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Aug. 12, 2014, 8:45 p.m.
Business Models
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The Ann Arbor Chronicle, a quirky local news startup, is shutting down after six years

The site, known for its focus on local government, was financially stable. But as with many indie local news sites, it only worked with a heavy workload for its founders.

The post announcing the news was published late Thursday night: The Ann Arbor Chronicle, a local news site covering the home city of the University of Michigan, would cease publishing on Sept. 2, the sixth anniversary of the site’s launch. (And, not coincidentally, the 25th wedding anniversary of the site’s publisher Mary Morgan and editor Dave Askins.)

The Chronicle specializes in in-depth coverage of local government, including exhaustive recaps and analysis of the meetings of local government bodies ranging from the city council to the public library board. In its current iteration, the Chronicle was financially viable, Askins wrote in his column announcing the closure. But like many small online local news outfits, it took a lot of labor from its founders, and Askins and Morgan could no longer put in the effort needed to keep the Chronicle afloat.

“I’d like to stop before I am dead, because there’s more I’d like to do in life than add to The Chronicle’s archive,” Askins wrote.

The news of the site’s impending closure caught many in Ann Arbor by surprise, but Askins told me that he and Morgan had been considering shuttering the Chronicle for quite some time.

“There wasn’t any particular thing that triggered the decision — in fact, the decision was made several months to possibly even over a year ago,” he said. “And certainly the thinking behind it could be traced to two years or more ago. So it was not as if something happened and we said, ‘Okay, that’s it. That was the last straw.'”

The amount of revenue the Chronicle brought in grew steadily through the publication’s early years, but over the past several, it’s plateaued around $100,000 annually. That was enough to pay the Chronicle’s expenses and to allow Morgan and Askins to make a living, but if they wanted to bring on additional full-time help to ease their workload, Askins estimated that existing revenue would need to increase by four times to fund a full-time staff of five.

“The techniques we were using clearly were not going to yield that result,” he said — 38 percent of its revenue currently comes from reader donations, with the rest coming from local advertisers.

“We sort of recognized that the kind of journalism that we were selling had a reasonable expectation of the kind of support we were enjoying, and that it would simply take an all-consuming effort on our part, so we needed to figure out how much longer we were going to do that,” Askins said. (Askins said he generally works 14 to 16 hours every day.)

With a devoted if niche audience, the Chronicle was well loved in Ann Arbor, a college town of about 100,000 people. Though the Chronicle is a for-profit publication, some prominent nonprofit local outlets such as Voice of San Diego and MinnPost have turned to membership models to bring in additional revenue, offering events or other perks to readers who join the sites. The Chronicle does hold an annual awards dinner, but it isn’t directly a revenue-generating event. And with only a two-person full-time staff, many of the options available to larger publications aren’t as viable for the Chronicle or other small niche publications.

Morgan and Askins haven’t decided what will be next for them, but Askins said the couple has enough of a reserve to last a few months before they decide their next venture. But the Chronicle will live on in some capacity once they cease publishing. They intend to leave their archives online at least through the end of the year, and plan to also maintain their popular Ann Arbor events calendar. Askins also said he could potentially meet with some staffers at The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, to help improve their coverage of Ann Arbor public affairs once classes begin next month. (Disclosure: I edited the Daily when I was a student at Michigan.)

The Chronicle was launched in 2008, and within a year of the site’s founding, The Ann Arbor News, the town’s Advance Publications-owned daily newspaper, ceased daily publication and transformed into AnnArbor.com, a web-focused operation that only printed the paper two days a week. Askins and Morgan, who formerly worked at the News, have never been shy when it comes to criticizing AnnArbor.com, which was retro-rebranded last year as The Ann Arbor News, and many of the Chronicle’s readers were interested in granular coverage of city affairs that isn’t offered by the News or other local publications.

Take the August 6 meeting of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. The Chronicle published four brief news reports detailing the results of various votes the board took on the night of the meeting. Then, on August 12 — six days after the meeting — the Chronicle published a 6,500-word-plus story on the meeting written by Morgan. The Ann Arbor News only previewed the meeting.

“I have trusted that — even when I wasn’t in the room — the Chronicle was there, recording the facts and (sometimes) offering a valuable point of view,” one Ann Arbor city council member wrote in a comment on Askins’ post announcing the Chronicle’s closure. “No media has watched local government do its messy thing with a clearer eye. No better record could exist.”

Though the Chronicle has published stories as many as 10 days after meetings, it has taken efforts in recent years to speed up its turnaround time. About 18 months ago, for instance, the Chronicle began offering liveblog coverage (“I try to avoid the world blog,” Askins says) of Ann Arbor city council meetings. The time-stamped entires, which offer a detailed play-by-play of meetings, have replaced the Chronicle’s lengthy recap posts for council meetings.

Ann Arbor held city elections on August 5, and the Chronicle provided live election results in a Google spreadsheet by asking readers to help them by visiting their local precincts after the polls closed to report the election results. Some of the campaigns assisted with the effort, and a number of school children also participated, as the Chronicle worked out an arrangement with the Ann Arbor Public Library to give any students who participated points in the library’s summer engagement program.

“The Ann Arbor Chronicle that is best known for writing super long meeting reports — this was the opposite of what people have come to think of us as,” Askins said.

Photo of Dave Askins and Mary Morgan in 2012 by Michael Andersen.

POSTED     Aug. 12, 2014, 8:45 p.m.
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