Newspaper tries to find its focus online

Marketplace Staff Dec 17, 2009
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Newspaper tries to find its focus online

Marketplace Staff Dec 17, 2009
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Kai Ryssdal: They’re trying something a little different at the online version of the Miami Herald. Right there at the bottom of each Web article is a link that says, “support ongoing news coverage.” And then it prompts you for your credit card and a donation. 2009 has been, to be kind, a year of transition for the newspaper industry. Some papers, like the Rocky Mountain News, closed their doors for good. Others, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, went online only.

In Michigan the 174-year-old Ann Arbor News took something of a mixed approach. After losing a huge chunk of its ad revenue, the News decided to become a mostly Web publication, one with a print edition twice a week. Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra has more on how the experiment is working with readers and with advertisers.


JENNIFER GUERRA: Every day, Jim Smith, Carl Wagner, and a handful of other men — average age 79 meet up at the Washtenaw Dairy. It’s an Ann Arbor institution that’s part milk and cheese store, part ice cream parlor, part donut shop. Their routine is always the same: grab a cup of coffee and, up until a couple months ago, the local newspaper.

JIM SMITH: Every day we read the Ann Arbor News. We looked forward to having it come here in the afternoon. Some went through sports, some tried to find out who died first. Find out who’s dead.

And now that the paper has gone online with a new name, Ann Arbor.com?

CARL WAGNER: Look online, yeah, what’s that? What’s that?

The men do get the print version of Ann Arbor.com, which comes out Thursdays and Sundays. But they say it’s not the same. Most of the news is old by then. And if somebody dies Monday, well, they probably missed the funeral by Thursday.

OK, it’s no surprise older folks haven’t quite embraced Ann Arbor.com. But what about more tech-savvy younger folks?

Angela Kujava is in her 30s. Her comments were typical of most in her age group I talked to.

ANGELA KUJAVA: I will say I find it confusing.

Kujava says she reads Ann Arbor.com every day, but she’s not a big fan of the layout.

KUJAVA: OK, so the first story we have here is an author discusses his Oprah-anointed book on Friday, rocking for the hungry kicks off, witness recounts shooting in Pittsfield Township.

The Web site does not look like a typical online newspaper with lead stories at the top and stories of lesser news value at the bottom. Ann Arbor.com looks more like a real-time Twitter feed that lists stories as they’re entered on the site. So an item about a bake sale could appear before a story about a bank robbery. And every third or fourth item is an ad.

Jeff Arnold is a sports reporter for Ann Arbor.com. He says this so-called “River of News” approach was intentional.

JEFF ARNOLD: That was the goal, every time people come back throughout the day we want people to see something different. And I think we’ve accomplished that.

Marc Cooper teaches digital journalism at the University of Southern California. He says it’s too early to say if online news sites like Ann Arbor.com or the Seattle Post Intelligencer are a viable business model.

MARC COOPER: We don’t really have the metrics in our hands to measure the success unless we’re just going to look at the bottom line, and I have to imagine that at this point, the bottom line at either Ann Arbor or the Seattle PI is far from reassuring.

Seattle PI would not say if they were in the red or black, just that they were on pace with their business plan. And nobody in management at Ann Arbor.com would talk. But sports reporter Jeff Arnold says the number of daily hits to the Web site is 30-40,000 — roughly the same number of people who used to get the paper.

Mark Hodesh is not convinced. Hodesh owns Downtown Home & Garden, it’s a 100-year-old nursery and housewares store in Ann Arbor. He used to advertise in the Ann Arbor News all the time.

After the transition to Ann Arbor.com, he bought a pricey, two-page color ad in the Sunday print edition. He went to the YMCA the next day and asked the regulars whether they’d seen the ad.

MARK HODESH: And only 1 out of 20 people had seen it. The others don’t get the paper, they’ve just let it lapse. I’m concerned about how I’m gonna to reach my customers. If they’re not reading Ann Arbor.com, I don’t know where I can go after that.

Hodesh says he’s considered buying an online ad, but he’s not sure it’ll be any more effective.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., I’m Jennifer Guerra for Marketplace.

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