Today, The Ann Arbor Chronicle celebrates the four-year anniversary of its launch.
Judged against the developmental milestones of human four-year-olds, The Chronicle can now be expected to command a vocabulary of at least 1,500 words, express itself in relatively complex sentences, use words that relate one idea to another, and express number and space concepts.
Over the last couple of weeks, as University of Michigan students have streamed into Ann Arbor for the start of the fall semester, I’ve wondered what this four-year-old kid called The Chronicle will be doing when it reaches college age.
And should I perhaps be thinking about starting a college fund?
Funding for The Chronicle is, of course, one theme we typically highlight in these Monthly Milestone columns – as a reminder that part of our funding comes from voluntary subscription dollars contributed by readers.
That’s a reminder to some readers to translate a good intention into action. And it’s a hearty thank you to those who already send in regular contributions in the form of a voluntary subscription.
This month, I’m putting The Chronicle’s funding in the context of a public art millage that the city council has placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.
But to start off, I’ve tallied up some summary statistics on the items published in the first four years.
Some Publication Stats
As of a week ago, the total number of items published in The Chronicle was 10,404. That includes 711 full-length reports of public meetings in the Meeting Watch section. It also includes 1,253 briefs, mostly filed directly from public meetings, published in our Civic News Ticker section. We’ve published 411 opinion pieces, a figure that includes those of our regular columnists.
And according to the little word-counting widget that Ross Johnson of 3.7 Designs installed on The Chronicle’s website, all of those different articles add up to 6,207,171 words.
That grand total also includes 3,498 Stopped.Watched. items – short observations contributed by “correspondents” as they go about their ordinary lives. Based on those items, an out-of-town reader might conclude that Liberty Street is where most of the action is – because 741 of the Stopped.Watched. items involve that corridor. A bit more geographic diversity would probably be a worthy goal for those items.
For any readers who are intimidated by the word “correspondent,” filing a Stopped.Watched. item is really as simple as sending an email (email@example.com), a text (734.645.2633), or an @replied Twittered message (@a2chronicle).
How Small Numbers Matter
To support publication of all those items, The Chronicle relies on advertising revenue as well as voluntary subscriptions.
In Ann Arbor’s local news market, a large number of relatively small contributions could add up to a sizable operating budget for a local publication. To see how this is at least feasible, consider that the city council voted on Aug. 20 to put a public art millage on the Nov. 6 ballot – to test whether Ann Arborites are willing to be taxed at a rate of 0.1 mills to support art in public places.
A rate of 0.1 mills works out to an average of something like $10 a year for the owner of a $200,000 home. The public art millage will likely face little organized opposition – partly because it’s hard to imagine that a large number of people would be willing to contribute even $50 to an anti-millage campaign. That amount is just a bit more than the average property owner would pay over the course of the four-year millage.
But the public art millage is estimated to generate around $450,000 annually. So small amounts do add up.
Worth noting, however: The Chronicle doesn’t have the power to levy taxes.
So we’re especially indebted to readers who voluntarily subscribe. When The Chronicle launched, these voluntary subscriptions were not part of the business plan. We implemented the voluntary subscription program in response to readers who asked us specifically to give them a way to support this enterprise financially.
Some readers do not have the economic means to write a check for $480 a year, $240 a year, $120 a year, or even $12 a year without weighing that carefully against other vital needs. So it’s gratifying when The Chronicle survives their balance test.
It’s the subscription dollars of that kind of reader we have in mind when we weigh what to spend The Chronicle’s money and time on. And that’s partly why we have a commitment to focusing the vast bulk of our time and resources on reporting, researching, editing and writing local news. We estimate that less than 10% of The Chronicle’s effort is allocated specifically to revenue generation – things like ad sales, voluntary subscription pitches, marketing and promotion.
Surely some effort at revenue generation is justified – because readers can’t be expected to intuit our desire that they send in a voluntary subscription. Indeed, when I voluntarily contribute to an enterprise I think deserves my support, I’d like to see that organization make a basic effort to broaden its financial support. These milestone columns serve part of that function. Also a part of that effort was the postcard mailing we sent out a few months ago – samples of which are shown in the photo included in this column.
Even the small percentage of our effort that we invest in revenue generation might strike some readers as too much. But it’s almost trivial compared to other media organizations – which can allocate as much as 50% of their staff to advertising positions. Certainly a sales staff that size might be necessary, if the product that’s being sold is itself primarily a marketing platform, not the actual “thing of value” that is supposed to be holding up that platform.
Our pitch to voluntary subscribers is not “You can express your opinions to thousands of other people in the comment section!” And likewise, our pitch to advertisers is not, “You can use the marketing power of The Chronicle’s media platform to sell more widgets than you ever dreamed possible!”
Instead, the pitch to both kinds of financial supporters is basically the same: The Chronicle’s coverage of local civic and government affairs makes Ann Arbor a better place – to live and to do business.
With The Chronicle’s four-year anniversary today, it’s become clear that this approach to funding local news coverage can work – for at least a while. But it currently depends in large part on two people (its publisher, Mary Morgan, and editor, me) putting virtually every waking moment into the effort.
So if it’s going to work for a long, long while, we’ll need to convince the community to increase its financial support of the enterprise.
For today, however, in celebration of our four-year anniversary, I will focus on doing some of those things that other four-year-olds can also do: turn somersaults, gallop, catch and throw, bounce a ball …
… and hop on one foot.
The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 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.