ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN — [UPDATED September 16, 2011] When the daily Ann Arbor News announced in July 2009 that it would cease publication and be replaced by a two day a week print product with a website, the college town of Ann Arbor, Mich. suddenly became, after 174 years, a city without a daily newspaper. That’s when Patricia Lesko, a higher-education book publisher and thirty-year resident, saw an opening. She launched her own news site, A2Politico, within days of the newspaper’s closing. Lesko, who also ran for mayor as a Democrat in 2010, assumed that the end of the Ann Arbor News as a daily publication meant that residents would be soon be searching for an alternative, if they hadn’t already. The Ann Arbor News, Lesko says, “was dubbed ‘The Snooze.’ They never really pursued investigative or accountability journalism. It was always lacking.”
- Read more about A2Politico
Lesko had already read the work online of other web news start-ups like Voice of San Diego and she was inspired. A2Politico, she said, was crafted on that model, though she founded her site in July 2009 as a for-profit venture, powered initially by her own investment. She had previously written the site anonymously, before deciding to make a business of it. The site attempted to fill in the gaps she saw in the Ann Arbor News’s coverage of local government, while advocating stridently against much of the incumbents in city government. She also envisioned it as being characterized by a high volume of public records requests and little appetite for the former daily’s stodgy prose.
Two years later, Lesko says, some of that work is beginning to pay off. Traffic has increased and A2Politico now has a string of scoops and other originally reported stories to its credit. The site also got a boost in 2010, when Lesko ran for mayor in the Democratic primary against 10-year incumbent John Hieftje. She lost, but traffic to the site only increased.
In the fall of 2011, Lesko plans to take an even bigger leap into keeping her site sustainable by locking most of the site’s content behind a paywall. Subscribers will pay $30 a month for access, or $75 a year. The site so far has been free for visitors, but Lesko, who has kept her day job, says it’s been difficult keeping up with expenses using Google Ads, in part because the online ad market remains soft. She has not yet branched out to direct sale ads or sponsorships. For legal purposes, the site operates under the umbrella of Lesko’s publishing company, which is a registered corporation.
“You’re going to lose about one-third of the visitors” by going to a pay model, she says. “But advertising is just dying.” Lesko also intends to apply for a Knight Foundation grant in December, for what she hopes is several thousand dollars. “What I’m doing now is building up readership,” she says.
That readership has been coming in increasing numbers since a few months after the site’s launch, when A2Politico had just 2,300 visitors. Lesko says that she now averages 20,000 uniques (Quantcast, which admittedly has trouble estimating traffic for sites that do not opt into its program, shows the monthly average as far lower but reports a recent spike to 15,000). Lesko says the increase can be attributed to what she calls an anti-Huffington Post approach to the news, ensuring that every post she publishes–about two or three daily–is originally reported and not rewritten from another source. Opponents, meanwhile, say that Lesko is more advocate than journalist, and that she played fast and loose with the facts during her mayoral campaign. Lesko denies those allegations, but says that she thinks “journalists are advocates.” She says that her stories are firmly steeped in the tradition of muckraking journalism, and that much of them are simply based on records requests, like one in May that laid out a series of extravagant expenses by city officials, are firmly steeped in the tradition of muckraking journalism. “We caught a county commissioner staying at the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island, which is $900 a night, and the county had a $30 million deficit,” Lesko says, referring to a story she wrote in May. “There are so many opportunities for accountability. I get ten e-mails a day with people saying, ‘You should write about this.'”
Lesko does not employ any full-time reporters, but she has enlisted ten occasional contributors, many of whom came in the door with previous writing or journalism experience, she says. Each is paid per post, though Lesko declines to say how much. The model, she says, has generally worked so far. “There are a bajillion bloggers out there who are not getting paid who are brilliant writers,” Lesko says. “If you look out there, there’s so much more content, but less and less reporting.”
City: Ann Arbor