New York Times for this region, the Jackson Citizen-Patriot newspaper (one of the eight newspapers in Michigan owned Advance Publications), and other publications.
Q: What’s your advertising model like? Kraner said they’ll be launching three or four new elements for advertisers on the site, possibly incorporating data provided by advertisers. They’ll also be creating direct marketing opportunities for advertisers, he said. Small- and medium-size businesses are looking for ways to advertise more cost effectively, and AnnArbor.com staff will be talking with advertisers to see what works for them. Traditional revenue streams, like classified ads, have eroded, he said, but now there are opportunities to build out a completely new model that pushes out content.
Q: I think you’re throwing in the towel too soon on the newspaper. Have you considered things like trimming payroll, raising subscription rates, charging readers to publish personal photos or paying your executives $1-a-year salaries? Kraner said this isn’t just an Ann Arbor issue. Newspapers are financially challenged nationwide, even in robust markets. In the current model, he said, costs are high to create and deliver newspapers. The owners aren’t doing this to make more money, Kraner said. Industry-wide, news media are trying to find a viable business model.
Misc. questions & comments
Q: Do you think The News alienated a lot of the community because of its conservative endorsements? Champion, who as publisher has served on the Ann Arbor News editorial board for several years, said that yes, their editorials have probably alienated some readers. But that’s true for any opinion they have, she said. “Did we make some mistakes? Absolutely, we did,” she said. But they’ve been trying to focus more on the community over the past couple of years, and that’s also why they’re now working to change their business model.
Dearing followed up by saying that people he talks to generally have two questions: Does the new venture understand the technology – we do, he said – and do they understand Ann Arbor. “That’s what we’re going to be judged by,” Dearing said. Kraner added that they want to understand what the community wants – that’s why they’re seeking feedback.
Q: I got an email from you saying this forum would be at Campus Inn at 2 o’clock, but it started an hour earlier at Weber’s. I’m a little concerned that your system is already broken. Kraner apologized for the confusion of location and meeting time, and said they do take that seriously and believe it’s important to reach out to the community. They have scheduled another forum for Thursday, April 16 at 7 p.m. in the Pendleton Room of the Michigan Union at 530 S. State St.
Q: How long have you been working on this project? Kraner said that he and Dearing officially joined the project at the first of this year, and that Champion came on board about a month ago. He did not discuss what work was done unofficially prior to that.