The New News

Dan DuChene and his colleagues were getting ready to celebrate the launch of Ypsilanti's new online community news site, the Ypsilanti Citizen, when they saw the police lights outside. Out on Michigan Avenue, two cars had collided head-on, right in front of the gallery where the Citizen was holding its launch party.

So DuChene put down the hors d'oeuvres, picked up his camera and notebook and posted a report to the Citizen, Ypsilanti's new internet news site, within 10 minutes. The accident was cleared away in 45 minutes, and he posted a follow-up before getting back to the party preparations.

News just doesn't come much fresher than that.

Two new local internet news sites – the Ypsilanti Citizen and the Ann Arbor Chronicle – are proving that you don't have to order paper by the ton and ink by the barrel to give a community its news. The Chronicle and the Citizen, free of that cumbersome paper and ink, represent a nimble new breed of journalism that's fresh, timely and intensely local.

Many in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would argue it's about time. As mainstream news outlets get squeezed by tighter budgets and smaller staffs, local Internet news sites have been popping up in markets around the country for the past three or four years.

A five-part series by the Knight Digital Media Center's Online Journalism Review highlighted local Internet news outlets in San Diego, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago and Batavia, NY. They range from the citizen-journalist-driven ChiTown Daily News, which has four full-time staff and 77 neighborhood correspondents to Minneapolis/St.Paul's MinnPost, which has a $1.2 million budget and gets 150,000 unique hits a month.

In mid-November Advance Publications, the chain that owns the Ann Arbor News, announced it will offer buyouts to most of the paper's remaining full-time employees and consolidate the copy editing and design departments of its eight Michigan newspapers into a single unit in Grand Rapids. The Ann Arbor News closed its Ypsilanti office in November and Heritage Newspapers, the 10-paper suburban chain that includes the Ypsilanti Courier, moved the Courier to Belleville in 2006.

“I think people in (Ypsilanti) are a little frustrated with having no major news organization that they can call a hometown paper,” said Ypsilanti Citizen co-founder and Eastern Michigan University student Dan DuChene. “There are all these out-of-town, corporate papers covering Ypsilanti, and we wanted something with more of a hometown vibe.”

The Citizen, established by Duchene and EMU alumni Christine Laughren and Andrew Cippola, depends on a handful of mobile journalists (Mojos) who roam the community packing laptops, still cameras, video cameras, mp3 recorders and cell phones. They report from wherever they are and post their stories directly to the site.

Ypsilanti-based Citrus Stand Media Group designed the site, which features a collage of Ypsilanti landmarks in the masthead. The Citizen jumped into the multimedia pool with both feet, streaming coverage of the EMU political science department's election night watch party at Frenchie's in Depot Town. But the road hasn't been without potholes – streaming that first live video was one great big learning curve, and one weekend the site lost all its content and Laughren spent an entire day at Cafe Luwak trying to retrieve her stories. But it's creators feel like they're meeting – or at least addressing – a real need.

“One of the challenges is just the amount of content we want to cover,” said Laughren, who also works part-time for the Ypsilanti Courier. “It's very time-consuming. I'm pretty much busy every night covering something, either for the Courier or the Citizen.”

In Ann Arbor, former Ann Arbor News opinion editor Mary Morgan and her husband, Teeter Talk blogger David Askins, noticed a similar void. They know a lot of people, through their respective networks, who are making things happen in the city in ways that fly under the radar of the traditional press. So they started the Chronicle and started... chronicling.

Askins has been interviewing local movers, shakers, teeterers and totterers for Teeter Talk since 2005 and wanted to do something broader. After 12 years at the Ann Arbor News, Morgan was ready to try something different, but wanted to stay engaged in the community. They created the Chronicle with help from local web designer Laura Fisher.

The Chronicle posts material that strives to give the reader the feeling of being there – or at the very least clearly conveys that Morgan or Askins was there. It's journalism with a distinctively human feel.

In addition to news encountered “in the wild” the duo turn up at more meetings than they care to count - everything from the Ann Arbor City Council and the County Commission to the Greenway council and library board to the park advisory commission.

“We don't want to become an only public meetings site, but that's something we've definitely gotten a lot of good feedback on,” Morgan said.

There's a Twitter-inspired feature called “Stopped.Watched.” that provides quick (40-character limit) seen-on-the-street reports of things like “Ingalls Mall - Movie being filmed between Bell Tower and the Michigan League. Judging by the signs, it takes place at “Pennington College.”

To date, neither of the local news sites has has solved the Internet-age-old puzzle of how to actually make money in this business. It doesn't cost a lot of money to run one of these publications – costs come in time and energy instead - but the people behind them still have to eat.

In Minneapolis/St.Paul, where Minnesota Public Radio enjoys great support, MinnPost's operating budget comes from a combination of grants and memberships; other web papers are supported by venture capitalists looking for a scalable business that can be repeated in communities across the country. Both local publications are depending on an old-school revenue source - local advertising. Morgan and Askins socked away a year's worth of living expenses before launching the Chronicle; the Citizen's principals all have part-time jobs.

“Our motto is we want to make a living, not a killing,” Morgan said. “We've got fairly modest goals in that respect.”

At the urging of readers, the Chronicle also put up a “tip jar” - a Paypal account where readers can donate up to $500 toward keeping the publication afloat. Donors' names are listed on the tip jar page

“We had a lot of people query about how they could subscribe,” Morgan said. “They didn't have anything to advertise, but they wanted to support us financially.

“That was really gratifying. I think it's great people actually want to do something in a concrete way. You hear people say, 'What you're doing is great,' and that's nice. But it is our livelihood – it's our mortgage payment, our health insurance.”

In the first two weeks after its Nov. 2 launch, the Citizen pulled 608 unique hits, DuChene said. Most came before Google started crawling the site.

The Chronicle, which launched Sept. 2, got 6,500 unique hits in October, and Morgan hopes to get to 10,000 a month by the end of the year.

Nationally, web-based local news sites still reach just a fraction of their dead-tree counterparts' audience, and that's no different here. The Ann Arbor News and Ypsilanti Courier report circulations of about 48,000 (60,000 on Sunday) and 7,000, respectively.

Morgan says they'd like the Chronicle's readers to eventually include “every single person in Washtenaw County... plus everyone who's ever lived here... ,” but she's quick to point out that the web publication's not out to take the place of its print counterparts. There's plenty of news to go around - that's what inspired the Chronicle and the Citizen in the first place.

“There's a lot of stuff that's happening in the community that doesn't get written about, and I think (despite what we're able to cover) there's still a lot of stuff that doesn't get written about,” she said.

Amy Whitesall  is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate. Her previous Concentrate article was Mastermind: Richard Murphy.

Photos:

The Gang From the Ypsilanti Citizen Always Keep an Eye Out for the Latest News-Ypsilanti

The Gang From the Ypsilanti Citizen Looking to See if There Really is Water in There-Ypsilanti

The Ann Arbor Chronicle's Dave Askins-Ann Arbor

The Ann Arbor Chronicle's Mary Morgan on the Beat-Ann Arbor

The Gang From the Ypsilanti Citizen Looking Like They Are in a Band-Ypsilanti


All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He works for an online publication too.