If it’s possible to compare the operation of an online newspaper to running, then it’s more like a marathon than a sprint. Today, The Ann Arbor Chronicle passes the nine-month mile marker, and my thoughts are similar to those I had some years ago as a first-time marathoner … at about mile 20 of 26.
I completed the final six miles in a survival shuffle. Spectators along the way at such events provide encouragement to runners like me – mostly they clap or they yell things like, “Looking good!” and “You can do it!”
If you’re wearing green socks, a green-sock enthusiast might yell, “Go green socks!!” even if they don’t know you. I’m not making this up – that’s what the woman standing next to me yelled to a kid wearing green socks at Sunday’s Dexter-Ann Arbor run. To be clear, the kid was bouncing along, not doing a survival shuffle.
Fewer spectators dish out the tough love: “C’mon pick it up, get your butt in gear, this is not a walk in the park, it’s a marathon!”
And the feedback from Chronicle readers has spanned that same range – from unabashed enthusiasm, to the expectation that we “pick it up” and expand the breadth and depth of our coverage to provide a replacement to The Ann Arbor News. [The News is shutting down in a couple of months, in case you're new around these parts.] Replace The Ann Arbor News, huh? Okay, but I have a stitch in my side, and a blister on my toe, so the surge in momentum might not blow you away.
But in thinking about this marathon-running analogy, there’s a couple of things that are less than perfect about the analogy itself. For one thing, it’s not really clear what counts as the finish line – when I die, perhaps? The idea of attending Ann Arbor city council meetings until the day I die is a fairly sobering prospect. I’m not sure that’s what I signed up for.
Another imperfect aspect to the analogy: When you undertake to run a marathon, the actual physical effort really is one that you have to make your own self. Nobody else will make it for you. But in the case of The Chronicle, revenues for this last month have hit a level that has allowed us to establish a very modest freelance budget. Readers should start to notice a few articles written by someone other than me and Mary Morgan. And the contributions of one intern, Helen Nevius, who’ll soon be joined by two others, will mean there’s even more people in this race.
What I’d like to focus on for this month’s milestone though, is the idea – implicit in that imperfect running analogy – that readers can be considered spectators. Readers, it seems to me, should and do have the potential to be more than that – to at least partially participate in what The Chronicle does.
But the idea that publishing is a spectator sport is built right into the vocabulary that’s conventionally used to describe readers: A common question I hear is “Who’s The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s audience?” I’ve never heard the question, “Who participates in what The Ann Arbor Chronicle does?”
Paths to Contribution
So this month, I’d like to riff a bit on the theme of paths to contribution to The Ann Arbor Chronicle.
Some readers see a clear path to their participation in what The Chronicle does. They’ve run, not walked, down that path. And much of it is ground we’ve covered before, but bears repeating.
The Stopped.Watched. section is an easy example of one such constructive path to contribution. Thanks to those who’ve contributed an observation made while out running through their usual routine.
The Chronicle event listings are in many cases generated by readers creating their own events on Yahoo’s Upcoming system and forwarding us the links, which we can then add to our listing with one simple click. Thanks to those who’ve contributed an event listing.
Comments on articles we’ve written is perhaps the first way readers think to make a contribution. Thanks to those who’ve contributed comments that provide a novel perspective or some factual information that helps frame the issue, or that just provides some additional bit of local history that helps keep our community’s collective memory sharp. To readers who’ve emailed us complaints that some commenters are using The Chronicle as a vehicle to promote their opinions, I would say, “Well, too bad.” And I mean that in both senses.
It’s too bad for people who make that complaint, because part of the rationale for a fairly open commenting policy is that well-reasoned and insightful opinions count as a public good. A lot of the opinion expressed in Chronicle comments fits that description.
It’s also too bad because I think that comments contributed to The Chronicle reflect some still unrealized potential for public good. I wish that the balance was more overwhelmingly in favor of enthusiasm for sharing factual information, sources for that information, novel analyses, and personal perspectives – as opposed to sharing of pure opinion.
One use of comments on articles that I think goes a bit unheralded is the asking of fair, non-rhetorical questions – questions that have informational answers.
Journalist Citizens: The Art of a Good Question
If good, fair, non-rhetorical questions are asked in a Chronicle comment or sent via email to us, that’s a positive contribution. But such questions need not be left in a Chronicle comment box or sent via email.
I think they’re sometimes most effective if they’re asked at a public meeting. Such questions are, I think, more effective than the finest oratory that might fill the whole 3-5 minute time slot that is allowed for public comment. So here’s a path to contribution to The Chronicle, that could be summarized as: Be a “journalist citizen.”
How to be a Journalist Citizen:
- Identify a fair question, which answer would be generally helpful to our community’s understanding of how things work, or the decision-making process on current issues. Make it specific. Strip out sarcasm.
- Figure out a 20-second introduction to that question.
- Deliver the introduction and question at the relevant public meeting in half a minute or less.
At the meeting of city council two weeks ago, Ann Arbor resident and past city council candidate John Floyd pointed out that the city’s cash position would be better if it did not now offer early-retirement options to police officers, but instead waited two years, assessed at that time whether attrition through retirements or other options had reduced police staff levels, and then if necessary offered early-retirement incentives – more cheaply due to the passage of two years’ time. He then asked for the analysis of that scenario as compared to the one the council would eventually vote for.
Did Floyd get an answer? During deliberations, Leigh Greden dismissed attrition as having no guarantees. There was no other response from council. So what did Floyd accomplish? What he accomplished is: That question and the non-answer from council is a part of the public record. It’s a part of the Chronicle’s record.
And until some kind of a comparative analysis is offered, it’s a question sitting there – noticeably unanswered. So it’s an easy question for anyone to pick up and ask again at the next available opportunity – say at a Sunday night caucus. Why was Floyd’s succinct question more effective than a three-minute speech about why council should explore other options besides the early-retirement offer?
(1) Questions have a very reasonable expectation of an answer. The rules of ordinary conversation require that reasonable questions are met with answers. A succinct question asked publicly of a public body brings the pressure of conversational convention to bear on that public body. Oratory – no matter how elegant – carries with it no conversational convention that an answer is required. A question unanswered stands out and attracts attention. Or, if answered, provides better understanding for all parties concerned.
(2) Responses and non-responses to questions are easily documented. Either the question gets a response or it doesn’t. The fact of a non-response will be noted in a Chronicle meeting report. The fact of a response can be judged by readers as to whether it qualifies as an “answer.”
(3) Brevity is appreciated. Reporting the asking of a succicnt and well-put question is straightforward and easy in comparison to reporting a three-minute oratory. If public commentary is used to ask a simple question, our reporting energy can focus on whether an answer is given, which is really the end goal.
For regular Chronicle readers who laugh out loud at the irony of The Chronicle asking public commenters to be brief … yeah, okay, I know we write long. In fact, at this point, this monthly milestone will go way over 1,000 words. Here’s the thing: To do our job as we’ve defined it for ourselves, we need to write long. That job summarized briefly is “journalist,” or perhaps “citizen journalist.” And our brand of journalism focuses first on observation and description – a prerequisite to any analysis – so it’s not an accident that we named our publication The Ann Arbor Chronicle as opposed to The Ann Arbor Digest.
Your job as readers is not the same as our job. I’m not asking you to do our job and become journalists. Remain citizens – just be “journalist citizens,” every once in a while, by posing a question.
Same goes for public officials.
To public officials, I’d suggest trying out the label of “councilmember journalist” or “commissioner journalist” or “board member journalist” and reflect on the implications.
For Ann Arbor city council members that would mean a radical change in approach from the current one taken with respect to city staff, which can fairly be characterized as “attorneys leading witnesses” using the city council podium as a “witness stand.” It’d be more open and direct to simply say, “Based on prior communication with staff, I’ve clarified for myself that _____.”
If less energy were put into the kabuki theater of hauling staff members to the podium to answer questions with known answers, councilmembers might have some energy left over to formulate questions to which the answers are not known. Or failing that, their attention could at least be freed up to relay such questions to staff that are raised during public commentary.
Anyway, like I said before, I’ve got a stitch in my side and a blister on my toe. And it’s starting to hurt real good. That’s the proof we’ve done the work to get this far. With readers’ participation, we’ve got the stamina to keep running – with or without green socks – and maybe even to pick up the pace a little. I’m starting to get a second wind.