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.
Last month I trekked over to the Ann Arbor District Library to hand-deliver a paper document to the library’s director, Josie Parker. It was a letter that stated our intent, as owners of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, to grant all necessary legal authority to the AADL to preserve public access to our publication’s archives, in the event that The Chronicle closes or that we get hit by a bus.
It was an important decision for us, and one we didn’t take lightly – “we” being me and my husband Dave Askins, who’s editor and co-owner of The Chronicle. For me, The Chronicle has always been a convergence of the professional and the personal. Launching the publication on Sept. 2, which is also our wedding anniversary, reflects that connection. So choosing how to ensure the preservation of The Chronicle’s archives was more than a business decision.
The corpus of civic affairs and local government reporting that we’ve compiled in The Chronicle’s first two years, we believe, is a community asset worth preserving. During my tenure at The Ann Arbor News, I was always appalled at the condition of the archives there, neglected and deteriorating in a basement space we called The Cage. I was thrilled when the AADL negotiated to become caretaker of that massive collection, some items dating back to the late 1800s. Given the AADL staff’s obvious competence and eagerness to dig into the project – organizing more than 1 million items – it seemed a natural fit to ask that they consider shepherding our much less space-demanding slice of local journalism, too.
The Chronicle, of course, was born digital, and at this point would fit on a thumb drive. Although we’d likely be classified by most folks as “new media,” in many ways we embrace an ethos that runs contrary to current trends. And that’s why I liked the idea of walking a few blocks to the library and handing over a letter – a physical artifact that outlines the hopes of a digital future. And on this occasion of The Chronicle’s second anniversary, I’d like to chew on that notion a little more, and talk about what its implications might be.
The Importance of Showing Up
When we started The Chronicle, we knew that a focus on local government – specifically, the actions and deliberations that take place at public meetings – would be a cornerstone for this publication. What we didn’t know is whether anyone else would think it was a worthwhile place to focus our efforts. And, in fact, we received a fair amount of pressure, especially after the Ann Arbor News was shut down, to pick up coverage of things you’d normally find in a traditional newspaper: crime, sports, business, schools, arts & entertainment.
We didn’t – and still don’t – have the resources to take on that breadth, not without killing any hopes of depth and not without sacrificing The Chronicle’s main mission: To chronicle, in detail, our community’s civic affairs.
I didn’t always believe it was important to document what goes on at public meetings. Like most journalists, I’d been trained to regard meetings as a necessary, but in most cases avoidable, annoyance. This was especially true as the Ann Arbor News newsroom staff dwindled in numbers. I remember very clearly a conversation I had years ago as business editor, talking with Cathy O’Donnell, who covered the Ann Arbor city planning commission at the time. Cathy would diligently attend those meetings, which are held in the evenings and can last several hours. I viewed the “payoff” – usually a couple of articles – as not worth the investment of time, especially if the basic information could be gathered by making a few phone calls the next morning.
I was an idiot.
I think there’s a lot of truth to the idea that “The world is run by those who show up,” which was a theme of a column Del Dunbar wrote for us last year. In the relatively short time we’ve been sitting through the meetings where official public business gets conducted, we’ve witnessed a fair amount of revisionist history. Such is the nature of politics, and maybe of human nature as well. People are more comfortable with a narrative that’s clean – but democracy is messy. And unless you’re a witness to what happens – or have a witness, by proxy, like our publication – it’s virtually impossible to speak confidently and challenge the veracity of events as described by whoever was in the room at the time.
Covering meetings in the gory detail that we do also provides context. To the extent that people have their discussions in these public venues – which is, ideally, where they should be taking place – we capture that deliberation, and show how decisions are reached, recording the dissent as well. While there is a great deal of posturing in any forum, there are also many instances of candid debate. Rather than eliciting these differing views by having officials whisper in a journalist’s ear, it’s far better to thrash it out during a public meeting, for any citizen to see – or to read about, later, in The Chronicle.
There’s also the hope that just by showing up, we can “move the pile” a little. This is a phrase borrowed from football that Dave uses, and one that I really like – the idea that an organization like ours can exert influence incrementally, by observing and reporting and connecting the dots in a steadfast, thoughtful, non-sensationalistic way. We don’t have the resources to pick up the whole pile and toss it around – the “pile” being, in some cases, the culture of an organization or the status quo. But by paying attention and shining a light on things we feel need to change, we believe it’s possible to nudge our local government toward a better place.
Yes, We Show Up – But Does Anyone Care?
One of my main questions when we launched The Chronicle two years ago was whether anyone else in this community would value this kind of approach. Early on, I was explaining our philosophy of news coverage to someone who pretty quickly dismissed the whole idea, and suggested that the only way we could possibly make a viable business was to model ourselves after the the Daily Kos or Talking Points Memo.
The whole idea, he contended, is to generate site traffic. And to do that, he continued, you need the widest possible readership – readers who by-and-large are looking for brevity, opinion and churn. In other words, he thought the only way to have a chance of success was to offer the same kind of material you’ll find on many other news sites and blogs.
I walked away from that discussion extremely discouraged. And if we hadn’t been making a living at this for the past two years, I would still wonder whether it was even remotely feasible to do what we’re doing. Virtually any media consultant would find the idea laughable of writing lengthy reports on local government meetings.
In a different way, a recent article in the American Journalism Review emphasized the distance between what we’re doing and the path that many other news sites are taking. The article, by Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, describes how news organizations are increasingly shaping their coverage based on what articles are drawing traffic to the site. [At The Chronicle, we call this the "brick tit" phenomenon, a reference to a short column by Dan Madaj we published that to our surprise spiked site traffic – but it didn't motivate us to write more stories like that.]
While noting that the Post obviously still produces in-depth articles, Farhi also describes how the push for site traffic affects his own newsroom:
Universal desk editors are under constant pressure to maintain the paper’s traffic goals; several told me that they believed their job evaluations depended, at least in part, on how often they meet these goals ([Washington Post executive editor Marcus] Brauchli says this isn’t the case). Nevertheless, when the numbers fall below targets, the staff scrambles to goose the count. There’s no real playbook for this drill, but there are some gimmicks. The Post often throws up celebrity photo galleries, sometimes with dubious or tenuous news value (a recent gallery featuring the British royal family was pegged to mere speculation about a forthcoming royal engagement). Another gambit: frivolous “user polls” (a recent one asked if readers in Montgomery County, Maryland, planned to flush their toilets in defiance of temporary water restrictions). Editors also monitor trending topics on Twitter and Google, and sometimes adjust their mix of stories to include something about a hot topic.
To which I say: Gah!
Farhi also describes the pressure to be first at all costs, and quotes his colleague Roxanne Roberts on this issue: “Journalism always put a premium on speed and scoops, but up until recently we never had to make the decision that speed trumps vetting or verification. That dynamic is shifting because of the need for hits. It’s a very slippery slope from an ethical standpoint. … The feeling nowadays is, ‘we don’t make mistakes, we just make updates.’” By trying to grab traffic at all costs, “We’ve placed the premium not on being correct or thoughtful, but on being first. When you do that, everything is Balloon Boy.”
I’m heartened that journalists are having these discussions, but it seems clear that when industry leaders are mainly freaking out about how they’ll stay in business, the screaming, mile-long search-engine-optimized headlines and insipid, meaningless polls will win out, on most days.
And What About the Money?
But it’s not like I have the luxury to be smug. On any given day, I could also be freaking out about how we’ll stay in business – this is a really crappy economy, in case you haven’t noticed, and we’re living through what appears to be its nadir. To date, we’ve been able to support ourselves and pay our freelancers through a mix of advertising and reader “subscriptions.” [The scare quotes are there because subscribers don't get any special access to content – it's just a familiar term to signify that they're paying us for our work, even though they don't have to.]
As any business owner or nonprofit leader can attest, it’s not much fun to ask for support for something you believe in passionately, only to be met with rejection – even when that rejection is the silence of an un-returned phone call or email. And that makes me especially grateful for the organizations and individuals who’ve supported us over the past two years, who’ve believed in what we’re doing and are willing to put some skin in the game by sending some of their money our way. This is no small thing, and it’s not something we take for granted.
In writing The Chronicle’s monthly milestone in March 2010, Dave laid out a philosophy of “selling journalism” that serves to guide our thinking as we talk to potential supporters. More recently, Mary Kramer – publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business – wrote a generous column about why she sent us a check, but says she’s got some doubt about whether our business model will keep us afloat in the long-term.
It’s a fair doubt to have, especially as we look at our own ambitions – two years has taken us a long way, but we have much farther to go. Earlier this year, we took another step in the right direction when Jennifer Coffman started regularly chronicling meetings of the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education – a crucial addition, especially with the recent news that the district will be hiring a new superintendent. We’d like to build on our reporting of public bodies, adding to our regular coverage of Ann Arbor city council, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Ann Arbor District Library board, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board, Downtown Development Authority board, University of Michigan board of regents, and Ann Arbor’s planning commission, park advisory commission, greenbelt advisory commission, public art commission and – what have I left out? It’s a pretty long list, but there’s still much that we don’t have the resources to cover.
And though our bread-and-butter is civic affairs, The Chronicle’s regular columnists and freelancers are like our rich dessert – both nourishing and tasty. I look forward to reading Joel Goldberg’s columns on wine, Laura Bien on local history, Domenica Trevor on books, Marianne Rzepka on gardening, John U. Bacon on sports (or Hemingway), and Jo Mathis on whatever strikes her fancy! Alan Glenn’s historical reports on local events and personalities of the 1960s and ’70s are fascinating reads. Judy McGovern has brought her intelligence and experience to bear on a wide range of complex topics, most recently an update on what was originally thought to be a local hate crime.
And, of course, there’s the gift of the inscrutable Bezonki, conjured up each month by Alvey Jones.
Will this community continue to support these efforts, and will we find additional support to match our ambitions for The Chronicle? For readers who want to make an initial subscription or to renew one they’ve made earlier, here’s the subscription link. I don’t take anything for granted, but I do take satisfaction in what we’ve accomplished in two years.
And I’m hopeful that no matter how many years we have ahead of us, we’ll be adding to a historical record that – with the Ann Arbor District Library’s help – will be available to the community for generations to come. That’s about the best anniversary gift I could ask for.
About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.