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Sept. 11, 2009, 10 a.m.

WordPress, Twitter, the Elks Club: 10 new routines at a news startup

This is what a profitable post-paper newsroom looks like:

And this is what it feels like: 15 hours a day, seven days a week, from the 7 a.m. check-in with your spouse-turned-business-partner to the midnight bookkeeping.

No kids, no vacations, no car. No office; your only away-from-home base is a former Main Street antique shop that sells shared-workspace memberships to freelance software developers and the like for $100 a month. No novels before bed; there’s no time. If it’s a Saturday and the Michigan team is playing, you can watch the game, but run back to your keyboard during the commercials, okay?

In the two months since Ann Arbor became the nation’s newest no-newspaper town, there’s been lots of talk about its status as ground zero for the new ecosystem of Web-native niche outlets. But I wanted to know: In a business that’s always been oiled by routine — midnight press runs, 6 a.m. broadcasts, 11 a.m. news meetings, 6:30 deadlines — how will tomorrow’s hyperlocal news professionals structure their day? So, a few weeks after the Ann Arbor News folded, I spent a morning with its most established successor, the one-year-old, online-only Ann Arbor Chronicle, to get a sense for the future of the newsroom routine.

I found a lot of new routines and emerging practices. But more than anything, I found a pair of journalists cheerfully working their minds and bodies raw to make their business an outlier, profit-wise.

Creating 10 heavily reported and edited posts a week, maintaining the site’s daily news digests and gossip feature, editing three regular columnists and selling the ads to support it all requires “literally every waking hour” the couple has, Chronicle editor Dave Askins said.

Askins, 44, “sometimes works through the night,” said publisher Mary Morgan, 48, who says she’s dropped 50 pounds since launching the business last year. “I can’t swing that.”

Could you? If so, here’s a 10-point glance at the daily and weekly routines and rules Morgan and Askins used to build one of the nation’s first sustainable, hyperlocal Web startups.

1. Weekly editorial meetings. The two hold a “publisher’s meeting” of one hour or more in Morgan’s home office every Sunday to set goals for the week, discuss how stories should be packaged and discuss long-term coverage.

2. Comparing schedules each morning. In the first of three or four check-ins with each other through the day, Morgan and Askins review their daily tasks and talk about when they plan to file stories.

3. Inbound links checked daily. The day before I visited, logs for the Chronicle’s WordPress site reported that it had drawn 277 visitors from a local sports blog, 28 from a local school blog and 23 from annarbor.com, the reincarnated Ann Arbor News.

4. Inbound tweets repackaged for the site. The Chronicle uses its Twitter account to encourage people to tweet in news snippets, which they check regularly and work into an around-the-town feed that publishes two to five items daily.

5. Google News Alerts every morning. Has any other service been adopted by every newsroom in the country with so little fanfare? The Chronicle is no exception; each morning, Morgan selects a handful of items from her 12 news alerts for phrases like “university of michigan” and “washtenaw county” for two news-from-out-of-town aggregators.

6. More than 20 public meetings a month. No, Mr. Simon, most local-news blogs don’t staff zoning hearings. But many do, and the Chronicle is one. When they launched, Morgan and Askins built their monthly schedule around a list of meetings the Ann Arbor News wasn’t covering. Today, exhaustive summaries of Ann Arbor’s Public Market Advisory Commission, Public Art Commission and Downtown Development Authority meetings are the Chronicle’s bread and butter, filling almost half its editorial time.

7. Two sets of eyes on every full story. A 5,000-word meeting story might take six hours to write and two to edit, Morgan said.

8. No deadlines. There’s no fixed publication schedule for full-length stories, said Morgan, a former business and opinion editor for the defunct News. Rushing to get the story first is outdated and doesn’t really matter to readers, she said. “The assumption is, well, we’re going to get it done as soon as we can given everything else we’ve got going,” she said.

9. Photos at every opportunity. Processing the shots takes a lot of time, Morgan said, but they’re the best way to cover an event. Even public meetings get captured by their Nikon D60.

10. Nonstop public speaking. During 10 years at the News, Morgan made it into a lot of local Rolodexes. When she launched the Chronicle, they started calling. Today, Morgan has a speaking engagement almost every week. When we spoke this month, Morgan was planning for a business association meeting, a local book festival and a senior center lecture. “Generally people want me to talk about our publication and the general media landscape in Ann Arbor,” explained Morgan. “It’s a way to get the word out.” She’s never yet solicited an appearance herself: “Groups, generally, are starved for speakers.”

Okay, last question: Are the routines exhausting? It’s a lot of work, Askins told me. But in the depths of a recession, it’s covering the couple’s mortgage, health insurance, living expenses, and maybe some retirement savings. (They didn’t give exact numbers.) And most of it, he said, is anything but routine.

“I wouldn’t trade this job for anything,” he said. “Mary and I were both reflecting the other day on the fact that if there were an opportunity to become an employee of another entity doing pretty much the same thing, there would be no way.”

“I’m not a very good cog,” Askins went on. “If we had to apply for jobs, I wouldn’t hire me. I would say, ‘That guy’s tasted what it feels like to be his own boss.'”

POSTED     Sept. 11, 2009, 10 a.m.
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