Our monthly milestone message, written by either the editor or the publisher, is an occasion to touch base with readers – to bring folks up to date on any new developments with The Chronicle and to engage in a bit of self-reflection as a publication.
Self-reflection once a month is healthy. But self-reflection that persists for a whole month – which has been a natural consequence of the continuing community conversation about the closing of The Ann Arbor News so that AnnArbor.com could be launched – threatens to become a distraction.
Yet here we are at a monthly milestone – a fitting and proper time to reflect on significant questions like: Where does The Ann Arbor Chronicle fit in a media landscape without The Ann Arbor News? In last month’s Tenth Monthly Milestone Message, Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan analyzed that media landscape in terms of pie. As in: Is there enough pie to go around? How big is the media pie?
But given a choice between pie and cake, I prefer cake. In particular, I prefer chocolate cake with white icing – those are more or less traditional newspaper colors, now that I think about it.
But I’ll eat a piece of pie, if there’s not a piece of cake to be had.
As far as media choices go, residents of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County these days don’t have a choice just between pie and cake – Mary Morgan lists out various media alternatives in last month’s milestone. And as it turns out, the 8,061 residents of Washtenaw County in 1882 had a few choices as well.
In 1882 as now, Washtenaw County’s media choices were more like a whole dessert tray. The publications listed in that year for Ann Arbor in the 14th edition of the American Newspaper Directory published by Geo. P. Rowell & Co. numbered eight, not counting the Physician and Surgeon. [It's worth noting that I do not own a copy of that newspaper directory and had no prior awareness of its existence, but a co-worker of mine from the Workantile Exchange, Barbara Tozier, gave me a heads up and lent it to me.]
NEWS; every evening except Sunday; four pages; size 21×28; established 1881; F. W. Dyar, editor and publisher; circulation J J [some reason to believe it's better than "not exceeding 1,000" but not better than "exceeding 1,000"].
ARGUS; Fridays; democratic; four pages; size 26×40; subscription $1 50; established 1845; John N. Bailey, editor and publisher; circulation J [not exceeding 1,000].
COURIER; Fridays; republican; four pages; size 28×41; subscription $2; established 1861; R.A. Beal, editor and publisher; circulation I [not exceeding 2,000].
DEMOCRAT; Thursdays; democratic; four pages; size 26×40; subscription $1 50; established 1878; John L. Burleigh, editor and publisher, circulation J [not exceeding 1,000].
DIE WASHTENAW POST; Fridays; German; four pages; size 30×45; subscription $2; established 1879; Louis J. Liesemer, editor and publisher.
REGISTER; Wednesdays: republican; four pages; size 23×32; subscription 65 cents; established 1874; Ann Arbor Printing and Publishing Co., editors and publishers; circulation I 1 [exceeding 2,000].
CHRONICLE; bi-weekly; twenty-four pages; size of page 8×11; subscription $2; established 1868; Students of the University of Michigan, editors and publishers; circulation J [not exceeding 1,000]; a college paper; issued during the collegiate year.
UNIVERSITY; semi-monthly; twenty-four pages; size of page 8×11; subscription $1 50; established 1879; Students of the Professional Departments of Michigan University, editors and publishers; circulation K [not exceeding 500]; a college paper issued during the collegiate year.
The circulation figures reflect a fairly competitive market. While the Register enjoyed the widest circulation, it does not seem the case that it dominated the local newspaper market in the same way that The Ann Arbor News has for the last several decades. So back in 1872, it seems unlikely that there was a notion of “the local paper.” It also seems unlikely that residents subscribed to only one of the papers. More likely, based on the population and the circulation figures, one household might have subscribed to multiple local Ann Arbor papers.
That kind of market condition could be described critically as “fractured” – no one single newspaper provided everything that every reader wanted. Alternately, from a publisher’s point of view, that market could be described as “ripe for specialization.” In that kind of market, every publication could identify those things it could offer to readers that no other publication would provide – either at all or as well. And there would be a reward for that specialization – by some segment of the population, not necessarily the “mass market” – for any publication willing to take the risk of offering something specialized.
What’s The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s specialty?
What we specialize in is description – because if you do description well, you have a shot at eventually offering analysis and explanation. There’s a limit to how far the food analogy can be pushed, but for the purposes of this milestone column, I’ll call our descriptive specialty “potatoes.”
Description is basic, providing a foundation for analysis and explanation – just like potatoes are basic, providing a carbohydrate flame in which fat and protein can burn.
Neither description nor potatoes are sexy. Or spicy. In this we differ from the 1872 Ann Arbor Daily News, which described itself as the “brightest, spiciest, newsiest aspirant for public favor in Michigan.”
Most people like potatoes, but they don’t want to go over to a potato patch and dig them up in order to make some french fries: Chronicle readers don’t want to have to attend or watch meetings of public bodies on TV or go any of the other places we go in order to provide readers with a descriptive account.
Harvesting potatoes takes some effort and you’re going to get your hands dirty. It goes much easier if you know what a potato plant looks like so that you can tell it from random weeds. The same principle applies when a reporter shows up somewhere to record notes on some happening or other.
Another way The Ann Arbor Chronicle is comparable to potatoes is that we are now relatively small – as in “small potatoes.” Small potatoes can sometimes be disappointing. For example, I harvested my potatoes yesterday from my Project Grow plot, and they were smaller than I was hoping for, based on last year’s experience. It was, quite frankly, a bit of a let-down. I think the relatively cool summer had something to do with that. Perhaps also a lack of attention to weeding.
In any case, if what you want is smaller potatoes – because you’re not planning to bake them and slather them with sour cream, butter, cheese, and bacon – then a reduced harvest need not be disappointing.
Mind you, I was trying to grow bigger potatoes than I got this year, so I was disappointed.
We’ve grown a somewhat bigger Chronicle potato over the last 11 months than we had at the beginning. It’s heartening that while we’re still small potatoes, we’re large enough that some of the national media covering the story of the death of The Ann Arbor News have taken time to talk to us about our experience.
Still, we’ll be a little disappointed if we aren’t able to grow that Chronicle potato a little bit more in the next 11 months.