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.
I’d like to begin this month’s milestone column by sharing some good news about one of The Chronicle’s writers – Jennifer Coffman, who covers the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education for us. Last week she gave birth to a baby girl: Eleanor Olivia Coffman. So she’s on a break from The Chronicle for a while.
Until Coffman returns, Eric Anderson will be providing The Chronicle’s AAPS board coverage. Eric grew up in Ann Arbor and is a graduate of Hope College. His experience includes work as a reporter at the Hillsdale Daily News and an editorial intern at the Washington Post Express. He’s planning to attend graduate school later this year.
Coverage of the AAPS board has become part of the meat-and-potatoes reporting provided by The Chronicle, along with reports on the Ann Arbor city council, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners and many other public bodies.
But not everything published in The Chronicle is meat and potatoes. I think it’s a relatively small portion of our overall corpus, but some of our material is probably more like a Twinkie than a piece of meat.
Many of the Stopped.Watched. items, for example, might be analyzed as more like Twinkies than a T-bone steak. Which, I think, is fine – for Twinkies, like T-bones, are also food. I wouldn’t want to make a meal out of Twinkies, though.
The Ann Arbor Active Against ALS Twinkie Run, which took place on April 1, serves as a nice analogy to the way we think of The Chronicle material that’s more like Twinkies.
On Friday evening in Gallup Park, the 271 runners who competed in the 5K race were presented with a choice on each of two laps through the park: (1) Take the time to eat a Twinkie and earn a 1-minute deduction to their finish time, or (2) Just keep running and take the straight-up meat-and-potatoes time. The annual run was observed last year as a Stopped.Watched. item.
The one-minute time deduction sounds attractive enough – what runner wouldn’t take advantage of a cheap way to achieve a new PR? Here’s the wrinkle: The one-minute deduction could only be earned by taking a Twinkie, standing in place and swallowing the whole thing down. This rule was enforced by a guy with a megaphone, who scolded any Twinkie-eating scofflaws by warning them: “You have to eat it all gone! Eat it all gone! Swallow it down!”
Runners complied with the megaphone-guy’s direction – partly, I think, because he had a megaphone. Compliance could have also been enhanced by the guy himself – Ron Olson, former head of parks and recreation and associate city administrator for the city of Ann Arbor. He filled in as interim city administrator after Neil Berlin’s departure and before Roger Fraser was hired. Now he’s head of the parks and recreation division for the State of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. A park on the north side of town is named after Olson.
Olson good-naturedly badgered runners to take the Twinkie choice: “You can be part-time all your life. Don’t be part-time! Don’t be a weenie! We’re going to remember you as a wimp! C’mon, you’re doing the Twinkie Run and you’re not eating a Twinkie?!”
As fun it might be to eat a Twinkie in the middle of a 5K race, if you really care about your finish time, you’ll weigh that choice carefully. Twinkie-eating means you’re standing in one place – and ultimately you’ve got to get to the finish line. If you can’t down a Twinkie in less than a minute – the value of the time deduction – your Twinkie-eating winds up being a penalty.
So when we think about the Twinkie parts of The Chronicle, we try to balance carefully our investment in them against our meat-and-potatoes government and civic affairs coverage.
That balance is not just about subject matter. It’s also about the kinds of efforts that go into publishing The Chronicle’s material online. An entire industry has been built up based on the idea that online publishers should care deeply about site traffic (visitors to their website) and that search engine optimization (getting top search-results rankings) is a worthwhile way to achieve site traffic.
A meat-and-potatoes approach to online publishing is, I think, about cultivating readership – people who visit your website on a routine basis to read what’s there. An artificial, Twinkie approach to online publishing is to cultivate search traffic. The Twinkie approach will lead you to focus, for example, on cramming as many likely search terms into your headlines as possible – because search engines like Google seem to assign more weight to the words that are included in headlines. This ultimately leads to more raw traffic, which is important, if that’s how you measure success.
This Twinkie approach can also lead online publishers to invest time and effort in polls and contests – Internet users do seem to like that kind of thing. If page views and site visits are the metric of success, then those kind of Twinkies are important.
According to the AWstats package that generates statistics for The Chronicle, 9% of visits to the site come from search engines. The rest come from people directly entering a URL in their browser, using a bookmark, or following a link embedded in an email or another website. I’m sure we could increase that percentage, not to mention our overall site traffic, if we employed the services of an search-engine optimization (SEO) marketing firm, or if we simply paid more attention to SEO concepts as we write our articles.
I think it’s fine to care something about SEO concepts or to provide some amount of material that’s less ponderous than a 10,000-word city council meeting report – in the same way I think it’s fine to enjoy a Twinkie every once in a while. (Although I know there’s at least one Eberwhite Elementary School student who might disagree.)
On that note, by next April 1 I hope that I’ve sufficiently balanced out the meat-and-potatoes of my work on The Chronicle that I have the time to compete in the Twinkie Run, instead of just taking pictures. Here’s a sampling of what I shot Friday evening:
About the writer: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.