AADL Productions Podcast: John Hilton, editor of The Ann Arbor Observer
Wed, 06/17/2009 - 11:53am
When: June 17, 2009
We had the privilege of talking with Ann Arbor Observer editor, John Hilton, about the origins and development of the Observer, how Ann Arbor has changed over the past three decades, and the current state of the newspaper industry. John also joined us along with local historian and author Grace Shackman to talk about Ann Arbor history and help us launch an online collection of local history articles from the Observer dating back to 1982. You can read all of Grace's articles from the Observer online now in Ann Arbor Observer: Then & Now.
(Due to technical difficulties, the quality of the audio isn't quite what it should be, but please listen in as John has many interesting things to say about Ann Arbor!)
- [00:00:02.89] ANDREW: Hi, this is Andrew.
- [00:00:04.06] AMY: And this is Amy. And this is the AADL Productions podcast.
- [00:00:09.03] ANDREW: A few weeks ago, Amy and I talked with John Hilton, editor of the Ann Arbor Observer for nearly 30 years. John gave us a frank inside look at the Observer and what it is to be a local publisher at a time when newspapers all around the country are disappearing.
- [00:00:23.42] AMY: The previous editors of the Observer were Don and Mary Hunt. I was wondering both how the magazine got started and how it's changed.
- [00:00:32.59] JOHN HILTON: Sure. The Hunts are really the answer to how it got started. They always said they were both unemployable. I always said they were both geniuses. And I really think that what the Observer is reflects who they are. They are remarkably different individuals who amazed all of us by staying married as long as they did. They no longer are, and most of us who saw them work together think that's a good thing. They worked together very productively, but they were completely ruthless with one another in their criticism. And it was not at all uncommon for one or the other to turn red and storm out of the room while discussing an editorial issue.
- [00:01:03.83] So all in all, we think that it's best in the long term that they're not try to work together. But what they created together was really something that a lot of us loved the minute we saw it. I was working as an auto worker at the Wayne assembly plant, a Ford plant, back in 1976 when the first issue came out. I was working what's called an afternoon shift. At that time they were -- believe it or not, at that time auto plants were working overtime. So I would go to work at 6:30 in the evening and leave at 4:30 in the morning, a 10 hour shift.
- [00:01:31.44] And I would stop at the old Broadway Kroger -- which is now the vacant site that in theory someday will be a redevelopment site -- after work, to pick up groceries and things before heading home. And I saw the Ann Arbor Observer there. And I fell in love with the very first issue I saw. I'm not sure if I saw the first issue or the second. The first issue was in July of '76.
- [00:01:52.45] But it had this absolutely unique feel to it. I'd always sworn that I would never try to be a writer, because I could see what difficult work it was, how many people think they're writers and how hard it is to actually do anything worthwhile, much less make a living at it. But these guys had really hit it. They had just nailed it on the first try. There was just a combination of knowledge and intimacy that I just fell in love with the first time I saw it. A sense that they knew and cared about the town they were writing about, but would never give me any bull about what they have seen and learned. That they were telling it to me as they had understood it. And that sense of having a wise, caring guide to the town just really thrilled me.
- [00:02:31.06] And a couple of years later when my wife's career plans changed, I had to suddenly decide what I wanted to do. And I decided right then that I wanted to write for the Observer. So in 19 --it would have been '79, I guess, I decided I wanted to write for the Observer. '78. No, '79. Sorry. Strike that. 1979 I decided I wanted to write for the Observer.
- [00:02:55.10] I then decided foolishly -- not having apparently picked up from the tone of the publication who the Hunts were, because I'd never met them. I just knew them as a reader -- that I needed to impress them first by selling an article nationally. So I wasted about a year before I finally sold an article nationally. And then I emailed -- -- emailed! Who emailed then? I mailed a copy of that article -- it was a My Turn column for Newsweek about being an auto worker -- to the Hunts and said now that I've published this, would you let me write for you? And they showed no interest at all in what I'd published. But they wanted to know what I was interested in, what I cared about in the town, what I might write about.
- [00:03:29.75] And as it happened, one of my school friends had a small business making bicycle luggage out on Jackson Road called Eclipse, Incorporated. And I knew that they'd had an interesting story because I'd talk to them about it some. So I said, well, how about I write about Eclipse? And so in September of 1980, my first freelance story appeared in the Observer about Eclipse, Incorporated. The struggles of a couple of young guys with real commitment to bicycling and not a whole lot of business experience designing very innovative products and then discovering that you design an innovative product and someone else is going to rip it off pretty quickly.
- [00:04:02.92] And that was a great story, and it really set me off writing as a freelance for the Observer. And periodically in the next few years, Don would offer me a job. And I would always say, you know, I just bought a house. I need my auto worker's pay to pay off that house. And by 1982 I'd actually paid off the loans I'd got for my down payment. It didn't just start this last bubble that people were overextending themselves on houses. And I was able to leave Ford and take about a 60% pay cut to go to work for the Observer. And I've been happily there ever since.
- [00:04:36.84] ANDREW: Have you done much other writing for other publications, national publications since then? Or have you stuck with the Observer? I imagine being the editor keeps you pretty busy.
- [00:04:44.83] JOHN HILTON: It does, yeah. In fact, I really haven't written for anyone else since I became editor. I did some writing for other publications that really just sort of fell into my lap. I wrote about Car and Driver magazine, and so they had me do some stories for them. After the editor left Car and Driver and founded Automobile, I did a story about that. And then he had me do a story for Automobile. But the truth is when it comes to cars, I'm just an ordinary American guy. I love them, but I don't really have an inspired way of writing about them. It was fun and good fortune, but it wasn't writing that I would send to anyone to say, this is the best I can do.
- [00:05:16.21] AMY: So it sounds like you really like the direction that -- you liked what you saw initially. And you've probably made an effort to keep some consistency over the years. But how has it changed? And what about especially recently? I know there have been changes to ArborWeb.
- [00:05:33.78] JOHN HILTON: Yes, it has changed. But really that core feeling, that core sense of what we're trying to do has not changed. The biggest change, of course, is simply that we've adjusted to shrinking attention spans. Everything we write is shorter now.
- [00:05:46.75] And actually I owe lot of that adjustment to Don Hunt himself. For many years after they sold the Observer, the Hunts were living nearby, either in Ann Arbor or outside Chelsea, or in Albion. And from time to time Don would get restless working on their guidebooks to Michigan which they were working on, and would spend a period of six months, a year, working for the Observer. And in those times, in those periods, he helped invent the Inside Ann Arbor column, which is sort of our 500 word, the equivalent of a typical news story. And then the Up Front column, which is 200 words, which is so compact that my writers always have trouble adapting to it. I have one writer who always gives me 1,500 words for an Up Front. But those have, as you might expect, proved very popular.
- [00:06:30.99] We also added event reviews in the calendar, so that people could get a little snippet. The calendar is really very service-oriented, trying, as John Hinchey would tell you, to give you enough information to decide if you want to go to this event. But as a result, it reads a little bit like an encyclopedia, unless you can find the things you want. So the event reviews are meant to give you something that's a little more visceral, a little more what the experience would be if you actually attended some calendar events. So that when you browse through the calendar, you get the sense that you're dropping in here at the Anthony Wayne Cat Fanciers Show, and that you're dropping in here at a concert at the Firefly Club.
- [00:07:01.78] ANDREW: I really think there's probably no other publication as much as the Ann Arbor Observer that gives you -- because of that calendar, and because of Up Front, it gives you the sense of the kind of community Ann Arbor is, and just the myriad of cultural offerings there are Ann Arbor. There really doesn't seem to be anything else that presents that information in quite the same way. Is that something that -- do you view yourselves as the primary documenters of Ann Arbor's cultural life?
- [00:07:34.91] JOHN HILTON: I wouldn't have thought to put it that way. I do know that John Hinchey will tell you that Mary Hunt infected him with a calendar virus back around 1980. He's actually the longest serving employee. And he really has the sense that, that aggregate of small things -- as he says, each individual listing appeals to only a handful of our readers. But together, they reach everybody. And he tries to write about them all in such a way that you can go through them without feeling that you're in somebody else's territory. That you understand that this is all part of this incredibly -- diverse is hardly the word for this community. The number of things that go on here, the number of things people are into are just astounding and always wonderful. You know, you couldn't ask for a better community to write about.
- [00:08:17.24] And he does do that. Because they're all written and bring a single perspective, they do I think give you that sense that you are looking at a single community, rather than disparate, possibly competing elements within that community. And it's not something, it's not a status we sort of seek or promote. But I do think it's what we were trying to do.
- [00:08:39.27] AMY: You mentioned the shrinking attention span, but we'd be curious to know your take on the state of newspaper industry these days, and your thoughts on that in Ann Arbor.
- [00:08:51.72] JOHN HILTON: That has been an exciting world. We've always positioned ourselves as a magazine, because we come out only once a month. And that's always been very helpful to us. Because we're able to say to people, we don't need you to buy an ad today, tomorrow, and the next day. But if you buy an ad for one month, we'll try to put out a publication that people will keep around for that month. And our studies suggest that they do; a great majority keep them at least two weeks, and many of them keep them right till it's time -- even couple of months. It's got that wonderful durability and portability.
- [00:09:20.64] So that has given us a much stronger position. And in fact, one thing we're very grateful for these days is that we don't have what used to be the cash cow of the daily paper, which is a lot of classified advertisements. I think what's really driving the changes we're seeing at the Ann Arbor News is the loss of classified advertising. They certainly have lost display advertising, which is what we call advertising that actually runs alongside the new stories, as well.
- [00:09:44.42] But I'm sure that the core of their financial problems comes from the loss of that. We did a story back in January and it looked like -- I have to take these numbers off the top of my head, but they had lost somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of their classifieds just since the year 2000. And that was pure cash. After the cost of setting that type, they were supporting their whole news gathering operation and everything else they did with it.
- [00:10:07.60] So you can see why the Newhouse family was so distressed. And they've obviously chosen, if you've seen the story in the May issue, to make a very ambitious gamble on how to rearrange everything. They're abandoning their brand name online, they're abandoning MLive for AnnArbor.com. They're abandoning the Ann Arbor News brand for their newspaper. They're going to have a twice weekly newspaper that they're going to also call AnnArbor.com.
- [00:10:31.14] So it's going to be very interesting to see how that plays out. They're smart people. They know this business better than we do. We certainly hope for the community's sake that things go well for them.
- [00:10:40.01] ANDREW: Is that, are the changes at Ann Arbor News becoming AnnArbor.com, do you have some sense of how that's going to affect what you do at the Observer?
- [00:10:50.92] JOHN HILTON: You know, I don't yet, because I don't really have any sense of how it's going to play out. We know that they're going to be a much smaller operation, that they're essentially eliminating their entire existing staff and hiring a new staff that is going to be 50 to 60 people instead of the more than 200 people they have currently. We don't know really what this new site will look like. And I think they themselves are still putting it together.
- [00:11:15.24] Their hope is that they will have finally solved the riddle of how to make enough money in online advertising to support journalism. And for the community's sake, I hope that that's correct. I've got to say, that's not been our experience. We've actually seen our online advertising revenues fall more steeply than our print advertising revenues. Sobering but true. We think it's because Google is spreading their advertising over many more sites, our click-through rates have gone way, way down. And as a result although as many people are seeing the ads, we're getting much less revenue.
- [00:11:43.88] Yeah, it's not the common wisdom, I know. But basically the ratio is, our online advertising is down more than 60%. Our print advertising is down close to 30%.
- [00:11:58.57] ANDREW: Has anyone made the suggestion of eliminating a print version of the Observer? I'm not making that suggestion, but has anyone made it?
- [00:12:05.74] JOHN HILTON: No one actually has. In fact, people have been suggesting in the opposite direction right now. They say, why don't you do a daily? And we say, you know, even in the best of times, we've figured out that it would have taken $1 million or $2 million to try to become a daily. And that was a hazard that Patricia and I, who own it, just felt we could not -- we weren't at all sure that it would pay back.
- [00:12:26.16] AMY: This is about the fake ads. I was just curious -- this is an easy one. When did the fake ads start?
- [00:12:33.04] JOHN HILTON: You know, I can't give you the exact year. I can tell you who did it. Because it's the same guy who still does it. His name is Jay Foster. He's a local boy. His dad taught at Greenhills School for many, many years. And Jay actually had been freelancing for the Ann Arbor News, and came to us to do some writing. And he was doing really good writing, so we hired him as a staff writer.
- [00:12:54.94] He did a lot of good stories for us, but I really was completely flummoxed when he came into my office one day and told me that he had this great idea for an ad that wasn't real. And I just could not get my mind around this. It probably took me 15 minutes, half an hour just to see how that could be a good thing. But then he wrote some and they were so funny I thought, for all the confusion it might cause -- I was worried it might cause ill will among advertisers to be confused with a fake ad, for example. But it turns out that Dog-o-Mat has actually been fine with that, because people call them and then they learn what the Dog-o-Mat does.
- [00:13:27.39] And Jay has done it ever since. He got married, he moved to San Francisco. Now he lives in Grand Rapids. But thanks to email, which we now have, he's always done the fake ad, and he does the fake ad response. Which is why you have the [? voice ?] of the fake ads are still there on the back page.
- [00:13:43.34] ANDREW: At the library, we are in the process of creating an online project of Grace Shackman's Then and Now columns from over 25 years for the Observer.
- [00:13:55.73] JOHN HILTON: Great thing.
- [00:13:58.46] ANDREW: It really seems to hit many of the, as far as we can tell, most of the interesting local history topics. Any of the things that anybody would want to know in Ann Arbor. Have you run up against that? Have you run out of topics to write about?
- [00:14:15.63] JOHN HILTON: Well actually, here's a secret I've told nobody in the media. But we actually will go back to a topic after 10 years. We figure that there's enough turnover in our readership, and that frankly our own memories are weak enough that we trust our readers' memories are weak enough that after 10 years we might go back.
- [00:14:31.56] And in fact, someone not Grace has just sent me a very interesting manuscript on the Swabians in Ann Arbor, the southern German population that was the dominant population here in the second half of the 19th century. And various elements of that have been covered in past stories, either by Grace or by Mary Hunt -- again, another person who got infected by Mary. Because Mary wrote the original history stories.
- [00:14:55.45] AMY: I'm interested in, over the years when you look back, what stands out as the Observer's greatest scoop? Or what are some of your favorite articles?
- [00:15:07.78] JOHN HILTON: Well there are a lot. You know it's funny, because a lot of our most distinctive articles had to do with the Ann Arbor News. Because for 20 years there was a Cold War relationship, where they wouldn't speak to us, where they wouldn't really publish anything about themselves. And so who was covering the Ann Arbor News? We were. But that's really not central. The truth is I wish my mind was firing a little bit better right now.
- [00:15:29.18] I am very proud of Vickie Elmer story in this month's issue on Ann Arbor News. I think that it's comprehensive, it's fair. It takes a look at a huge change and actually get a good handle on why it's being undertaken and what might come out of it. And I give credit to the folks at AnnArbor.com, that they have reversed that policy. And that now everyone there is willing to speak. It was a welcome change, and one that I think it's going to benefit the community as a whole.
- [00:15:55.49] For years I would always point to Scott Shuger's article on attending a PE class, a 400-level PE class as a student. It turned out that no, it really was not that hard to get an A in Sports Management and Marketing. But the pleasure was in the details of just how easy it was.
- [00:16:19.67] I'm reluctant to do this only because I'm going to forget a million good ones. But another one that stands out that I just had on my mind as something we might follow up on was an article by a freelancer named Stefan Kiesbye who, back before the big collapse in the housing -- before the whole housing bubble burst, wrote an article on a fascinating local home sales fraud. In which a house out on Miller Road had been flipped between a series of phantom buyers, greatly inflating its price. At which point the last buyer took the money that had been lent to purchase this house at this inflated price and just disappeared. And it was an indication of how we got into that particular mess that the bank that had suffered this loss would say nothing about it, and had pursued no legal action either. And it was just, oh boy, those guys are really flying if they think that this is something that they can just let happen and not take action on. So I thought we were little ahead of the curve on that one.
- [00:17:15.39] Michael Betzold, who's now my deputy editor, did a great freelance article on Jack Kevorkian's work. He was involved in the death of an Ann Arbor woman. And it really turned out to be rather different than the way Dr. Kevorkian was portraying it. You got a good sense that this was actually a serious nutcase who liked to watch people die, who was cloaking that desire in an altruistic presentation. That I'm just helping people who are suffering. That was a great article. Not exactly the article people were expecting, but to some extent I liked it all the more for that.
- [00:17:47.15] Eve Silberman has done so many great articles I couldn't begin to name them. I've actually just been speaking of historical articles, though I actually just posted one of hers on my website over this development issue, called "We Almost Lost Kerrytown." It's this crazy urban renewal plan that came within one vote of getting passed in 1959 that would've leveled not only what we know as Kerrytown today, but Zingerman's Deli, my house, half the houses in my neighborhood. A fascinating story of good intentions that went very wrong and were just narrowly stopped.
- [00:18:16.99] ANDREW: I just realized you're in sort of an interesting position to be able to answer this question. How has Ann Arbor changed in the last 30 years?
- [00:18:25.77] JOHN HILTON: It has changed, for sure. It has never changed in the way people expected. That's one of the things I would say right off the bat.
- [00:18:34.02] I actually have had an interesting discussion, going back and forth about Ann Arbor and its character and how it's changed, with a geographer named Blake Gumprecht. And speaking of things I would recommend to you, I would recommend Blake's new book, The American College Town. Blake came to town researching this book, probably five years ago. He wrote a terrific book on the Los Angeles river, the role it played in the founding of the city and status now. And then, because he was an ex-journalist, he didn't understand you're supposed to just mine one niche and build your reputation there, he took on a completely different topic: a college town. And he did what I think is really a great book about them. Because it's astounding the ways in which they're similar, but also very interesting the ways in which they're dissimilar. We all have our little student ghetto. We all have our student bar district. We all have our faculty ghetto.
- [00:19:20.82] But what was interesting was that Blake's take on Ann Arbor was that it was going to be the next high tech business mecca. And he found that depressing. As someone who had spent his college years in Norman, Oklahoma, he didn't really like that notion that the college was being overshadowed by other parts of the local economy. And he's been puzzled that he hasn't gotten any attention for his book here. And I've been telling him that, well, Blake, I think the problem is that we're having trouble seeing ourselves as a high tech mecca now, too.
- [00:19:49.76] So he actually says in his book that he was so depressed by coming in through Briarwood and seeing all the emphasis on high tech companies that he almost didn't write a chapter on the high tech aspects of college towns. But he did write it about Ann Arbor.
- [00:20:03.42] On the other hand, now that Ann Arbor is sitting here saying, what happened to Pfizer? You know, what's happening to our start-up companies? It's not a narrative that really resonates in Ann Arbor, either. so that's what I meant by saying that it hasn't really developed the way people would expect it to.
- [00:20:19.87] That the university would become an ever-bigger player without increasing its enrollment. Who would have guessed that? Though the extent to which federally funded scientific research has become an industry in itself, something like $600 million in NIH funding, that was really something that was just getting going 30 years ago. And that actually goes back to the presidency of Harold Shapiro, who really, I think, set the template for a lot of what happened as the university began to adapt to a constrained environment in which the state could no longer give them what they needed and they had to find other ways to do that. Harold was the one who began to raise tuition to find private funding from alumni, and to bring in as much research money, particularly in terms of federal grants, as he could. And that really is what's been -- as always, the university is the driving force in the town. And that really has been the biggest change I would say.
- [00:21:05.67] In terms of the physical landscape, what I'm really struck by is how much less it's changed in the last 30 years than in the 30 years before that. And that's where Grace's articles, and others, have been really helpful in getting a perspective. To realize that in 1950, there were 50,000 people in the town. Bye 1980 there were 100,000. Now we're at 114,000.
- [00:21:26.58] That the changes that took place in that immediate post-war era were enormous. You know, all the big buildings that you see downtown were built in that period. Thousands and thousands of suburban homes that we now think of, that are inside what used to be the old inner belt, the stadium North Maple route, were all added then.
- [00:21:47.18] And since then, we went through a period, really, in the seventies, as the baby boom finished college, state funding got cut back, where the city really stagnated. Where almost nothing happened. I remember even in the mid-'80s, I was writing an article for Don Hunt on all the buildings that were planned downtown, including what's now One North Main, what's now 301 East Liberty. And Don was very skeptical, because he'd seen so many projects be proposed and not happen. And I finally convinced him that I think these ones really are going to happen. And we managed to call a boom before it happened. And of course, five years later we were writing about the aftermath of the boom and who had lost money on those buildings.
- [00:22:26.04] So some things are constant. Economic cycles, I can tell you from experience, they're constant. We will come back up. But really it has been striking to see what has and hasn't changed. Because really we still are a medium-sized college town on a river. That's really what we are; that's what defines us. The Ann Arbor Observer, as I said, is a magazine. Technically we're what's called a city magazine, in the sense that our subject is not electronic equipment, or computer software for a population that stretches across the English speaking world, but rather it is any subject that relates to the people who live within our community.
- [00:22:59.38] And the Hunts' ingenious move -- and speaking of bold moves, it was a bold one -- was in about 1979 or 1980, they mortgaged a farm they owned down in southern Ohio near Chillicothe, and used that money to begin distributing the Observer free to all the single family homes in the city. And soon moved from that to all the apartments as well. So ever since, we have distributed to what we call the permanent resident population. That's the polite way of saying we don't hit the student neighborhoods unless they ask. [INAUDIBLE] that group has separate interests; they don't necessarily have a connection to the larger community. And right now we distribute 60,000 copies a month, virtually all of them free. Probably 90% percent of them free, to all the permanent residents in the community.
- [00:23:42.07] And that that's been a very helpful thing. Because from time to time, you get tempted to say, well, maybe we should be like an Hour Detroit, and we should just to distribute a very small number of copies to a very select audience. But you know, if you read those magazines, they get dull awfully fast. How many times can you talk about somebody's wonderful new bathroom remodeling? Or the new high end restaurant in West Bloomfield. I'm very grateful that we're not constrained by that. I'm really grateful that we have an opportunity to do articles like Eve Silberman's article in this issue, on Mary King with the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative. You will not see that in Hour Detroit, I promise you.
- [00:24:18.07] ANDREW: How does editing compare to writing? Do you ever miss spending all your time writing?
- [00:24:24.26] JOHN HILTON: No. What I always tell writers is I'm grateful for their work, because I know how much easier mine is. In fact, I try to do some writing just so that I don't ever forget how much harder writing is. My shorthand explanation, which seems to work pretty well for most people, is that writing is an essay test; editing is just a multiple choice test. The writer has done their job. They've giving you a number of useful insights, observations, characters, scenes. And the only question is, do they add up to a story? And if they don't, then you rearrange them so they do. Believe me, I've done both, and it's just -- editing really makes me grateful for writers.
- [00:25:02.74] Another simple explanation I offer is that I have all the fun part of the job and Patricia Garcia, my partner, has all the hard part of the job. She handles the business side of the Observer; she's the publisher. The ad staff reports to her, the front office staff reports to her. The design staff reports to both her and me, since they both design ads for the ad side, and design articles for the editorial side.
- [00:25:26.67] But in terms of what happens from my end of it, it really begins with emails like the one I got from Beth Dwoskin, or a phone call, or sitting down and talking with a writer looking for ideas. And that can happen anything from six weeks before we publish an article to -- the longest-running article I haven't given up on yet goes back to about 1994. And I'm still hoping that when Margaret Wagner's children are a little older, she will go back and write the definitive history of the homeopathic hospital. Because I think that's a fascinating story, and I know we haven't really told that.
- [00:26:01.32] And on the other hand, something's come up that literally, we're just going to get done right away. And essentially what happens is, after that talk the writer either communicates with me on a daily basis, or I hear nothing until they actually submit a story. And it really can be anything in that range. I tell writers, I'm going to be as visible or invisible as they would like.
- [00:26:22.33] AMY: It strikes me, the many times that you've talked about Don and Mary Hunt, how much it reminds me of Dave Askins and Mary Morgan of the Ann Arbor Chronicle.
- [00:26:31.09] JOHN HILTON: Well, I think that Mary and Dave's relationship with the community is not at all unlike the relationship that Don and Mary had. Because it really was the two of them at first. And they did everything -- they did all the editorial, they did all the ad sales, just as Mary and Dave do. Mary and Dave have taken a very specific journalistic mission, in terms of documenting the public processes of the community, and then added in this completely personal, idiosyncratic twist of what catches their eye. And it makes for a delicious combination, as well as an important resource.
- [00:27:04.79] I think the one thing that they don't do that Don and Mary did is take that step back to sort of the feature length piece. But again, online, how our feature length piece is going to play out, it's hard to say for sure. So I think that they've got a very clear sense of what they're doing. I think that it's a great idea. I really wish them well doing it.
- [00:27:22.71] ANDREW: ArborWeb changed. When did ArborWeb make the big change?
- [00:27:27.42] JOHN HILTON: The big change was just last year. Yeah. In fact, we'd been working on the change pretty much for all of last year, but it only went live on December 1. And I don't know if I told you this, Amy, but one of the challenges was getting a backlog of stories into it. Because the big change is that now it's an online archive for everything that we publish in the Observer. In the past it had really been purely a reference site. We launched it in 1996, just with the calendar and our city guide. And it's really been essentially that ever since.
- [00:27:56.02] ANDREW: Does it change your thinking about the writing and about the issue? Or are you still mainly focused on the print version, and you view ArborWeb as the online, where you can put the print stuff?
- [00:28:10.89] JOHN HILTON: Some of that. But also, it does also give us an opportunity to do things we could never do in print. Tiny little pieces that would grow too old before we could get them in print. Observations that are interesting, but maybe not so interesting that they could support a full column in print at the expense of, say, three Up Front stories. For example, San Slomovits, who writes some great stories and event reviews for us, wrote up just this wonderful little anecdote at the Silk Road concert.
- [00:28:42.91] San was there and enjoying it tremendously. The concert was in two halves. One was primarily Western music, one was primarily Eastern music. Well, that's not so hard. What did the Silk Road connect? It was Asia to Europe. Not a difficult concept, you would think. But apparently the person who was sitting near him in the audience hadn't understood that concept and spent the entire second half making loud, disparaging remarks. Like, boy this is stupid. Which San summed up nicely saying, "Her comments really were accurate -- about the speaker."
- [00:29:14.03] And so that was something that we wouldn't have been able to do in print, because it would have been too old. But we just dropped it into our culture blog, and poof, there it was. So that was another little observation that just wouldn't have made it into the record if it hadn't been for the website. It's been very interesting to see what does play out in the website, and how the print issue works online. Because what we think of as just the little snippets -- "candy" is what Mary Hunt would have called a snippet the size of Up Front, because it's just a little morsel. You know, that's a pretty substantial story online. It may actually spread over two pages. An Inside Ann Arbor could be four. And a feature, heaven help us, could be 10. We have decided that that's not going to affect the way in which we write our features. In fact, the Ann Arbor News feature is the longest one we have run, probably in a year. Just because we felt there was enough of an interest there that people would want to know. We didn't hesitate to put out -- it was 10 columns, so about 11 feet. No, I'm sorry. Our column is just a little shorter. So that's 10 feet of type. And you know, from the feedback I've been getting, people have been reading all of it.
- [00:30:20.83] So we haven't actually redone our estimate of people's attention span, beyond what we've already done in print, for the web. And we don't really know how that's going to play out. Are people going to not read these stories online? My guess is that people will still read them online, because they'll be available there in a way that they're not right now. Every week I field a handful of queries from people who have remembered a story and are trying to find out where it was. I pull out our index and look them up. But it's going to be great that I can refer them to all the historical stories at the district library site. And that now I'm able to say, that story is online, or that story will be online, sometime this month.
- [00:31:00.53] ANDREW: To visit the Ann Arbor Observer online, and go to ArborWeb.com
- [00:31:04.78] AMY: You've been listening to the AADL productions podcast at the Ann Arbor District Library.
June 17, 2009
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