Chronicle founder reflects on Ann Arbor news media's past, present and future

It was The Ann Arbor News, in its form, that originally brought the founders of the recently-closed online publication The Ann Arbor Chronicle to town. Mary Morgan was offered a job with the Booth Newspapers publication, and as her husband, Dave Askins, had just completed his graduate coursework, the timing worked out well for the couple to move from Rochester, NY to Ann Arbor in the mid-1990s. 

Among the many dramatic ways in which the local media scene would soon transform on its own, Morgan and Askins would influence the course of that evolution — and should their plans pan out, they'll continue to revolutionize what local news means here in the future. 

But not through The Chronicle as the public has come to know it over its six years of publishing long-form reports on the particulars of government meetings. 

"We set out to create an archive of community history," writes Morgan in The Chronicle's final post, "and The Chronicle itself is now a part of that history."

As we mark Concentrate's 300th issue, we're taking the opportunity to evaluate the local media landscape, through Askins's lens, not our own, to see more clearly where things stand today, and how local media outlets such as ourselves could better deliver the events of the day to Ann Arbor-area consumers. 

Storytelling versus reporting

From month publications such as The Ann and The Ann Arbor Observer to online outlets like MLive's newest version of The Ann Arbor News and Concentrate, there's plenty of storytelling happening locally. The problem with that, as Askins sees it, is that it leaves a critical gap in journalism: straight, fact-based reporting. 

"At some point [in history], the narrative news paradigm became so entrenched that, I think, the basic facts and information was taking a backseat by the 2000s," says Askins, who dates this conclusion by the archives of The Ann Arbor News at the Ann Arbor District Library, which span from about 2003 to the paper's closure in 2009. 

"If I want to try to find out, say, what the heck was happening at the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority based on The Ann Arbor News of that era," he says, "it's really hard." 

It's no wonder traffic-hungry publications have transitioned into storytelling — with all its enticing elements of character, conflict and plot twists — Askins observes. After all, humans have long loved a good story. But the news of the day doesn't always come infused with drama, regardless of its importance to the community. That was the gap in local journalism The Chronicle sought to fill, and that it has now created with it its absence. 

Encouraging and discouraging signs on the media scene

That doesn't mean there's nothing positive happening in Ann Arbor's local media scene. Reports of local government meetings are included in today's MLive version of The Ann Arbor News, and Askins is especially glad to see city council meeting previews appearing in The Michigan Daily. Though proving a connection between The Chronicle's coverage and these efforts is difficult, the circumstantial evidence is there. 

"I marvel because at that time, no one was clamoring for in-depth reports on meetings of the library board, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, the park advisory commission or any of the other public entities we began covering," writes Morgan of the pre-Chronicle era. "We wrote detailed 15,000-word articles on city council meetings, in an era when traditional news media considered 500-word stories too long for the attention spans of its target demographic."

After ceasing operations last month, Askins met with The Michigan Daily reporters to discuss the The Chronicle's approach to reporting and how the UM paper could, not replace the former site's massive reporting operation, but play a more significant role int he information-scape of the city. 

Should The Michigan Daily commit to regular coverage of council meetings, says Askins, he thinks residents may start to see their "only locally produced daily newspaper in town" as a viable source for local news, regardless of it being a university publication. Why does he see a student newspaper as the best local pub to carry The Chronicle's torch? 

"I think that, as eager students of the trade, Michigan Daily staff might be more receptive to and able to execute on ideas that are pitched to them," he says, as opposed to a large, corporate entity like MLive's Ann Arbor News. "My sense of the Michigan Daily staff is that they are very high minded. They are reading things and learning things about how journalism ought to be."

Not that smaller publications impacting the coverage of larger ones in the area is a new phenomenon. Askins recalls such blogs as the Ann Arbor is Overrated  and ArborUpdate sending the relatively internet-shy Ann Arbor News chasing stories they broke in the early to mid-2000s. 
Still, it's not a perfect recipe for great journalism. Though pressure from competition can drive better coverage, that's the same impetus of what Askins sees as the among the more discouraging practices in local news today. During his time at The Chronicle, he would notice the occasional story appearing in MLive with coverage of a meeting that he knew — because he was there — no reporter attended.

"You'd see this article and a photo of one of the key actors — with no reference that this was a file photo, not from this meeting. You would never know that the reporter was not there," he says. "The fact that, at least certain cases, MLive seemed to go to extra effort to fake it…it's like, why?"

This is an example, he says, of the proliferation of press release reporting, which is a great boon to crafty PR folks, but a terrible practice for journalists. 

A better reported future

Though The Chronicle published its last post at midnight on Sept. 3, it's clear from any amount of time speaking with Askins that their desire to improve fact-based local reporting is far from over. Their sights are now set on doing so in a new format, through a partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library, the future of which now depends on the outcome of a grant application to the The Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge: Libraries

"The Ann Arbor Chronicle's mission has always been about making local government more accessible and understandable," says Askins. "You could take that same mission and execute it through a different platform. You could found a non-profit or and education institution of some kind with that same mission."

And that is what they hope to do. The idea is to create a publishing platform that builds on top of and improves the Arborwiki site now hosted on the Knight Foundation project Localwiki. As local news is added to the wiki site — council votes, election data and other public happenings — it would also appear in a separate news-feed. Not only will the Arborwiki site become a more accurate archive of Ann Arbor history, but that history will also be reported as news when it happens. It's called the Civic Ticker, and it could change the way reporting happens and is stored, leveraging the archiving power and broad local reach of the AADL. 

"It's project that turns on its head the typical role a library plays in archiving local news," Askins says. "They take other people's stuff and store it. What if the library was actually the producer of the material?"

In partnership, or course, with some seasoned reporters who know local news. For now, the application is in and the waiting is underway. Askins estimates Civic Ticker is one of 680 applicants for the $2.5 million Knight Foundation award that will be divided among a small handful of projects. Final winners will be announced will be announced in January.

Until then, or when/if Morgan and Askins find a different way to launch their formidable new project, the local news media scene will remain what it is: a narrative-focused field of reporting, which we all as media outlets — including Concentrate as we begin to produce our 301st issue — can work to improve and evolve, perhaps with fresh focus on the fact-based news The Chronicle did so well.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

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All photos by Doug Coombe
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