Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Opportunity in Ann Arbor

For those keeping track of such things, it appears that Ann Arbor, Mich., will become the first U.S. city without a daily newspaper when the Ann Arbor News closes its doors next month and sells its distinctive building.

The Newhouse family, which owns the News and newspapers in several major Michigan cities outside Detroit, is replacing the News with a new company and Web site called AnnArbor.com, which it is touting as "an innovative, community news and information service."

I'm sure the site will improve once it is formally launched. But for now, it serves as a timely, if painful, reminder that there are some things the nonprofit sector can do a lot better than a for-profit business.

Don't believe me? Toggle back and forth a couple of times between AnnArbor.com and MinnPost.com or voiceofsandiego.org.

The first thing you see on AnnArbor.com is a "poll" that asks readers, "What should we cover?"

I try hard to avoid snarkiness in this space. But are you kidding me? What should we cover? Where do you start with a gimme like that? "Lame" is the kindest word I can think to describe this lack of effort (though that's the Newhouse online tradition). They may be hiring veteran journalists from the News to staff this site - which is nice - but if this is their starting point, the end can't be too far in the distance. And that's made nauseatingly clear by reading Steve Newhouse's comments to Crain's Detroit Business. Again, "lame" is the best I can do.

Okay, here's the upside. I can't imagine a better place than Ann Arbor for somebody to launch a successful nonprofit newsroom. It's a big university town with a great journalism tradition, and despite the auto industry's woes, there's lots of wealth stashed away just looking for the right opportunity to make an impact. And thanks to the Newhouses, there's now a huge online banner that screams "underserved community."

(Full disclosure: I worked for The Oregonian, a Newhouse paper, and tried in 2005 to pitch the idea of spinning off the Newhouse D.C. bureau as a nonprofit. I didn't get far. The Newhouses closed the bureau this past November.)

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