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. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider making a voluntary subscription to support our work.
It’s election day, so I’ll start this monthly milestone – our 26th, for those keeping score – by badgering you to tell your family, friends and neighbors to go vote. (As a Chronicle reader, you will need no reminder yourself, of course.)
Frankly, I’ll be glad to bid farewell to Election 2010. Regular Chronicle readers know that while we’re huge fans of good governance and the democratic process, our patience is pretty thin for typical horse-race coverage of elections – complete with endorsements and accusations trotted forth by candidates, which mainstream media then use to whip themselves into a breathless, panting herd.
I’ll also be glad to have elections behind us because the month leading up to Nov. 2 has been especially taxing for The Chronicle – in good ways. But I’m looking forward to a return to our baseline level of overwork. One reason for the extra effort relates to preparation for the first candidate forum ever hosted by The Chronicle. Held on Oct. 21 at Wines Elementary for Ward 5 city council candidates, the event took a nontraditional approach. Chronicle editor Dave Askins described our thinking behind the forum’s task-based format in a recent column. You can read about the forum itself in a separate report. And if you want to review The Chronicle’s election coverage, you can find a list of election-related articles here.
Another reason that the month was busier than usual relates to an out-of-state trip I made to The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was a visiting faculty member there at a workshop for nontraditional journalists. In this month’s column, I’d like to focus on the Poynter visit, with some observations about The Chronicle’s work, plus a national perspective based on remarks by George Packer of The New Yorker, who also spoke at Poynter.
What Is the Poynter Institute?
The Poynter Institute is a nonprofit founded in the mid-1970s by Nelson Poynter, who was owner of the St. Petersburg Times. His intent in founding the institute was twofold: 1) to start a training center that promoted journalistic excellence; and 2) to protect his newspaper from the threat of non-local ownership, particularly by Wall Street-owned corporations. (The institute holds controlling interest in the Times.)
Poynter died in 1978, but he would no doubt have been keen to observe the media “experiment” that’s been using Ann Arbor as a petri dish for a bit more than a year now. In 2009, the East Coast owners of The Ann Arbor News decided that closing the daily newspaper here – and launching a new, mostly online publication – was their best business option.
Why Does Poynter Care About Ann Arbor, or The Chronicle?
We launched The Chronicle in September 2008, about six months prior to the announcement that The News would be closed. The closing of The News brought national attention to Ann Arbor, and to our own publication. In fact, the changes in our media market drew Poynter’s Kelly McBride to Ann Arbor last year, as part of the institute’s Sense-Making project. The project – funded in part by the Ford Foundation – is researching and supporting work in the “Fifth Estate,” a term used to broadly describe nontraditional, new media ventures that are linked to digital technology. Kelly led a workshop in Ann Arbor a year ago, as well as a public forum that I attended on the changing media landscape in this town.
When Kelly contacted me earlier this year and extended an invitation to speak at Poynter’s October workshop for nontraditional journalists, I was excited to have the opportunity. I was honored because Poynter exemplifies the kind of work we’re trying to do: The institute describes itself as “dedicated to serving journalism in the interest of democracy.” I also knew that a lot was being asked of me. I’d attended a week-long seminar at Poynter several years ago, when I was business editor at The Ann Arbor News. Their workshops are an intense experience, and expectations from participants and faculty are high.
Kelly specifically asked me to share at Poynter The Chronicle’s experience in becoming a viable business venture. In preparing my talk and reviewing our efforts to raise revenue through advertising and voluntary subscriptions, I realized again how far we’ve come and how grateful I am to those who’ve supported us. I also understand very clearly how much work we have ahead to sustain The Chronicle. Sustainability will require evolving from a small operation that’s crucially dependent on its two principals – me and Chronicle editor Dave Askins – to a more robust enterprise that, we hope, will continue to thrive long after Dave and I are gone.
The 30 or so workshop participants were geographically diverse, coming from all across the country as well as from Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador. The group included several journalists who’d worked for mainstream media, just as I have. But many participants didn’t have training or experience in traditional newsrooms. Almost all were interested in starting their own ventures, or, in several cases, had already launched some kind of online publication or blog.
I learned a lot from the participants themselves – from their own experiences, observations and thoughtful questions – as well as from other visiting faculty. Shawn Williams, founder and publisher of Dallas South News, shared the remarkable story of building his online local news site, which just recently received its 501(c)3 nonprofit status. And Mayhill Fowler, who gained fame as a blogger for The Huffington Post, described how she broke news on the Obama campaign trail in 2008, despite obstacles encountered because she wasn’t running with the mainstream media pack. She’s gutsy.
I wasn’t able to stay for the entire week – work at The Chronicle beckoned me home – but the time I did spend at Poynter was, as I’d hoped, energizing and inspiring. In particular, a thought-provoking talk by George Packer, who writes for The New Yorker, caused me to reflect on The Chronicle’s own goals, and how those fit into what’s happening at the national level.
Some Thoughts from The New Yorker’s George Packer
Even before hearing Packer speak, I knew we shared at least two areas of common ground: A formative experience in the Peace Corps (his in Togo, mine in the Central African Republic), and a commitment to long-form journalism.
The author of several books and a play, Packer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2003, and his articles regularly surpass the 10,000-word mark. In that context, The Chronicle’s 5,000-word pieces – which some readers find exhausting – seem like picture books.
He noted that The New Yorker is “pretty healthy” as a publication, in terms of revenue and circulation. (As an aside, the magazine is owned by Condé Nast, the higher-profile branch of a media conglomerate that includes the former Ann Arbor News and its newer iteration, AnnArbor.com.) Yet long-form journalism is not enjoying similar good health, Packer said. Every economic and technical trend is moving in the opposite direction, he observed. “It’s a battle, but I do continue to believe it’s an important form.”
Packer also spoke about the importance of news-gathering at the local level. As he’s traveled the country to report on stories for The New Yorker, he’s noticed a void where local news should be. People are less likely to experience their community through the lens of local reporting – instead, they get their news (and talking points) from national media. That has the effect of homogenizing the country, he contends, saying that “the thing that defines a community is its newspaper, or source of news.”
In fact, the decline of news sources was one of three factors Packer cited as contributing to the country’s overall decline. The other two, which you could argue are related, are political polarization and economic inequality. When people can’t even agree on a common set of facts, he said, that reflects an ailing society and an ailing democracy.
His comments resonated with me. The Chronicle’s obstinate commitment to in-depth, fact-based contextual reporting flies in the face of media trends, but is a commitment I believe is crucial to the health of our nation’s democracy. Without a reliable source for information about our local government – its actions, and the facts upon which those actions are based – we have no hope of having an informed citizenry, capable of intelligently interacting with our elected and appointed leaders from a position of strength.
I’ll share one more observation from Packer’s work that struck home. At one point he described some research he’d done for an article on the U.S. Senate. It’s a fascinating – though in many ways disturbing – look at how work gets done in Washington, as this very brief excerpt reveals:
The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat. “The memory I took with me was: ‘Wow, that’s unusual – there’s a conversation occurring in which they’re making point and counterpoint and challenging each other.’ And yet nobody else was in the chamber.”
I don’t know if influence on legislative behavior trickles up or down, but I’d say the Ann Arbor city council is more akin to this disheartening description of the Senate than it should be. While there are certainly words being spoken during the council meetings, it would be overly generous to describe their interactions as “deliberations.” Deliberations might occur, but generally not during their public meetings.
In contrast, meetings of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners often do include the kind of genuine discussion that I would expect from a legislative body. Of course there are all sorts of behind-the-scenes machinations, too – that’s to be expected. The difference is that commissioners, for the most part, are willing to respond to each other, to disagree and attempt to persuade, and to sort out at least some of that work in full view of the public. Even at their most awkward, those kind of meetings give you a much better sense of what public officials believe, and that’s a good thing.
The Chronicle’s work is very much grounded in the public meetings that we cover. We try to capture deliberations, when they happen, as best we can. One highlight of the Poynter workshop was some feedback about our tagline – “It’s like being there” – which one participant described as genius. I wouldn’t call it genius, but I would say it’s an accurate reflection of our intent, for better or worse.
I liked having some time away from Ann Arbor, but I like being here even more, doing the work of The Chronicle – even on election day.
About the writer: Mary Morgan is co-founder and publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.