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In this month’s Chronicle milestone column, I’d like to talk about options, and how some recent experiences with transit caused me to reflect on the current somewhat chaotic media landscape.
In my household, a few years ago we made a decision to get rid of our one car. So when I need to go somewhere, a car parked in my driveway is not the go-to option. Instead, I choose to walk, ride my Ruckus, take the bus, use a Zipcar, or on rare occasions, bum a ride from a friend or call a cab.
Generally, I don’t miss having a car. But so far this year, I’ve had occasion to get smacked by our decision not to use our community’s mainstream mode of transportation. At times like those, I fantasize what it would be like if car ownership weren’t the norm in most of America, including Ann Arbor. Surely the options we have would become more second nature to everyone, and there would be sufficient demand to support better service and access. Everyone would develop different expectations, and habits.
By way of analogy to media, the decision about a mainstream mode has already been made for us here in Ann Arbor. The media “car” – the one daily newspaper that most people received because there were no other options – has been pulled off the road. But for some of us, our expectations and habits haven’t fully adapted, and the alternatives can seem confusing, disjointed and unreliable.
I (still) regularly hear complaints that Ann Arbor lacks a “real” newspaper, and I react in two ways. First, I do feel nostalgia for the Ann Arbor News – I spent a good chunk of my life there, after all. I miss a daily local newspaper, too. But what I really miss is the ideal of a daily local newspaper – and that’s something I’m not sure The News, at least in its final years, actually delivered.
In its place is a collection of options for news and information, some better than others. I would expect to see even more in the coming years. The Chronicle is certainly one of those options, but will not satisfy the full range of our community’s information needs. Still, I’d argue that The Chronicle’s focus on local government provides Ann Arbor residents with far better coverage of local government than it’s enjoyed in the nearly two decades I’ve lived in Ann Arbor.
I’d like to circle back to the topic of media options later in the column.
But first, my transit tales.
Two Transit Tales
On Jan. 21, the Washtenaw County board of commissioners held a half-day retreat to talk about their goals for the upcoming year. They decided to hold it at the offices of the county parks & rec department, at County Farm Park near Washtenaw Avenue and Platt. Normally, the county board meets at the administration building boardroom on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor, within walking distance for me. Though theoretically I could walk to County Farm Park, I wasn’t particularly interested in the hour and a half hike it would entail.
That distance is well within range of my scooter, a sturdy red Honda Ruckus. But it had snowed the night before, and despite its beefy tires and off-road vibe, the Ruckus isn’t safe for icy, snow-covered roads.
My next option was the bus. But a quick look online to check the route revealed that bus service didn’t begin early enough on a Saturday to get me there on time. I could take it home – and I did – but getting there wasn’t going to work.
My fourth option was Zipcar. I use this car-sharing service for trips that are generally longer distances than I feel comfortable traveling by scooter, for occasions when the extra time of a round-trip bus ride isn’t feasible, and for periods that are relatively short in duration – a couple of hours, max. It costs about $8 an hour, which I find extremely reasonable for the convenience. But since in this case I’d need the car for about five hours, it seemed too extravagant an expense.
So I turned to my final option – a taxi. Although I called an hour ahead of my pick-up time, it was late and I had to call again – apparently the dispatcher hadn’t sent out the request. The taxi finally arrived about 20 minutes after the time I’d requested. But the driver – an engaging man from Senegal, who advised me that Air Africa has the cheapest fare and a direct flight to Dakar – made an extra effort and I arrived on time. It cost me $13.50 plus tip.
Transit Tales: Something Odd Afoot
The following week, on Jan. 27, I had another encounter with the challenges of cultural expectations for transportation. It was the morning that President Barack Obama spoke at the University of Michigan, an event held at the Al Glick Fieldhouse on South State. His speech began at 9:30 a.m., but the media were told to arrive by 7 a.m., so that our equipment could go through a security check.
It was one of those days when no snow had been forecast, but when I got up there was a light covering. Still, I thought I’d try my Ruckus – only to wipe out at the end of our driveway.
When I called for a taxi, the dispatcher actually laughed – with Obama in town, they were already backlogged. It would be at least an hour, probably more.
And so I walked – I was lucky that this was an option.
The trek from my home to South State takes about 30 minutes. I was cutting it close, but I arrived at the intersection of State and Hoover at around 7 a.m. and thought I’d be fine. As I approached, I saw that the street was closed there for security. The media entrance was only a few yards away, but the officer at the intersection wouldn’t let me through.
Why? Because members of the media were entering from a parking lot at Crisler Arena, southwest of the fieldhouse. None of the communications from the White House or UM had indicated that it was mandatory to drive to the event – it just never occurred to anyone that someone might walk. And security folks don’t like anomalies.
The officer directed me to walk down State Street to Stimson, another 10 minutes at least. (Though the street itself was blocked off, the sidewalk on the east side was open to pedestrians.) There would be a Secret Service agent at State and Stimson, she said, and he would have to be the one to let me through.
As I walked down State Street, it was maddening to see the entrance I needed just across the street. There was another security checkpoint there, with metal detectors, so it seemed unlikely they’d be taking a risk by letting me through to that point. But no.
I eventually found a Secret Service agent, who seemed skeptical that I was with the media. He asked me where I had parked – it seemed to him questionable, if not bizarre, that I had walked. He asked for my media credentials for the event. But of course, it was exactly those credentials that I’d be picking up at the media entrance – the place I needed to go.
Finally, I pulled out a scrap of paper from my back pocket. Before leaving home I’d scrawled down the name and cell phone number of a White House press contact. Incredulously, I watched as a glimmer of recognition crossed the agent’s face – he knew this guy, apparently. And that random, wrinkled paper was my ticket. He allowed two Ann Arbor police officers – polite, professional and aware of the weird situation – to escort me back up State Street to the media entrance. [Here's a link to what happened inside later that morning.]
Transit Tales: Takeaways
I draw several conclusions from these experiences. First, there’s a long way to go before public transit – be it bus or rail – is a viable option, or let’s say a preferable one, for most people. The infrastructure just doesn’t support it. Nor does our culture. The county board retreat was organized by board chair Conan Smith, one of this region’s more vocal advocates for public transportation. I don’t know if it occurred to him to hold the retreat in a location that would be accessible by bus. To make that a priority, it first has to occur to you that someone coming to the retreat would use the bus to arrive there. Despite its reputation, Ann Arbor remains a car-centric city.
Another conclusion relates to privilege. Even though I don’t own a car, I made that decision by choice, not necessity. And I have options that many people do not enjoy. One fundamental option is my ability to live in a place that accommodates my transportation choices. Most of my work – attending public meetings of local government – is within walking distance from my home. That’s because 14 years ago, we could afford to buy a house in this neighborhood. I also can afford the yearly Zipcar membership of $50.
Perhaps more importantly, I have the luxury of being my own boss – though there are many days I wouldn’t describe it that way. That affords me the flexibility of making decisions on how to spend my time. But if I had to travel to a job across town, and had to arrive at a certain time each day or risk getting fired, I’m pretty sure that taking the bus would not be my first choice. Even less so if kids were in the mix.
Even with a lifestyle that’s amenable to the kinds of transit options I’ve chosen, it definitely requires more planning, mindfulness, time and overall effort than stepping out my back door whenever I want, walking 10 feet to a car, getting in and driving away. There are good reasons why many people can’t imagine giving that up.
Transit as a Metaphor
Not so long ago, many people couldn’t imagine giving up their daily newspaper, either. For anyone who grew up with it, getting a physical, printed newspaper dropped on your sidewalk or porch every day was a common ritual and an anchor to the community like nothing else. People might not have lived in the same neighborhood, or worked at the same company, or worshiped at the same church or temple or mosque – but you could be pretty sure they at least skimmed the same newspaper that you did.
It was something taken for granted – until suddenly, it was gone.
Just as I no longer have a “standard” mode of transportation, many people in this community no longer have a standard mode of getting local news, though not by choice. And just as it takes more planning, mindfulness, time and overall effort to deal with an array of transit options, the same is true for managing new options of getting news and information.
If you aren’t accustomed to managing those options, confronting more of them makes life more complex, at least initially. You have to figure out which sources you trust, where you can find certain kinds of information – sports, crime, politics, business, entertainment, etc. – and how you can actually get your hands on it, literally or electronically. And if that’s not how you want to spend your time, it’s annoying. Or if you don’t feel equipped to seek out this information yourself, it’s frustrating. That’s why some people are angry – still, nearly three years after the owners of the Ann Arbor News announced plans to close in 2009.
I’ve felt angry too. But being angry is exhausting and, frankly, futile.
We gave up our car by choice, while this community was forced to give up its daily printed newspaper involuntarily – but in both cases, our reality shifted and habits had to change. I believe that eventually, we’ll emerge from this transitional period into an era of a better informed community.
It might be because technology makes it possible to get information directly from a source, rather than filtered through a third party. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen “news stories” from other publications that mirror, sometimes verbatim, the press releases I’ve received earlier in the day. Press releases – whether they originate from a business, government or nonprofit – certainly shouldn’t be a community’s only source of information. But I’d rather read the original press release than have it rewritten by a “digital journalist” and repackaged as “news.”
The Chronicle has built a reputation for providing in-depth coverage of local government and civic affairs. I can envision other locally-owned publications emerging to focus on different areas that aren’t currently well-served, either based on geography or topic. In unsettled times, there are myriad opportunities.
I’m not suggesting that any of this will be easy. It is, in fact, quite messy right now – for residents seeking information, for organizations trying to get the word out about their news and events, and for those of us who are trying to serve what we see as specific needs in this community. In The Chronicle’s case, nearly four years ago we saw the need for more basic information and analysis of our local taxpayer-funded entities, and that’s what we’re providing.
The other big piece of this is the business model, of course. Are people willing to support the information they find valuable? Can it be done without relying on media conglomerates that have very little, if any, connection or commitment to our communities, beyond sucking out advertising revenue? My husband Dave Askins, The Chronicle’s co-founder and editor, wrote about this issue quite elegantly exactly two years ago, in The Chronicle’s March 2, 2010 milestone column. If you haven’t read his column – “How Much Would You Pay for That?” – I’d highly recommend it.
Having made a transition away from the status quo in another way – by ditching the car – I’m optimistic about making this media transition as well. I believe we’ll eventually learn to change our habits, manage our media options, and even figure out a better way to build the kinds of connections we relied on the daily newspaper to make in the past. In some ways, we’re building a road as we’re driving along – or walking or taking the bus – while we’re not even sure of the destination.
It’s time to get comfortable with that, and settle in for the trip.
About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle could not survive to count each milestone without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government and civic affairs. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!