Monthly Milestone: In Defense of Detail

"[They] are entitled to something better than such trivialities."

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.

A piece of string too short to use

A piece of string too short to use

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.
HD: Absolutely!
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

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.

Lamb stood his ground in that AAiO thread, even taking advantage of some snark about his dog to advocate for the protection of the seven houses.

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.


  1. By cmadler
    May 2, 2011 at 9:54 am | permalink

    Mr. Simpson: Well I have this large quantity of string, a hundred and twenty-two thousand *miles* of it to be exact, which I inherited, and I thought if I advertised it–
    Adrian Wapcaplet: Of course! A national campaign. Useful stuff, string, no trouble there.
    S: Ah, but there’s a snag, you see. Due to bad planning, the hundred and twenty-two thousand miles is in three inch lengths. So it’s not very useful.
    W: Well, that’s our selling point! “SIMPSON’S INDIVIDUAL STRINGETTES!”
    S: What?
    S: For what?

  2. May 2, 2011 at 10:22 am | permalink

    The angel is in the details.

    Please keep stringing us along.

  3. By abc
    May 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm | permalink

    “Pieces of String Too Short to Use.”

    the perfect counter to

    “Enough rope to hang yourself”

  4. By Marvin Face
    May 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm | permalink

    @ Vivienne: You’re getting close. Closer than most, as a matter of fact. The exact quote by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is “God is in the detail”. This has been co-opted by Godless people and twisted into “the devil is in the details” which has never made any sense to me.

  5. May 2, 2011 at 11:09 pm | permalink

    I love the Washtenaw Voice, great newspaper.

  6. By Rod Johnson
    May 5, 2011 at 11:39 am | permalink

    “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail.”
    –Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880)

    Mies might have said it, but he didn’t own it.

  7. By abc
    May 6, 2011 at 12:55 pm | permalink

    In what context did Flaubert offer up that nugget?

    Oh and architects never reveal their inspirations.

  8. By Rod Johnson
    May 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm | permalink

    Not sure, it’s in the Pensées, which is I think just a collection of stuff he said in one context or another. But my guess is that it’s a battle cry for realism, of which he was one of the primary French exponents. He was a very exacting writer, always looking for the details that would make his scenes as undeniably real to the reader as possible, and also le mot juste (also his expression, by the way).

  9. By Rod Johnson
    May 7, 2011 at 1:06 pm | permalink

    By the way, “the devil is in the details” makes perfect sense to me. It’s about how hard it is to try to get the details right. Things seem easy in the imagination, and then you try to actually do them and it turns out it’s not so. “The devil” is a metaphorical expression of that, n’est-ce pas?

  10. May 7, 2011 at 1:44 pm | permalink

    I should note that Hume was featured in two essays on different subjects I read recently. Okay, maybe not pertinent, but thought I’d better throw in something literary.

    I was making a little joke, saying “the angel is in the details” as a reference to the commonly heard devil version. It was meant as a compliment to Dave’s persistence at retaining these. I have noticed a trend recently in his essays (usually a column) of weaving many little bits into a coherent whole, which is what this milestone was about. I find this sort of fully fleshed rumination very satisfying and often enlightening. One outstanding example was tying the geological report from a former AADL board member in with the story on the library lot sinkhole and the Valiant proposal. It had been a report from months earlier which then became relevant and also cast a light from a different angle on the whole mess.

  11. By Marvin Face
    May 7, 2011 at 6:26 pm | permalink

    Rod, I recognize “God is in the detail” much more in alignment with Mies. The idea that one could be lazy and detail something as expected and to the general conventions and one could look at it and see nothing interesting let alone spectacular. When the effort is put into doing something different or something new and one pours a great deal of equity into the work, one looks at the finished product and sees the reflection of God.

    This is exactly the sentiment that I believe Vivienne was trying to convey in the angel comment.

    Devil? Meh.

  12. By Rod Johnson
    May 7, 2011 at 10:18 pm | permalink

    I think that was Flaubert’s meaning too. I’m just sayin’, as the kids say.