Monthly Milestone: Institutional Memory

Marijuana, clocks, snow ... and spring!

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.

We no longer number the monthly milestones here at The Chronicle. If we did, this one for March 2011 would be number 30. Parents with young children can probably peg 30 months to 2.5 years without even doing the math. Two and a half years does not seem like a terribly long time for a publication to stay in business – especially compared to the nearly 175-year run of The Ann Arbor News. The announcement of that paper’s closure came two years ago – on March 23, 2009. Coming as it did late in the month, the grim news did not figure in The Chronicle’s March 2009 monthly milestone.

Instead, publisher Mary Morgan filled the column that month with mostly lighter fare, including a mention about the addition of the Skyclock widget to the right sidebar of this website – scroll down to the bottom under the advertisements. Now, exactly two years later, Skyclock has again earned a spot in the milestone column – which this month is a quick tour of twilight, marijuana, and snow.

Skyclock is an application that displays daytime, nighttime and twilight on a clock face. I like to look at it in the 24-hour mode. It was developed by Ann Arbor local John Rosevear.

Two years ago, when I met Rosevear at the Northside Grill and made arrangements to include the Skyclock widget on The Chronicle’s website, I did not know that Rosevear was also the author of the 1960s classic “Pot: A Handbook of Marijuana.” That point was not impressed upon me until David Erik Nelson wrote a piece for The Chronicle last month on the regulation of medical marijuana – Nelson interviewed Rosevear for the column, and mentioned the Handbook. While I had known that Rosevear had an interest in medical marijuana, I did not realize he’d written a definitive work.

If The Chronicle’s institutional memory were longer than it is, then already two years ago we would have recognized Rosevear not just as a guy with twilight timekeeping talents, but also as a source of local expertise in marijuana matters. I’d hope the fact that we didn’t fully appreciate this point had little negative impact on our ability to complete The Chronicle’s mission.

Generally, I think that our institutional memory here at The Chronicle – which is much longer than the short two and a half years we’ve been in publication – is adequate to provide readers with relevant context for the rest of our reporting. That’s true in part because it’s not just our memories we draw upon. Our readers – including many who have lived and worked in this area for decades – provide additional layers of context.

It’s context that you wouldn’t get to read about unless somebody did remember. For example, at their Feb. 22, 2011 meeting, councilmembers lamented the city’s poor snow removal performance after a recent storm, and councilmember Sandi Smith floated the idea of invoking a snow emergency – which essentially would require people to park their cars somewhere else besides on the street. Here’s how we reported the mayor’s response:

Mayor John Hieftje, in subsequent comments, responded to Smith by saying that based on past experience, declaring a snow emergency would entail ticketing hundreds of vehicles, which doesn’t go over well, because many residents don’t have other options for places to park.

What was the mayor talking about? Even though I was barely paying attention to city government at the time, I did remember a controversy years ago about the city council waiving fines that had been assessed during a snow emergency. Searching the online city council minutes for “snow emergency” delivered the result I was looking for, and I was able to add to The Chronicle’s report of that meeting a specific example of the city’s past experience in declaring snow emergencies:

By way of background, on at least one occasion, the city council wound up waiving or reducing fines for tickets handed out during a snow emergency, due to complaints from the community. Related to the snow emergency declared on Dec. 25-26, 2002, the council voted on Jan. 6, 2003 to waive or reduce fines for tickets issued.

So even if institutional memory is faint, it can still be clear enough to tell you what to look for. That is, if you have some idea of what to look for and generally where to look for it, you have a decent shot at finding it. Typing a question into Google’s search box like “What’s the city of Ann Arbor’s experience been with declaring snow emergencies?” would likely not have done the trick.

I’d note in passing that based on The Chronicle’s search term logs – lists of terms that have led Internet users to The Chronicle’s website – some people do expect Google to deliver answers to those kinds of vague searches. Here’s an actual search that resulted in a recent visit to The Chronicle:

was there something going on at the university of michigan last tuesday

Whatever Chronicle page the visitor landed on, I’m pretty sure they were disappointed that their question was not answered.

We’re now in the season when the importance of The Chronicle’s institutional memory for snow-related history is waning. The way I can tell is that when I look at Skyclock, it tells me that daylight plus twilight hours make up way more than 50% of the day.

That means spring will be here soon. No, seriously, it will be.

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