Milestone: Why You Keep Running a Marathon

Why it's ok to jump the gun and why it's sometimes ok to quit running

The Chronicle’s monthly milestone column is by custom published on the second day of the month. It’s a chance for us to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.

My shoes from the Oct. 26, 2003 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C.

My shoes from the Oct. 26, 2003 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C.

It’s not June 2 yet, so today’s publication means we’re jumping the gun a bit. That’s due in part to a selfish, practical interest I have in not writing separate emails to every reader who inquires: Where is your coverage of the Ann Arbor Public Schools? We’ve suspended that coverage for the indefinite future – but obviously not because we don’t think education is important.

When The Chronicle first launched back in 2008, we didn’t offer any coverage of the local public schools. Mostly through sheer good fortune we found independent freelancers – first Jennifer Coffman, and then Monet Tiedemann – who were able to provide coverage of AAPS to Chronicle readers.

It is not easy to find writers who believe that The Chronicle’s approach to coverage – through detailed reports of public meetings – is a worthy endeavor. And among those who believe it’s worth doing, it’s not easy to find writers who can actually meet the standard. And among that smaller group, it’s not easy to find those who are able to reconcile the economics of the compensation we offer with the sacrifice of time and effort.

It is really not easy to find a writer who is willing to sit through a school board meeting that lasts until 3 a.m.

The Chronicle’s publisher and I can absorb a certain amount of flux in available resources, but we’re past capacity. The size of our organization means that when a single person isn’t able to continue in a particular function, it can mean the end of the coverage that person was providing. So for the immediate future, we won’t be able to continue schools coverage.

And for the medium to longer term, I don’t anticipate being able to restore schools coverage unless our revenues through voluntary subscriptions and advertising were to dramatically increase and show evidence of sustaining that increase.

Ultimately, providing sustainable regular coverage of a public body will require more than the good fortune of finding people who, for a while, can wedge The Chronicle into their lives based on the compensation we can offer.

Isn’t some schools coverage better than none at all? Perhaps so. In this column, I’ll lay out my thoughts on that in terms of a metaphor familiar to regular readers of The Chronicle’s milestones: marathon running.

I have completed two marathons in my life. Neither was a pleasant experience. First let me orient you to the universe of marathon times. The world record for completing this 26.2-mile race is a little over 2 hours. For recreational runners, any time under 3 hours is impressive.

In my first effort, I crossed the half-marathon mark at around an hour and a half. So I was roughly on pace to complete the whole race in about 3 hours. That is, I anticipated running an impressive time. It’s what I’d systematically trained for.

I finished at right around 4 hours. I’d become a straggler.

What went wrong in the second half? Post-race analysis suggested this free nugget of marathon running advice: Always measure your training mileage accurately.

The point is that in the second half of that marathon, I learned the same thing I’m sure literally millions of other runners have learned – about the psychology of grinding through a task when it becomes apparent that you cannot sustain the pace you thought you could when you started. Also you learn: Running marathons is stupid. You forget this before you register for the next one.

Finishing becomes a goal unto itself.

And we live in a culture where the stragglers who finish the marathon long after the crowds have disappeared are celebrated nearly as often as the winners. Spectators at marathons do not shout to the stragglers: “Think about stopping! Think about stopping!” Instead, they lie to you: “Looking good! Looking strong! You can do it.”

Or some spectators will not lie to you, like the one guy who was offering “encouragement” near the Lincoln Memorial during the 2003 Marine Corps marathon. He yelled something like, “This is not supposed to be a stroll in the park! It’s a marathon run. Run like you mean it!” Thanks, dude – I really meant that last painful stride.

Even for a marathon staged in a large city like Washington D.C., long stretches of the course are bare of spectators who could encourage you to keep running. Marathon stragglers have to tell themselves stories inside their own heads to keep forward progress toward the finish line. Most of those stories involve knowing where the finish line is. What if there is no finish line? What kind of story do you tell yourself?

Covering any of the public bodies The Chronicle reports on is like running a separate marathon unto itself – with no finish line. The Ann Arbor city council is a marathon. So is the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. Likewise the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority is another marathon. And so on.

Sometimes, I think, it makes more sense to just stop running a marathon. Because sometimes running a marathon is stupid.

A few months ago we stopped running the University of Michigan board of regents marathon. That actually glided to a comparatively graceful stop. First we ended our comprehensive meeting reports, but continued with the Civic News Tickers filed from the regents meetings. Then we ended the Civic News Tickers, too.

And so this month, regrettably, we stop running the AAPS board of trustees marathon – for now and likely the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t project being able to resume that coverage without some unforeseen increase in voluntary subscription and advertising revenues.

It’s only through the generous support of individual readers and advertisers that we were able to offer AAPS board meeting coverage for the time that we did.

And we hope to be able to use that support to continue running our other marathons.

The Chronicle’s marathon is supported in part through regular voluntary subscriptions. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.


  1. By Chuck Warpehoski
    May 24, 2013 at 1:37 pm | permalink

    I will miss the coverage, no doubt, but I appreciate the honesty to decide what you can do well and sustainably.

  2. By Susan Lackey
    May 24, 2013 at 2:14 pm | permalink

    I second Chuck’s appreciation of the honesty. So much reduced coverage is masked with ‘lack of reader interest’ or ‘refocusing of approach.’ I suspect that much of that is short hand for ‘we don’t have the bodies because we can’t afford them.’

  3. May 24, 2013 at 2:30 pm | permalink

    I understand the investment of effort and time, and the economics, but regret the loss of both coverages, which were done at the Chronicle’s usual high standard.

    So here is a hypothetical: if some wealthy (or just very generous) person or organization were to offer the Chronicle an ongoing retainer of appropriate amount and reliability, in order to support a particular reporting stream, would you accept it? Maybe something to turn over in your hands and look at for a while.

    In a way, you serve a function comparable to NPR, which is of course a non-profit. Maybe you need to rethink your funding model. Just keep on running down that track, please!

    Okay, everyone. Time to send in another check with a note of appreciation for your favorite three coverages.

  4. By anna ercoli schnitzer
    May 25, 2013 at 5:29 am | permalink

    “And so this month, regrettably, we stop running the AAPS board of trustees marathon – for now and likely the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t project being able to resume that coverage without some unforeseen increase in voluntary subscription and advertising revenues.”–David Askins

    “Okay, everyone. Time to send in another check with a note of appreciation for your favorite three coverages.” Vivienne Armentrout

    Or how about just subscribing to the AA Chronicle to let the editors know how much you truly appreciate having their remarkable coverage of so much that goes on in the Ann Arbor area? [Link to subscription site]

  5. By A2person
    May 25, 2013 at 10:42 am | permalink

    Oh, this makes me so so sad. AAPS coverage is a big part of why I subscribed. I understand, I do. But I’m sad.

  6. May 25, 2013 at 10:14 pm | permalink

    Totally understand! It’s better to know what you can do well and do it rather than do something half-assed. I wouldn’t expect anything else from you two :)

  7. By fridgeman
    May 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm | permalink

    It’s probably unrelated to this turn of events at the Chronicle, but the other local web media outlet does actually seem to be doing a much improved job covering the trials and tribulations of the AAPS of late.

    Unfortunately, the comments on the other site are so toxic that it negates any improvements in coverage.

  8. By Jill McGinn
    May 29, 2013 at 12:13 am | permalink

    Your coverage of AAPS news was the reason I contributed and subscribed. I wanted to support your detailed coverage of AAPS board meetings. Which won’t be lasting into the wee hours anymore). I am dissapointed to hear it isn’t possible to continue it. Is there any way to do a survey to see what subscribers would like to see covered?

  9. By EdgeWiseInAnnArbor
    May 30, 2013 at 10:56 am | permalink

    It is entirely unreasonable that any AAPS board meeting goes past midnight. Running that late, they make poor decisions, and no journalist can cover them appropriately. I am constantly disappointed by having time taken with happy nonsense like students singing to the board, and then deliberations going until 2am or 3am. The board meetings should be for discussions, decision making, and public commentary, with stricter facilitation on the former. Board members can attend concerts and other events for the happy nonsense. I love the Chronicle, but the board frustrates me to no end.

  10. May 30, 2013 at 11:35 am | permalink

    So many meetings, so little financial support. I lament the loss of Chronicle coverage of school board meetings. I suspect that if everyone who reads the Chronicle were to provide regular financial support, our friends would not have to choose which meetings to cut.

    I am happy to see my name on the list of contributors each month. It gives me a sense of participation in the great work Dave and Mary are engaged in here. I get to contribute but don’t have to stay to the end of meetings that go into the wee hours of the morning.

    I encourage every reader to acknowledge the importance of this unbiased source of political reporting by signing up for a subscription or just regularly donating. Your contribution should be based on how much you would miss the reporting if the Chronicle stopped publishing (hint: the contribution should be a lot).

  11. By J. Rodriguez
    June 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm | permalink

    As a teacher in the district, I truly appreciated your refreshing and detailed coverage of the AAPS board meetings. I agree with Fridgeman–but I will miss your reporting regardless. Thank you for your honesty.

  12. By A2person
    June 5, 2013 at 4:02 pm | permalink

    Is there any way you could revisit this decision at some point in the near future? There is so much going on with our schools, this kind of coverage was sooo valuable.

  13. By John Floyd
    June 6, 2013 at 10:23 pm | permalink


    Out of curiosity, how much does The Chron need to raise to cover AAPS?

  14. June 7, 2013 at 9:18 am | permalink

    Re [6] The grim outlook for restoration of AAPS coverage was based on the theory that finding the combination of talent and willingness we had in Coffman and Tiedemann as freelancers would not be feasible going forward. An alternative to hoping for good fortune (deemed not feasible) is hiring a full-time employee to cover AAPS. Hiring a full-time employee requires more cash on hand than what it would take to cover the first month or two of salary/benefits. I think to be fair to that prospective employee you need either enough cash on hand or else confidence in a revenue stream to cover two or three years of salary/benefits. If I’m asking someone to forego some other means of earning a livelihood and instead earn it by writing about AAPS for The Chronicle, then I need to be able to know that (assuming they’re performing up to standard), I can pay that person a full-time salary/benefits for a couple of years.

    Opinions probably diverge on the question of what a full-time AAPS reporter should be paid – but take whatever number you believe to be realistic, and that’s the number that’s needed. And then do the math on roughly 50K households in Ann Arbor. That gives you a rough idea of the average amount each household would need to contribute annually through voluntary subscription, in order to fund an AAPS reporter. But of those 50K, subtract those who will not see any benefit to having anyone cover anything. And subtract those from the 50K who will not see the logic of paying for something they can get without paying for it (until they can’t get it at all). And of those 50K, some will identify some conditional statement on which their voluntary subscription will depend (if there’s schools coverage; if there’s sports coverage; if there’s crime coverage; if there’s entertainment coverage; if there’s weather/traffic updates; if there’s letters to the editor, if there’s op-eds that mirror exactly my thoughts).

    I suppose it’s fair to characterize what I’ve written above as just a long way of changing the conversation from “What is the dollar figure, Dave?” But to name some dollar figure (instead of offering a way for readers to come up with their own dollar figure) frames the issue in a way that doesn’t seem likely to lead to sustainability. Naming a dollar figure invites this framing of the problem: Here’s a fundraising target, now let’s go out and drum up that cash, okay, now thank god that’s done.

    Consider, for example, the snack table at the Workantile coworking space. You can take a snack without putting a dollar into the basket. You can even do so repeatedly in kind of a free-ranging snacking style. And if enough people did that the snacks would disappear, because the guy who takes the money in the basket and buys more snacks wouldn’t be able to do that. And if that happened, there’d be a big meeting about it, brows would be knit and fingers would be waggled, and some cash would be scraped together to get a fresh pile of snacks. But that would not solve the snack funding problem. Key to a sustainable stream of snacks is the discipline on the part of the snackers to chip in their dollar when they take a snack from the table. That’s the kind of culture that keeps snacks on the table at Workantile. And that’s the kind of culture that might eventually lead to sustained coverage of AAPS by The Chronicle.

    What I’ve been impressed by over nearly the last five years, and am grateful for, is the fact that there are many civic/government affairs snackers in Ann Arbor who put more money in the basket than the value of the snacks they take out. But based on nearly five years of experience at this, my sense is that the balance of those kind of snackers to free ranging snackers is not optimal.