End of Ann (Arbor) Era – The Chronicle Closes
A sad day for those of us in Ann Arbor who care about local government and want to keep up with issues. The Ann Arbor Chronicle has announced that it will be ceasing publication on September 2, 2014, exactly six years after its launch.
Actually, this should read “Dave Askins has announced…” because this publication has always been about its two principals, Dave Askins and Mary Morgan. It has been an intensely personal project for this married couple. Both the launch and the closing are scheduled on their wedding anniversary, as we have frequently been reminded. The online-only publication has incorporated many personal touches, like the use of the watch (evidently a gift) and plays on that word, like the Stopped. Watched. section (our title for this post deliberately incorporates a pun in homage to the enjoyment of language often displayed). The ads requesting subscriptions are portraits. (Caricatures by Tammy Graves.)
It has been a quirky venture, with a number of idiosyncratic features. One is the cartoon series Bezonki, by a local artist (Alvey Jones). Most frequent comment following publication of the current segment: “I don’t get it.” This also spurred the Bezonki Awards (I was honored to be among the first group receiving these) for people deemed to have made local contributions. Honorees were allowed to foster one of several sculptures made by Jones for a year, then pass them on to the next generation. The Stopped. Watched. feature invited guest contributors (anyone, really) to post observations, which could be as trivial as noting traffic congestion or minireports of major events, often with pictures. Some of the longest comment threads were conversations spurred by these.
Before launching an online newspaper, Mary Morgan was a long-time reporter and editor for the old Ann Arbor News. (A publication only very distantly related to the current online/print version of the Ann Arbor News, part of a statewide, mostly online, news organization.) She has written very affectingly about the demise of that community newspaper. Dave Askins has not had a career in traditional journalism, though he hosted an online site called Teeter Talk for several years. (This consisted of interviews of people he considered local notables whilst they were balancing on a homemade teeter totter.) He is something of a self-made phenomenon who adopted the nom de plume “Homeless Dave” (abbreviated HD) for these early postings. According to an article that I once read in the Ann Arbor Observer, Dave adopted that moniker after someone described him as “that homeless man” in passing him on the street, evidently misled by the beard. They combined these histories to create a unique news site.
One of the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s great attributes has been its habit of archiving. This overview has many links to past news stories about the Chronicle, as most regular readers refer to it. Here is the Crain’s Detroit Business article about the closure, which notes that “The online-only Chronicle focuses on government coverage and civic affairs, and does in-depth long-form reporting. It’s aimed at the educated residents of a major university town.”
Yes, and there is its strength and its weakness. After many years in which governmental actions were covered only sketchily and often with a distinct bias by the old print version of The Ann Arbor News, the political junkies of Ann Arbor were delivered a real treat. Mary and Dave literally did chronicle almost every public body, nearly gavel-to-gavel. Thus the line “It’s like being there”. While in the past the Ann Arbor District Library Board, the county Board of Commissioners, and the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Commission were scarcely ever even mentioned in the news, much less given in-depth coverage, it became possible to follow them in depth. The Chronicle had to give up coverage of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (it had been done by a free-lancer) and then coverage of the University of Michigan Regents. But they have still been following AADL, the BOC, and PAC, as well as the Planning Commission, the Greenbelt Commission, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, the Downtown Development Authority, and of course the City Council. That’s a lot of sitting on hard benches. The result has been a lot of serious reading, the sort that even the most dedicated student of local government has to set aside time for. I’ve heard comments from several friends that they don’t have time to read the Chronicle, and I’ve sometimes put off reading certain stories for days in order to have time to digest all the material. This in-depth coverage has provided what amounts to minutes of all these bodies, and archives that are valuable for historical research. Often they contain links to important documents referenced in the story.
One thing the Chronicle’s reporting has not featured has been much analysis, though there have sometimes been columns that offered opinion and analysis, usually on a subject of interest to Dave Askins. He has been a strong proponent of open government, adherence to the Open Meetings Act, an issuer of FOIAs for information that should have been available and wasn’t, and has been a critic of Ann Arbor’s City Attorney, Stephen Postema. But most news stories are reported in a flat factual narrative without much inflection or explanation. This is valuable as a record but sometimes leaves a lot of heavy lifting to the reader. Also, there is very rarely any followup with interviews of the parties involved, which could add missing depth at times. On the other hand, it means objective reporting.
The loss of this reporting is hitting many of us in Ann Arbor with a sensation of the floor dropping out from under us. How can we find out what is happening in government? Do we actually have to go to those meetings and sit through them to find out what happened? Happily, the newly reconstructed Ann Arbor News now has a number of young reporters who are doing a decent job at covering some aspects of government, but not at anything like the scope and depth of the Chronicle. The question is going out by email – What do we do now?
According to Dave’s statement, the effort has been sufficiently profitable (revenue is both from paid advertising and voluntary donations), but they are simply worn out. This is understandable. No breaks. Many long meetings. On top of that, they do not use an automobile, but rely on a bicycle (Dave), a scooter (Mary), or public transit. This story describes one example of how that can complicate the life of a reporter (Mary).
In her requiem for the Ann Arbor News, Mary says,
I believe the newspaper could have survived if its leaders had better engaged and embraced this community – not as sycophants or vacuous boosters, but as people with a vested interest in the lifeblood of Ann Arbor, its politics and government, arts & culture, schools, businesses, nonprofits – and in the people who live and work here every day, who, like us, call this patch of Michigan home.
The Ann Arbor Chronicle certainly did that. They are leaving us richer, but sad. Thanks, Mary and Dave, for all that hard work. You have the best wishes of many. I hope that the next venture is as successful, with less wear and tear on its creators.
POSTSCRIPT: An immediate question asked by many is, what about the archives? We have a special interest in this, since many of our posts use multiple links to Chronicle articles. Evidently the site will remain more or less as is through 2014, and some efforts are being made to house the archives in the Ann Arbor District Library. The AADL has already performed that service for archives of the Ann Arbor News (check the Old News section especially) and portions of the Ann Arbor Observer. It is rapidly becoming a major historical source for Ann Arbor.
It is not clear whether current links will continue to be operative once archives are placed at the AADL, but it would be good to preserve the substance.
UPDATE: Mary Morgan kindly sent along this column from 2010. It has some great reflections about the meaning of local journalism, and also shows that that they were already planning ahead to have their archives housed at the AADL. Mary indicated that the AADL has already been in touch, so it looks like a go.
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