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Sept. 1, 2009, 9 a.m.

Community voices in Ann Arbor: a glimpse of local journalism’s future?

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of AnnArbor.com is its reliance on community bloggers for a large portion of the site’s content. It’s also the aspect most likely to give many journalists the heebie-jeebies.

AnnArbor.com launched when The Ann Arbor News closed in late July, ending the newspaper’s 174-year history. It was a sad day for journalism when the News closed, leading to the loss of more than 200 jobs. But it was also the beginning of real-life experiment in this evolving enterprise we call journalism. To me, it’s an experiment all in the world of journalism should be watching. Closely.

While the print daily died, a new Web site, Ann Arbor.com rose with a mission of some original reporting, along with much social networking and community involvement. It publishes a print edition twice a week. (Full disclosure, I spent 15 years working for a Syracuse newspaper owned by Advance, which also owns The News and AnnArbor.com.)

The first thing you notice at AnnArbor.com, as has been noted before at the Lab, is it looks nothing like a news site — or what we expect a news site to look like.

Once you explore a bit, you’ll find an aspect of the site that you’ll either love or hate: It offers blogs from community members. Lots of them. About 70 people blog for the news site, in addition to its approximately 60 paid staffers, says Edward Vielmetti, blogging leader for the community team, which means he oversees the nonjournalists who blog for AnnArbor.com. You do the math: That’s more community folks than actual, bona fide journalists.

Harnessing community voices

YetI think that’s the whole idea. Vielmetti himself isn’t a journalist. His background is in technology, how people communicate over the web and blogging. He’s been blogging for 10 years, and on his own he started hosting a weekly lunch group for local Ann Arbor residents. In other words, he was doing “community building” before it was the buzzword among journalists.

Vielmetti says about half the community bloggers are active. They mainly write about the softer side of news: parenting, food and drinks, neighborhoods. So in a sense these community bloggers cover much of what typically made up features sections — except you might get multiple voice instead of one, and all are local.

The bloggers get technological assistance and coaching on the blog style, which Vielmetti says isn’t news or feature writing, but something unique. A copy editor reviews their posts after the fact and fixes typos or style and grammar errors. If one of the community bloggers writes something that really should be a news story, the post will be pulled until it can be substantiated, Vielmetti says. A reporter may be assigned to flesh out the idea — so in that sense, the community bloggers become a herd of highly invested tipsters.

A goal with the community bloggers is for them to focus around core topics, such as parenting, rather than go off on their own on arcane subjects. In the parenting area, for example, community bloggers write about back to school, a favorite recipes for kids and a local festival. A staffer chimes in with a regular weekly feature, posts that investigate a recent “scare story” in the news.

The unpaid community bloggers are described as “contributors” under their bylines on the site, in contrast to the AnnArbor.com employees who have “staff” beneath theirs. So it is quite clear who works for the site, and who doesn’t. But the community blogs can still reach the site’s front page if an editor picks them or readers vote for them. (The site offers two ways to view it: an editor-and-time-driven list of stories or a popularity-based version that’s similar to The New York Times’ Most Popular page.) Tabs down the right-hand-side give topics, where you can reach posts or news stories on particular subjects.

Vielmetti describes the community bloggers’ incentive to blog in much the same way that other newspapers do: Blogging for the site is a chance for community members to reach a wider audience than they could on their own. Whether that will be enough to keep folks blogging for free indefinitely remains to be seen.

The question, of course, is: Will this work? If it does, should other newspapers follow suit? Those are questions I can’t answer, at least not yet. But I can offer some observations about the AnnArbor model.

What seems to work

Getting community involved: Whether community blogging works or fizzles out, I think it has to be a good thing for a news organization to reinvigorate its relationship with readers. As Vielmetti notes, traditional media got so professionalized that it became “insulated from the people on the street.” Reaching out can help solve that problem, or at least ease it. Maybe community bloggers aren’t the answer. Or maybe some will shine and others will stink. But adding more voices to the mix can only be a good thing.

Mixing news and features: I think it’s wise that a community blogger can make AnnArbor.com’s front page, and that news isn’t organized like a traditional newspaper. Readers don’t necessarily think like journalists. We may know that a story about a new business opening belongs in the business section, but to a reader it might make more sense elsewhere, depending on the type of business it is and who it serves. AnnArbor.com’s set up breaks down those walls, which is a very good thing, I think. If all I care about is cooking, I can easily reach everything the site has to offer on the food and drink tab, and much of it will be from community bloggers. I don’t have to hunt around through different sections the way I might in a traditional newspaper.

Local, local, local: With the community blogger emphasis at AnnArbor.com, you can’t help but get local stuff. Local news predominates, and the community bloggers write about their own experiences. It’s a bit like hanging out for a bit with the town board or the PTA, and I think that’s marvelous. For the smaller dailies that dot the nation, this seems just the type of feel you want. (National papers and big-city dailies obviously need a more expansive experience.) I don’t live in Ann Arbor, so I can’t say if the site really gives a sense of the local community, but I suspect it does.

Bloggers versus journalists: Of course, I hate to see any journalist lose his or her job, but I do see a lot of value in using community bloggers in specific ways. Those ways are evolving, as Vielmetti points out: “It’s not that the whole operation changes its standards. You’re adding something to the whole thing that wasn’t there before,” he says. I do think its inevitable that newspapers (or news organizations) will never be as staff-heavy as they once were. The staff of a news Web site can only be as large as can be supported by the revenue the site brings in, as Howard Owens explains. Community bloggers can augment that.

What I’d like to see at AnnArbor.com

More video, photos: Perhaps I’m biased being married to a photographer/videographer, but I’d love more photos and video on the site. I think having the capacity for print publications to do video is one of the greatest developments for news Web sites. Yes, I know, they don’t help your search-engine optimization, but we are a visual culture. We need to see things. We need to hear things.

More aggregation: I’d like more on AnnArbor.com (or its copycats) to help me navigate the community. I’m talking about searchable calendars to help me find something to do with my kids on a rainy day; aggregation to other blogs and sites relevants to topics the site covers (links to food blogs outside AnnArbor.com would be great on the Food and Drinks tab, for example); links to resources to help me do everything from find the best pizza in town to find a lacrosse camp for my six-year-old.

More topics: AnnArbor.com has a great start, I think, on topics. But there’s room for more. Much more. It’s a college town, so I’d love to see more on the University of Michigan or nearby Eastern Michigan University, with easy links to the college sites and online newspapers. I’d love to see community bloggers on more specialized topics: scrapbooking, fishing, running, just to name a few. (Vielmetti says that’s the plan, although he isn’t sure how many community bloggers the site will end up with.)

More social media: Staffers have e-mail addresses at the ends of their posts, and Vielmetti says most of the reporters are using Twitter and Facebook as part of their jobs. I’d like to see more. Add a Twitter page, aggregating local tweets. Add Twitter handles to the ends of posts of both staffers and contributors (if they have them), so readers can easily connect with them online. Link to an AnnArbor.com Facebook page. I “met” Vielmetti on Twitter, so that’s a good start right there, I’d say.

I’ll be watching AnnArbor.com closely. I think it’s a tiny glimpse of what some of the future of newspaper journalism may look like. It’s not the only model to be sure, and we’ll have to see if it makes enough money to be sustainable. But as a reader, I find it a fun place to be — and I don’t even live there.

POSTED     Sept. 1, 2009, 9 a.m.
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