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 subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle to support our work.
Writing on Damn Arbor, a blog maintained by a half-dozen self-described “grad students, townies, and derelicts,” Quinn Davis wondered recently: “So. If a citizen gasps during a city council meeting but no one reads about it, what’s the point?”
Davis posed the rhetorical question in the context of an article she’d written for the Washtenaw Voice, a Washtenaw Community College publication she edits. About that article, her advisor ventured: “I worry that our readership may not be that interested enough to get through 800 words you have so far.”
Here at The Ann Arbor Chronicle, we would also worry about an 800-word article. We’d wonder what happened to the other 5,000 words.
Count that exaggeration as a rhetorical flourish.
In fact, since since June of last year, we’ve routinely published items shorter than 500 words. These items are outcomes of individual public meeting votes and other civic events – they’re collected in a sidebar section we call the Civic News Ticker. Readers can view all those items in one go on the Civic News Ticker page. Readers who prefer to receive The Chronicle using an RSS feed reader can subscribe to just the Civic News Ticker items with this feed: Civic News Ticker Feed.
But back to the rhetorical question: What is the point of ever including details that most people might not ever read, in an article that tops 10,000 words?
Here at the The Chronicle, we depart from A.J. Munson’s advice, written down in his 1899 book “Making a Country Newspaper”:
Trivial items should always be cut out of a correspondent’s report. The news service outlined here is so extensive that only important and valuable news can have space. John Smith may be pleased to read in the paper that he is husking corn, or that he has a sick calf, but those who pay their money for the paper are entitled to something better than such trivialities. ["Making a Country Newspaper," p. 37]
I’m not going to argue that John Smith’s sick calf needs to be part of a community’s permanent historical archive. But it doesn’t take a wild imagination to think up a scenario where the inclusion of the sick calf could wind up being “important and valuable” – say for an epidemiologist who was studying the spread of some disease among cows, like “Mad Cow” disease, and wanted to try to get a geographical fix on where to start looking for “patient zero.” But really now, how likely is that?
It’s not at all likely.
Collecting apparently trivial details of public meetings into an article is actually a bit like hoarding various artifacts in one’s home – left over Christmas wrapping paper, empty mayonaise jars or twistie ties off bread wrappers. Mary Morgan, publisher of The Chronicle, had a great aunt who maintained a neatly labeled box: “Pieces of String Too Short to Use.”
In this month’s column, I’d like to explore just one reason why we collect pieces of string too short to use. On their own, they might be too short, but if you save them, someone might be able to tie together events that would otherwise be forgotten.
Here’s an example from the Teeter Talk website, which in some ways was a pilot project for the kind of detail we include in The Chronicle. Those Talks – which I conduct in the guise of HD (Homeless Dave) – are presented to readers pretty much as they happen, including walnuts falling out of trees, or people wandering past, joining in the conversation. This excerpt is from a March 2008 Talk with Kate Bosher, which included a guy who turned out to be a photographer – he wandered past the West Park band shell during the teeter totter interview.
KB: Well, I would like to ask you a question.
KB: Which it not traceable on the Web, the answer to this, which is, what do you mostly do in between tottering?
HD: What I mostly do in between tottering. You know it’s evolved so that this is the way I spend the majority of my time. Recruiting people to ride, writing up – hey, how’s it going?
Photog: What are you doing?
HD: We are riding a teeter totter, man.
Photog: Can I take a picture?
HD: Absolutely. [to KB] You don’t mind, do you?
KB: Oh, no.
Photog: You’re a traveling movie crew?
HD: Not exactly, but we are documenting it in a very subtle way.
Photog: Am I in the way or something?
HD: No, no you’re fine.
Photog: You’re in the Film Festival? [Ed. note: The 2008 AA Film Festival ran from 25-30 March.]
HD: No, we’re not in the Film Festival. This is actually for an interview website where all the interviews take place on a teeter totter.
Photog: Where do I find that?
HD: Google ‘Ann Arbor teeter totter’ and it should come up.
Photog: Are there pictures?
HD: There’s pictures, lots of pictures.
Photog: Ann Arbor teeter totter.
HD: The URL is homelessdave.com.
I was reminded of that West Park band shell ride a few weeks ago, when an obituary for Jeff Lamb filtered through the Internet. That name stirred an old memory. It’s what made me search the old Teeter Talk interviews for Kate Bosher’s Talk. It continued this way:
Photog: If you Google ‘Jeff Lamb’ on Flickr you’ll see me, or go to ‘Jeff and Leyla’ and you’ll see everything on Ann Arbor.
HD: I’ll do it. Okay. Will do.
Photog: This is pretty amazing. [inaudible]
Lamb posted that photograph of me and Kate on the totter, to his Flickr account.
The brief encounter with Lamb is a piece of string, too short to use. But nevertheless, it’s been stored there in the record of that conversation with Kate Bosher. And it can now be tied to other, longer strands of those who knew him well. They’ll likely recognize, even in that brief thread, a man who seemed to be polite, curious – and at home in West Park.
Readers who are familiar with the history of Ann Arbor Internet writings might also remember Lamb from an old 2008 Ann Arbor is Overrated post, back when the Fifth Avenue residential project now known as Heritage Row was first proposed. Yes, Heritage Row has been around in some form or other that long. Julia Lipman, author of AAiO, served up a blog post by Lamb to her readers about the seven houses on Fifth Avenue that were proposed to be demolished to make way for developer Alex de Parry’s project.
The current iteration of the project, Heritage Row, has been rejected three times by the city council, depending on how you count, but in February, the council offered to waive a portion of the fees if de Parry chooses to resubmit it. De Parry held a citizen participation meeting on March 25, but has not yet taken any further steps in the submittal process.
So back to Quinn’s question: If a citizen gasps at a public meeting, and nobody reads about it, what’s the point of including that short, stubby little piece of string in a report of that meeting?
I think the point is this: Somebody might actually read about it, much later, years from now, and be able to tie that short little piece of string into the fabric of our community life.
Dave Askins is co-founder and editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.