One event that really brought home the consequences of our news deficits occurred on Nextdoor (a social network application geared toward helping neighbors exchange information). There was some commentary going on about the August primary results. A person who identified herself as of voting age, but in her late teens, complained that “no one told me there was an election”. The election had in fact been covered rather extensively by Ann Arbor News reporters, including coverage of debates. But clearly this person never read the online newspaper. Of course, much of the year the coverage probably did not draw her attention. Doubtless she spent most of her time online using various social applications like Instagram, Twitter, etc., which are self-selective in terms of the coverage you choose. (My Twitter feed is heavy on news sources and governmental publication. Others follow celebrities or politicians. We are not seeing the same universe.)
Part of the problem with finding a good source of local news about Ann Arbor is that newspaper publishing as an industry and a cultural phenomenon have changed nationwide. Print publications are being discontinued everywhere, and it is difficult to find a business model for an online full-service news publication. This study by the Pew Research Center outlines some of the issues. Part of the problem is the movement of the public to using digital applications geared toward immediate news in short bites. Good journalism is often a time-consuming process involving a lot of hours on the reporter’s part. Investigative journalism is not a good fit with the kind of news operations requiring a 24-hour feed. The movie Spotlight is in some ways a sad memorial to the traditional big-city newsroom. Could the deep digging that led to the revelation of a widespread clergy childhood abuse problem ever be done with today’s newsrooms? Yet the trend toward fragmented digital coverage does not reward that type of deep investment.
Another problem is that Ann Arbor is rather isolated. We are a small city in the exurban fringe of the Detroit Metropolitan region. Really, our concerns and Detroit’s concerns are quite different. Detroit still maintains two newspapers with good reporting staff, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. Trouble is, no coverage of Ann Arbor. Crain’s Business Weekly has really brushed up its local news coverage and added state legislative coverage. But Ann Arbor is mentioned very rarely. Detroit also has some excellent online news and analysis sources, likely supported by foundation funding. Data Driven Detroit, for example, is amazing. Another good source of Michigan statewide issues and Detroit Metro topics is Bridge online magazine. (They really covered the Flint water issue, and some amazing coverage of the Detroit riots and the history of that period, with some stunning pictures.) But little of Ann Arbor there.
So since we essentially do not have a local newspaper, how do we find out what is happening in our community? We do have at least one traditional print vehicle remaining, the monthly Ann Arbor Observer. (I contributed articles to the Observer for a couple of years.) The Observer is distributed free to most households in Ann Arbor and is made available in bookstores for a token price. It is supported primarily by advertising, one of the few venues in Ann Arbor for finding some good extensive advertising information. But its monthly format restricts the type of coverage it can offer. There is an online version in which articles are published weeks after the print version, making it even less current. All articles are done by freelance reporters, which makes the coverage somewhat uneven though usually of high quality and interesting. (The UpFront and Inside Ann Arbor sections are a good place to find some news not available elsewhere.) Unfortunately, their political reporter offers rather glancing analysis and seems to be adverse to research (he generally accepts statements by interviewees at face value). I read the Observer cover to cover when it first comes. But I think that many, especially younger readers, may never see it.
In previous posts about Ann Arbor media, I suggested that local blogs could fill in some of the gaps. Unfortunately, many blogs have vanished or turned into rather short and incidental postings. After all, a blog is personal. One is not required to do in-depth reporting. (Mark Maynard‘s Ypsilanti coverage remains excellent, but it is definitely not Ann Arbor.)
So what does one do? It is necessary to be very interested and very determined. More on that later.
ADDENDUM: I omitted a couple of sources of local news. A notable one is the commendable personal effort by a blogger who is now doing serious reporting about the Ann Arbor Public Schools. The site is AnnArbivore and the information is timely and of good journalistic quality.
There is also a monthly publication that often has a significant main story (much of the rest is more about lifestyle). It is The Ann Magazine. It does have an online presence, but is really aimed at the print version and my impression is that main stories are not posted immediately online. At one time it was available via the Ann Arbor News print version, but now I only receive my copy in the New York Times. I suspect that it is available in bookstores.
Concentrate is an online magazine that has evolved somewhat over the years with the loss of its original editor. It was a development promoter in the early days and still has something of a “biz” character, but hires free-lance writers whose articles are not always obviously promotional. I read it when it comes to me. (Free subscription.)