(2 of 2)
"Ann Arbor is an extremely Web-savvy market," says Kraner of why it was selected for this experiment, "probably the most Web-savvy Newhouse has. Secondly, with all the high-tech industries in this town, this market is very open to new ideas and new concepts. Third, we want to be the hub of connection. I don't know if you can find a market anywhere that has such passion for its community."
But passion cuts both ways. "It feels like they wrecked part of our community and built this shiny new thing," says Julie Weatherbee, 42, who works at the University of Michigan library. "And we don't want it." Weatherbee wasn't a huge fan of the old paper but thinks it could have been improved instead of destroyed and that locals might stay away from AnnArbor.com because of what Advance did.
Besides, if there's anything Ann Arbor won't lack for, it's news. There's already at least one profitable local-news site in town. Mary Morgan, 48, a former News staffer, and her husband Dave Askins, 44, started the Ann Arbor Chronicle last September. It specializes in long-form accounts of local council, school-board and other civic-association meetings. "I hand-tooled most of the HTML myself," says Askins. (He learned on his other site, Teeter Talk word-for-word transcriptions of interviews with local figures on the couple's teeter-totter.) The Chronicle, says Morgan, has about 20,000 unique visitors a month and draws enough advertisers and donations for the two of them to live off. "A lot of people don't want to read an 8,000-word piece on the city council," says Askins, smiling gently behind his foot-long beard and granny glasses, "but they want it to be there."
Some locals are seeing the loss as an opportunity. The folks behind the Ann Arbor Observer, a 33-year-old free monthly, hope to pick up some of the News's journalists and advertisers. Then there's the Ann Arbor Journal, a free weekly paper/website that started circulating to 20,000 homes three weeks before the News closed. Plus, the university has the Michigan Daily, which doesn't cover the town but keeps an eye on its biggest employer. All in all, there may eventually be more reporters covering Ann Arbor than before the newspaper was killed.
Still, for residents like Dave and Micki Moray, it's not the same. Every day they'd come home from work he as a manager and she as a nurse at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital pick up the paper, take it to the back porch and read. Dave, 58, was a News paperboy. The couple sold and bought cars for themselves and their daughters through the classifieds. The Morays are employed, active, avowed news junkies and won't read a newspaper online, because it feels like work. "We're not against change. But just to have the rug pulled from under us like that why didn't they tell us how bad it was?" says Dave. "I would have paid more for it." Now Dave buys one of the Detroit papers, usually at the newsstand because they deliver only three times a week. But it's not the same.
In a fragmented media universe where the battle will be fought for every eyeball, dedicated readers like the Morays are treasures. But their loyalty is hard-won. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Ann Arbor community-content experiment, it's already proved one thing: the content part is easy; the community part is not.