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In Ann Arbor, designing a news site that doesn’t look like a news site

The first thing I noticed on AnnArbor.com is, well, the first thing I was supposed to notice. The bare home page doesn’t even try to do the traditional newspaper editor’s job of defining which stories are the most important or pressing. It’s simply a time-sequenced river of news. Think of it as Times Wire, except without the choice to click back to The New York Times’ spiffy home page. This is the home page.

It might not be what readers expected when Tony Dearing, AnnArbor.com’s chief content officer, promised a site “different from anything you’ve ever seen,” but maybe it should have been. “Somehow, that has the connotation of this fantastic, super-futuristic, dancing-women, fireworks-going-off site,” Dearing told me. “And really, I meant it in the opposite way. It’s going to be very different, but in a simple, understated way that news sites traditionally have not gone.”

Indeed, AnnArbor.com — which launched the day after The Ann Arbor News shuttered — looks more like Digg and Twitter than it does the Detroit Free Press. At least right now, an investigative enterprise story is featured no more prominently than a 200-word blog post. Everything — design, content, even advertising — is different.

That’s the point. “At a lot of other newspaper Web sites, people come, stop by, check in and then glance off,” said Hassan Hodges, the site’s director of technology. “They check in maybe once a day for occasional use. We’re trying to encourage much more frequent and engaged usage.”

The river of news

That unique appeal starts with the unconventional home page, organized by time and not importance. For most stories, all readers see is the timestamp, headline, votes, comments, categorized topics and a photo, if there is one.

The main limitation of such a format are obvious: namely, that a big story can be washed away by a torrent of small ones. It’s a concern, but Dearing said that the quick push to launch has kept some layout features from being ready. Soon, the homepage will have the ability to become more flexible — more newspaper-like, in a way — if a story merits the attention.

Still, AnnArbor.com doesn’t aspire to be a mainstream media Web site. “In addition to covering news and being a journalistic source, our goal was to be a true community hub,” Dearing said. “Taking a very traditional, hierarchical, top-headlines-of-the-day approach did not feel like it was going to really give people that feel or the breadth of what the site seeks to do, which is reflect the entire community and not just the news. The river of news is the direction things are headed in. It’s clear people are getting more comfortable with that.”

Finding a voice

The site boasts 35 trained journalists, who cover everything from local government to University of Michigan football. The stories seem short for now, but that’s not a conscious editorial strategy. “I think we’re finding our voice,” Dearing said. “No reporter’s being told, ‘Don’t write more than 200 words,’ or anything like that. They write what they need to say to tell a story.”

The neighborhood-level reporting is currently focused on a few locations: downtown Ann Arbor, plus Burns Park and Old West . Coverage of other neighborhoods is provided by an Outside.in feed. (“Again, not a perfect solution, but a small start,” Dearing wrote in a blog post announcing the strategy.) He hopes the experiment produces a model for hyperlocal reporting that can be applied to other areas, starting in around six months.

But stories from reporters are interspersed with dispatches from local bloggers — who may not know AP style, but who are hopefully fluent in their niches of expertise. Their blog posts currently look the same as, say, a breaking news story, but there will soon be visual differentiation between staff-generated journalism and citizen journalism, Dearing said.

Advertisements already have a distinct visual appearance in the news feed. The ads are billed as “deals,” and they are sortable by category on a specific advertising page. Two advertisements pop up in the current nine-story river of news on the front page, with six more under a tab lower on the page. On individual article pages, the deals have prominent displays in sidebars.

The advertising is extremely local and, compared to newspapers, extremely cheap, said Dearing, who noted that it’s still too early to translate early enthusiasm from advertisers into quantifiable revenue.

Future in the community

Despite the highly-public nature of its launch, AnnArbor.com is not a finished product. It will look different in a month than it does now, in part because of the restraints of a forced launch date. And it will certainly look different in a year based on community feedback. Journalism observers have been quick to offer their two cents — Dearing sees insiders’ reactions split 50/50, based on utility and aesthetics — but Dearing said “most people who have come to the site haven’t reacted. They’ve just used it.”

In the meantime, as more of Ann Arbor’s Internet-savvy demographic bookmarks AnnArbor.com, changes wait to be rolled out. There will be more photos, more video, a more evenly-distributed advertising model, and even a potential content-sharing partnership with the Michigan Daily. “This is very much defined by the community,” Dearing said. “We are going to be what the community wants us to be.”

                                   
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  • http://www.codybrown.name Cody Brown

    I’ve dropped comments on twitter already but I think the takeaway here is that it should blow our minds that it took so long for a average sized newspaper to do something like this.

    Cause frankly – what is this really? It’s a slightly cleaned up version of a blog’s design and I think we’ll find – when they release their traffic stats, that its effective. Big newspaper websites have distorted what it means to be a ‘news site’. There is a reason the blog format was invented for the web – it works.

  • http://solyoung.com Sol Young

    In response to Cody, I would say the blog format was not invented for the web. It has evolved along with the web. And as such, it is a best-case evolution for information consumption.

    It will continue evolving. Seeing AnnArbor.com adapt and use what is a proven product may not be newsworthy, but at least it’s an intelligent move from an otherwise not-so-smart industry.

  • Dan Ryan

    I’m not so sure it’s an intelligent move, as Sol says. Using annarbor.com is not fun if you’re looking for actual news.

    When every story and blog posting is just as important as the next, then nothing is important.

    Only a few items can be listed on the home page without having you click to an older page. I don’t want to have to ignore the multiple — and there are many of these — posts about food, upcoming entertainment shows, and somebody’s posting of their neighborhood bbq — to find out that city hall burned down four hours ago.

    But I guess that’s the idea when you fire your reporters and rely on free copy from the “community.”

    The audience for each of those posts has to be small. The river of information just washes me downstream — and out of annarbor.com.

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  • http://www.dailypatricia.com patricia

    i would disagree with this idea. sites NEED to differentiate in what they are so the user can identify. This’ll be a mistake later in my opinion.

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  • http://oldforestnewtrees.com Michael Andersen

    Very thoughtful post, Ben.

    Seems to me that the key to Dearing’s vision of “reflect[ing] the entire community and not just the news” will be building AnnArbor.com in such a way that the homepage’s news content will be used in lots of different ways, and integrated with the social/customizable features of this and other sites. Twitter’s home page isn’t the only way people consume Twitter content, and presumably AnnArbor.com’s homepage won’t be the only way to consume AnnArbor.com content. If the simplicity of AnnArbor.com’s front-page layout boosts its news feed’s usability, sweet.

    But there’s a big downside.

    As Dan and Patricia say above, and as Ben emphasizes in his post, this bloggy format sacrifices the prioritization/filtering function that traditional newspaper sites have tried to offer. AnnArbor.com offers a totally different function, and people like Patricia will be disappointed.

    In general, I agree with Patricia: readers yearn less for information than for the prioritization of information. If that’s true, AnnArbor.com may turn out to be an interesting mistake.

  • http://twitter.com/robcaplis Robert Caplis

    As an Ann Arbor resident, I wish the site would make a few adjustments and borrow what works from online leaders like BBC and Salon:

    1) identify a lead or “cover” story of importance for the day

    2) use a concise, accurate headline format that explains the story (like the BBC online, which uses only 4-6 words in a headline and each word is critical for understanding the story)

    3) include a brief description after each headline about the story (like Salon.com does in its “river”) – so I know what I’m about to read.

    4) add categories to each story so you know if its news, political, sports, arts and entertainment, opinion, lifestyle, health, etc.

    5) Actually use their Twitter account to deliver headlines instead of retweets and opinions.

  • http://twitter.com/robcaplis Robert Caplis

    To Michael Anderson:

    Good comments. I agree with you about people’s yearning less for information and more for prioritization of information.

    People like a good curator and editor to highlight what’s absolutely essential, quirky, or appealing.

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  • http://oldforestnewtrees.com Michael Andersen

    Thanks, Robert. I’m totally with you on points 1-4, but I don’t really understand 5: the paper already has an RSS feed. If you’re not using Twitter for its unique functions, why use Twitter at all?

    Okay, I’m overstating things slightly for the sake of provocation; I assume you use Twitter more than you use an RSS reader, and that’s totally valid. I suppose news outlets who want to offer more than their headlines on Twitter should probably use multiple Twitter accounts for different purposes. Any thoughts on that solution?

  • No name, please

    I’m mystified by the lack of hierarchy on the web page, and shocked by what can only be seen as an open hostility to visual story-telling on the site. There simply don’t seem to be any professional-caliber photographs or videos anywhere on the site.

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  • Purple Rose

    The site completely disappoints in so many ways:

    *No prioritization of news stories, and the home page is not news
    *Poor tagging
    *Neighborhood pages are a JOKE–they don’t accurately pull in the neighborhoods at all, they pull in real estate company blogs for other parts of town.
    *Even though obituaries are one of the most read pages; and even though they say they want comments to improve–the places to put in comments or to read the obituaries are tucked away.
    *The reporters are good but there are so few of them for the amount of work, and I can’t figure out why all of the stories are so short
    *And I agree, so little use of the visual space
    Why is the print so big? Why are there so few photos? Why is it so hard to tell who wrote the articles?
    They need a *curator* or a *librarian* or two, or three, or four
    *Why don’t they look at sites that really work for the users????

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  • http://www.piperpartners.com/ ann arbor real estate

    I try to do whatever I can to encourage people and to make what they write awesome, and to look for people who are experts with things to say who never ever thought of themselves as journalists but who have something to contribute to the community conversation.

  • http://www.alamocitytimes.com Patricio

    Interesting article… I would have like to know more about the platform and technology behind the site. Would you share that?

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