Ann Arbor Chronicle – How freelance journalists are going local

21 June 2012

Written by: Steinar Ellingsen

When there was an announcement in March 2008 that The Ann Arbor News would end its 174 years of daily publication in July, Mary Morgan – a Business Editor and Opinion Page Editor who had worked for the newspaper for more than a decade – decided to quit her job.

She teamed up with husband Dave Askins, the author of Teeter Talk, launching the daily news site Ann Arbor Chronicle in September that year. The site is targeting the (roughly) 350,000 citizens of Ann Arbor City, in the state of Michigan, USA. Their success shows how freelance journalists can make a business out of catering to the needs of local audiences to survive in the middle of recession.

The Ann Arbor Chronicle has been focusing on civic affairs and local government coverage by producing in-depth stories about the city council, the library, university, school, transportation, and the downtown development authority.

Since 2008, Morgan and Askins have written 10 weekly reports on local policies in the section ‘Civic news ticker.’ They also publish 10 articles per week by freelancers and columnists about local history and routine life style in the section ‘Stopped. Watched’.

‘I found a pair of journalists cheerfully working their minds and bodies raw to make their business an outlier, profit-wise,’ the Nieman Lab’s Michael Andersen wrote in appreciation of the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

Andersen found that the husband and wife duo also adopted some new journalism practices, which may be embraced by future newsrooms. They have maintained the site’s digests and comment feature; links are checked daily to measure reader’s reaction to discuss ‘what’ and ‘how’ their stories should be published; and they encourage people to tweet about local news, which again is published on their site. They hold a number of meetings and do public appearances about their work – every Saturday morning, Mary Morgan speaks on Lucy Lance Show about local life and their new articles. And the paper also generates news by using Google news alerts every morning.

For Mary Morgan and Dave Askins, the Chronicle is both a community service and a business. Along with the increasing page views, they have risen in rank according to advertisers. The first advertisers on the site, Ann Arbor State Bank and Auto Dealership Howard Cooper Imports have supported it from the beginning. Now, there are another ten advertisers on the site.

The Ann Arbor Chronicle is considered one of the pioneers of hyperlocal journalism along with NewWest, West Seattle Blog or Baristanet.

‘As economic conditions have worsened and newspapers have shown accelerating signs of stress, the health of online-only news sources seems suddenly more critical’, David Westphal wrote in the Online Journalism Review.

‘So far they’re hanging tough. Business hasn’t fallen much, if at all, and most are instituting expansion plans. If they’re a barometer, community news sites have some resiliency to them’.

Tuong Vi Pham is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University.