Editor’s Note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.
On Saturday, along with more than 90,000 other people, I was in Michigan Stadium amid the spectacle of the University of Michigan commencement, with the heightened drama surrounding the presence of President Barack Obama.
Despite standing in the rain for two hours, I was glad to be part of the orchestrated pageantry – it’s a perk to living in a city that’s got the pull of a major university, while still being small enough to score access to something that draws national attention. As the day wore on, the event also helped further crystallize for me some aspects of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s journalistic mission. And because this is our publication’s 20th monthly milestone message, it seems a good occasion to reflect on that.
The most obvious point of clarity on Saturday was the difference between what The Chronicle typically does and what other media oranizations do – whether they are traditional or newly-emerging enterprises. The second observation is linked to some advice in Obama’s speech: Pay attention.
The Media Pen
If you’re a regular Chronicle reader, you know that our focus on local government coverage leads us to extended hours sitting in uncomfortable seats, listening to elected officials. In this way, our typical day (or often, evening) is not unlike the eight hours spent in Michigan Stadium on Saturday – uncomfortable seats, elected officials.
Of course, what differed dramatically from our typical work – ok, other than the fact that Barack Obama was 50 yards away – is that more often than not, we’re the only journalists in the room. These are meetings where the public’s business is conducted, but the public isn’t clamoring to attend. There are no murmurs of anticipation beforehand, no eruptions of applause when someone enters the room, no tight security.
It’s not glamorous stuff. It does not enhance social standing to say you just returned from covering a park advisory commission meeting – most people just tend to offer pity-filled stares, or tell you straight out that you’re a wing nut.
So it’s unusual to find us amid the crush of a media throng, as we were on Saturday. There’s an entire culture to it – and to the “handling” of the media that takes place as well. It’s a caste system, in part, made even clearer when the national media comes to town. I remember it clearly from my days working at The Ann Arbor News, but I had forgotten how much I’d disliked that aspect of the circus. [Funniest aside: Overheard complaints by some Washington media who apparently chose Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner on Friday, and who found the wine list there lacking in diversity. Heads up to BWW corporate management: A letter with suggestions about wine could be headed your way.]
That said, I’m glad I had the experience of hearing Obama’s speech in person, and of witnessing the excitement of the day. This will be a touchstone event for many, and I’m glad I was able to share in it.
I’m glad I could spend some time with photographer Myra Klarman and her husband Rich – Myra graciously agreed to shoot photos for The Chronicle, and one of the best things about the day was the chance to get to know her and Rich a little better. I’m even glad I had the experience of standing next to a grizzled photographer – not Myra – who, to my surprise, joined in as the UM graduates sang their alma mater, “The Yellow and Blue.” It wasn’t clear that anyone really knew the lyrics, including him.
But the day also served to remind me that there’s a reason we chose a different path when we launched The Chronicle, and affirmed for me the value in doing so.
Obama began by describing some cute questions he’d received from a kindergarten class, segued into a discussion of “niceness,” and linked that to the historical context of our nation’s often raucous political discourse. Throughout, Obama threaded the theme of what it means to live in a democracy, and how as citizens, we have a responsibility to participate. He acknowledged that people might be turned off by the name-calling we witness on a regular basis, but cited the danger of turning away [From The Chronicle's annotated version of Obama's speech]:
…when we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders; when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day; when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave.
Obama was speaking to the national arena, but the sentiment is even more applicable, I believe, at the local and state levels. There are exponentially more sources of information and analysis of national issues than you can find about issues and the actions of public bodies in Lansing or locally. And generally, people are likely to know more about how their Congressman voted than who their city councilmember or county commissioner is, or what decisions they’re making.
One reason we founded The Chronicle in September 2008 was because we thought much of our local community wasn’t “paying attention” – and we wanted to do something about it. We believe, despite what many media pundits assert, that readers care about more than the quick-hit, sound-byte story. We trust readers are smart enough and care enough to value our approach, which pretty much lays out the minutiae of what’s happening in local government. Readers who make the modest investment of time to read our reports will have an understanding of how things work. In fact, I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that Chronicle readers may be better informed on our local issues than public officials who don’t invest time to read The Chronicle.
Obama also talked about how participation in public life doesn’t have to mean running for public office. “But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can,” he said. “Stay informed.”
I admire individuals who do this locally, even if I don’t always agree with their positions. People who are engaged in their communities, who take the time to try to understand how things work, who draw their own conclusions from the information they gather – they’ve taken on a Herculean task. And it’s a task that’s not universally appreciated. It’s easier for people in power to have a disengaged public – it can be messy and time consuming to respond to “the public,” whom some of our local officials mock as “the hive.” I get that. And I get that there are people who twist facts to align with their own worldview. The Chronicle’s job would be “easier,” too, if no one ever showed up at meetings for public commentary – that’d sure be less for us to have to write up. But our community would be poorer for it.
Absent a robust public engagement, we might as well live in a benevolent monarchy. And the more access we have to information, the more able we are to evaluate it and make our own informed decisions, and to influence others to share our views. That’s why we’re unrelenting advocates for openness in government.
The Confluence of Community
Back to Saturday’s commencement. One of the things I cherish about living here is the fact that it’s a small enough town to find connections – if you pay attention. And because our profession takes us out into the community every single day of the week, we’ve been able to meet a pretty interesting range of people.
A fair number of them were also inside Michigan Stadium on Saturday – and running into them amid the thousands of strangers really grounded the event for me. Some were volunteering – like Kathy Griswold, a “regular” at many public meetings, and Anna Ercoli Schnitzer, a frequent Stopped.Watched. contributor to The Chronicle.
Wendy Woods, a former city councilmember who serves on the planning commission, passed by and said hello while we were waiting in the pre-dawn line outside the stadium. She works at UM with the Michigan Community Scholars Program – I’m pretty sure she knew more graduates on Saturday than we did.
On the field, I spotted Washtenaw County Sheriff’s deputy Blackwell, who was working security – I’d seen him just last week at the new location of Camp Take Notice, talking with that group of residents who are homeless.
In the stands, I chatted with Doug Kelley, probably the most affable, consistently upbeat person I know – we’ve met him in many different venues, including others with an Obama connection – and I was glad to add another one to my mental archive.
Matt Hampel passed by the media risers in his cap and gown – he’s been active in the community for so many years that I’d forgotten that he’s just now graduating. Talk about an engaged citizen – Matt’s a role model for that.
In some ways, all of this is really just a long-winded way of saying that I draw great satisfaction from the fact that we’re able to make a living at what we’re doing here at The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Thank you, subscribers and advertisers! I’m glad that our work has allowed us to cross paths with so many others who call this community their home. We’re glad they’re paying attention to what we’re doing, and find value in it. We hope you do, too.
About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.