Monthly Milestone: Snowfall of Information

How to measure a snowstorm – or a Chronicle report

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.

Yardstick measuring Feb. 2, 2011 snowfall in Ann Arbor

Despite dire forecasts, snowfall amounts by Wednesday morning were closer to five inches than 13 inches. But some of the words in this article were written before the snowstorm ended. And as this photo shows, it was not hard to find some deeper drifts. (Photo by the writer.)

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.

Less often than I would like, I use a membership-funded co-working space on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor called The Workantile Exchange to write and edit the material in this publication.

But even when I do work there, I am not all that productive, if productivity is measured by the number of words I type. Of course, I do type some words there. Some of these very words you are reading right now were typed at the Workantile. But number-of-words-typed is not how I measure the Workantile’s value to me.

So how do I assess the value of what I accomplish there?

It’s like describing the result of a snowstorm.

One approach to assessing the effect of a snowstorm would be to stay inside all night as the snow accumulates, head out when the snow stops, jam a yardstick into a drift and announce: It snowed 13 inches! After the storm, anyone could take that external measurement and give that report.

A different approach to assessing a snowstorm would be to lie down on the ground outside in the middle of the storm and experience each flake as it alights on top of you, one on the end of your nose, one on the end of your toes, until the snow stops falling, and then – assuming you have not frozen to death in the meantime – report: I gradually became covered with a blanket of snow; the first flakes were downy and fell lazily onto my eyelashes, while later in the storm, they were fine and stung my cheeks when they landed, whipped by the wind!

If you weren’t lying on the ground outside during the snowstorm, you couldn’t have measured it that way.

Even if that would be a dumb way to measure snowfall – and to be clear, I think it would be – it’s a perfectly sensible approach to measuring the value of my exposure to the expertise stored in the snow cloud of the Workantile membership.

For example, yesterday I found a window table where I could work – right behind the new poster that reads “Now Accepting New Members” – and began updating the description of the various RSS feeds available for The Chronicle.

Soon I spotted a newish Workantile member who’s an accountant here in town, and I waved him over. I filled him in on the city council’s first budget work session of the season that had taken place the night before. I was keen to get his take on the city CFO’s explanation of how budget reduction targets work. When the city sets a reduction target of 2.5% for every department, that doesn’t mean that a department’s budget next year will be 2.5% less than this year. Instead, what the city does is consider a department’s programs and activities this year, project the cost of those same unmodified activities for next year, and then ask a department to reduce that projected cost by 2.5%.

So a department’s budget could increase, even while it meets a 2.5% reduction target.

The oversimplified example we talked through was this: Say a department has a $100 budget for electricity this year; if electricity costs are projected to increase such that the same kilowattage you get for $100 this year will cost $105 next year, then the department’s 2.5% reduction target could be met by setting its electricity use to $102 next year. The budget increases by $2, but the department has met its reduction target.

A department might achieve that electricity savings, for example, by making sure that next year workers have their computers configured to go into sleep mode after five minutes of inactivity, instead of after an hour.

By talking this through with a local accountant, who was accessible to me via the Workantile, I got a deeper understanding of these budgetary concepts. And I think that deeper understanding will serve me well as I write about that budget work session.

The Workantile membership includes a range of independent workers – from novelists and attorneys to filmmakers and computer programmers. They are generally a cordial, friendly, and talented bunch of people. And on occasion I’ve taken advantage of their talents and expertise in the same way that I did with the accountant.

So the value of my time spent at The Workantile is not measured by asking: How many words did you write? How deep was the snow in that spot over there? It’s measured by the increased depth of understanding in various subjects that I can achieve, by letting the expertise of other members accumulate until it covers me from head to toe.

At The Chronicle, we treat news sources in a way that’s similar to how I tap Workantile members’ knowledge and experience. We encounter our news sources in person quite frequently at the public meetings where they’re supposed to do their work. And our reportage is oriented primarily to what these news sources say and do during these public meetings – because we believe that’s where the public’s work should be done, and if elected officials know that people are paying attention, they might conduct more of their deliberations at these public venues. Most often when we talk to or email a source outside a public meeting, we are not looking for a quote or an official statement. We are looking for a conversation that puts us in a better position to understand our subject matter.

That’s why a Chronicle article is not a vehicle for conveying to readers a set of quotes and official statements from sources collected outside the context of public meetings. That’s like trying to characterize the essence of what a snowstorm was like by reporting that, after it was over, when you jammed a yardstick in one of the drifts, it measured 13 inches.

Instead, a typical Chronicle article about a public meeting strives to convey all the layers in the accumulation of the meeting’s discussion. It’s like reporting on a snowstorm by lying down outside during the storm and letting the snow blanket you. Yes, it might seem a little crazy, not to mention a little cold.

But if you invest in that effort, you’re in a perfect place to make a snow angel.

About the writer: Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.


  1. February 2, 2011 at 11:25 am | permalink

    But how do you MONETIZE your SEARCH ENGINE REVENUE STREAM, then? You can’t really market, unless you get some consultants and use the right adwords!

    What kind of “journalism” is this, if all you have is words about things you understand?

    Not seeing the value add for your investors, folks.

    [the preceding includes a number of jokes and thankful appreciations to you all]

  2. February 2, 2011 at 1:11 pm | permalink

    I wonder how many local merchants provide those free yardsticks now?

  3. By jcp2
    February 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm | permalink

    They never were “free”. The costs were built into prices of other things.

  4. By Leah Gunn
    February 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm | permalink

    Who needs a yardstick when you can have a measuring app on your smart phone??? :-)

  5. February 2, 2011 at 3:50 pm | permalink

    Re: [4] and the idea that the promotional yardsticks were not free.

    That particular yardstick has more history than is revealed in that photo. I wrote about it a couple of years ago in a note on the Teeter Talk website, and included some photos of the whole yard stick:

    Kurt Vonnegut is just one more guy I never rode the teeter totter with. But my father-in-law attended Shortridge High School in Indianapolis at the same time as Kurt Vonnegut. And somewhere over the years, a promotional yardstick from the Vonnegut family hardware store accumulated to the set of my wife’s possessions. When I saw the yardstick, the first thing that came to mind was, Mmmmm, you could get about three toy teeter totters outta that … and it’s already measured for you! But I could imagine people arguing about who got the totter with ‘Vonnegut’ printed on it. So I left it intact.

  6. By Sabra Briere
    February 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm | permalink

    Vonnegut Hardware was a landmark for me in India-no-place. I liked the name before I heard about Kurt, liked it more afterward. Lucky to have a memory like that!