Venture Puts Chelsea’s Local News Online

"Chelsea Update" launched by former Free Press journalist
The home page for Chelsea Update, a new online news site.

The home page for Chelsea Update, a new online local news site.

As a journalist, Heather Newman is perhaps best known for the technology column she wrote at the Detroit Free Press. Though she left that newspaper last year for a job at the University of Michigan, the Chelsea area resident has found another way to use her journalism skills. This month, she launched an online news site called Chelsea Update, focused on news and information in the town just west of Ann Arbor. In an email interview, we asked Newman to tell us about her new venture.

What got you started down this road? As you were thinking about the possibility of starting this venture, what were the pros and cons in weighing whether you’d actually do it?

I’d been writing for newspapers for almost 20 years when I left to join the marketing staff at the University of Michigan Press (its book publishing division) in December. Working here has been terrific, but I really felt that journalistic itch, so I was looking for something I could do in the evenings and on weekends to keep my hand in. I’ve lived in the Chelsea area for nine years, so I’m naturally nosy about what goes on there, and the only newspaper in the area is a weekly. It seemed like a great place to start.

The possible cons were a shortage of time on my part (always) and the fact that I was reasonably certain this wasn’t going to amount to much in terms of pay. That’s ok. I work better when continually busy, and I’ve done a number of things for free in the course of my journalistic career; all have resulted in something great down the road. Call it karma.

What are your broad goals for this venture, both for you and for the community?

Chelsea needs a reliable source of daily local news. Folks here want to know what the City Council is doing, but they also want to know what the rock at Pierce Park is painted like today, and who passed away recently, and what the gas prices and weather are like right now. They want to know what to plan for, what’s new and what’s happening this weekend. A continuously updating site can provide all of that.

What type of content will be on the site, and how did you determine that? Who will be writing/reporting? Will you be hiring freelancers? Who’s doing photos?

The site focuses on news and information about the Chelsea area, with some features (I’m launching a Virtual Gallery for local artists, for example). We already have a wonderful events-oriented site in the area (, and my focus was on filling the gap: timely, extremely local news for folks who live in and care about the town.

So far, it’s mostly been a one-woman band, and the likelihood of my hiring freelancers is slim unless the income reaches a level I honestly don’t expect. I’ve been doing some of the photos, but other family members have contributed as well (my mother, my husband), so that part of it has been a group effort. I’d like to see some regular features that include local residents’ writing and photography, and the Virtual Gallery is a small start to that (the copy and photos are provided by the artist in that case).

Are you partnering with anyone or any group on this, like the chamber of commerce or local bloggers?

Membership in the chamber is on my budget as one of my first reinvestments of income from the site. Everyone from the Downtown Development Authority to the city to the Chelsea Center for the Arts to local merchants have been extremely helpful in passing along news tips and helping out with special projects like the Gallery, but the site is independent. I’ve had too many years in newspapers for it to be any other way.

What are you calling your venture – an online newspaper? Publication?

It’s a news and information site. There are no plans for a printed edition, so calling it a newspaper or publication seems counterintuitive. My attitude toward newspapers has always been that they are, in some cases, all the right information in exactly the wrong package. My site attempts to take some material that would have been at home in a tiny, local daily and combine it with special features only possible on the Web.

You designed the site yourself. What were you trying to accomplish in the design?

For the techies and bloggers out there, the site runs on a self-hosted WordPress backbone, with a tweaked version of the Amazing Grace theme by Vladimir Prelovac providing the basis for the design. WordPress is what makes this site possible on my short time allotment; much of what I need is already plug-and-play, thanks to one developer or another, meaning that the plugins and widgets I have to design from scratch have been limited. That lets me concentrate on the writing, since this is a solo effort.

The Amazing Grace theme is pure Chelsea: town and country, classy and natural, all rolled into one. I couldn’t have asked for a better palette to start from. The objective of the site is to represent Chelsea honestly, but with affection; I love living there, and I admit that bias up front. Then again, looking at the slide show of pictures that show up in the postcards at the top of the page each time you visit, who could blame me?

Heather Newman

Heather Newman

What’s the business model – have you incorporated? If you’re selling ads (and it looks like you are), who’s selling and how did you set your rates?

The paperwork is still in progress, but Chelsea Update is being incorporated and registered with the state. It’s for-profit, though the chances of it ever actually bringing in positive cash flow are pretty small.

You’re talking to my ad sales department. Rates vary depending on the size and placement of the ads (one thing I’m still tweaking is all the locations where they’ll appear – the one in the right sidebar seems solid, so it’s staying, but there’ll be at least one more vertical and one horizontal position).

Setting the rates has been one of the struggles of the formal launch. Chelsea draws a highly interested and involved community of people from Jackson to Ann Arbor – the Facebook page for the events site in Chelsea, for example, has about half as many fans as [The Chronicle's] own, when Chelsea itself is only a bit over 4,000 residents. But it thinks of itself as an insulated little town, so merchants don’t welcome big-city ad rates. The final rates won’t be set until the day of formal launch.

What’s your goal – do you envision this eventually creating a livelihood? How much have you budgeted for startup costs, and how are you funding that? Any plans to take on investors?

I never expect this site to create a full-time livelihood for me. I enjoy my job at the university, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m careful to keep any work on the site to evenings and weekends; I like what I do, and don’t want to intrude on my day job.

Startup costs have been minimal; a bit of hosting space, a few promotional materials. I’ve paid for them out of pocket. Investors would be welcome, but I’m not going out of my way to solicit them. I’ve reserved the name in a few other nearby towns, but I think one of the things that has the potential to make Chelsea Update successful is its intensely-local focus, which would be more difficult to replicate in towns where I didn’t live.

Looks like you’ve done a soft launch – what bugs have you been working out? Who have you been “testing” the site on?

Projects like this always start with a million ideas: What would I want to read? What are we missing in local coverage? What should it look like, what’s easy to navigate, what links need to be there, what additional information are people going to want? Soft launching meant that I could test all that on the fly, with an audience consisting mostly of people who were contributing news tips to the site. The sidebars, in particular, keep changing as I tinker with what information people want most and how to keep things uncluttered.

Just this week, I added the “Top News” feature after reading a well-thought-out critique of one of [The Chronicle's] competitors. The blog format is wonderful for news, that critic wrote, until you have to wade through three screens of events and less-urgent information just to see that the city courthouse burned down four hours ago.

How do you plan to publicize the site?

I’m sending postcards to members of every local group I can get my hands on (and working with groups and businesses that have been contributing news tips to the site to publicize it at their events and locations). I have Facebook and Google and MSN ad credits, thanks to my hosting company, and I’m making good use of those. I’m making use of very limited advertising/display space: a display at the area’s farm markets, for example, and magnetic signs on our cars. That’s another advantage to being so locally-focused.

Tell us about your background.

I won’t bore you with the whole resume. I started professional life as a sports reporter for the Tucson Citizen in Arizona after doing some stringing work for the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette (back when they were separate papers). I moved on to cops, then courts, then city hall, then left for a job on the business desk at The (Nashville) Tennessean, where I edited our technology page, wrote about the auto plants and transportation and unions, filled in as the Business Editor when she was out and did investigative stories involving analysis of computer databases. My nationally syndicated column on technology started there.

I joined the Detroit Free Press in 1997 as part of its Enterprise Team doing special projects, and the paper quickly picked up my tech column again, which led to my covering tech full-time for a number of years. Eventually tech was moved to the Features department, and the last few years of my work there I covered everything from casinos to health and fitness to video games. Now I’m the Trade Marketing Manager for The University of Michigan Press, where I work on publicity for the books we expect to reach a mass market audience.

[On the personal side], I live just outside Chelsea with my husband Kevin, an auto-body painter; two cats; and my 8-year-old daughter, Kaia, who rocks.


  1. August 11, 2009 at 7:10 pm | permalink

    This is way cool. On a personal note, I would like to add that I know Heather through our Slow Food Huron Valley book club and she is not only a great tech person (I’ve picked up many words from her that I later cobble together into sentences, hoping to make sense) but is also a great slow food advocate :) I like the “at the market” tab that is prominently featured right there on the “front page”!!

  2. By ChelseaKim
    August 11, 2009 at 9:01 pm | permalink

    I am so happy to learn about Chelsea Update! Having a timely source for city government actions will be excellent and allow more people to engage with city happenings.

  3. By Bob Krzewinski
    August 11, 2009 at 10:36 pm | permalink

    This is really, really needed in Chelsea, if only to give the thoughts of ALL different opinions in the area. In the past, Veterans For Peace sent press releases to the Chelsea Standard about our meetings there. Not only would the Editor not publish the press release, but he sent a really caustic email with the basic line that Veterans For Peace was an America-hating group. Gee, glad I spent six years in the Navy to defend the Constitution, except that is, for freedom of the press in Chelsea.

  4. By Bob Martel
    August 12, 2009 at 8:26 am | permalink

    @ Bob. That’s why we live about halfway between Ann Arbor and Chelsea: so we can take advantage of the picturesque living Chelsea has to offer while maintaining our Ann Arbor values.

  5. By Susan
    August 12, 2009 at 11:05 am | permalink

    It’s just barely possible that the demise of print journalism won’t be the end of the world after all. Thanks to the Chronicle for having a big enough view of the world to know that ‘the more the merrier’.

  6. August 12, 2009 at 11:01 pm | permalink

    Bob K: freedom of the press doesn’t mean a newspaper has to print everything it’s sent.

    Do you still have the email he sent you? I’d be curious to see it.

  7. By Sandra X
    August 20, 2009 at 2:35 pm | permalink

    I used to work as a journalist and love all the “creative solutions” that are popping up in response to the decline of traditional journalism. Chelsea Update and the AA Chronicle are excellent examples of improvements over traditional vehicles–so is “Things to Do in Chelsea.” On the freedom of the press issue, I also question the former Standard editor’s policies and practices. Why is it controversial to publish a meeting notice, even if you don’t agree with the group’s politics? And responding to the sender of the release with a caustic email is just unprofessional!

  8. By Janice Stevens Botsford
    August 20, 2009 at 9:17 pm | permalink

    So glad to hear about this new addition to our community. Living in the Chelsea area I am interested in keeping up with activities of all kinds, but especially those relating to the Arts. Thank you for starting the Chelsea Update!