When Mary Morgan leaves Ann Arbor later this year, local public discourse will lose one of its most dedicated, engaged, and long-running servants. Morgan arrived in Ann Arbor in 1996 to work as a business reporter at the original Ann Arbor News, going on to serve as a columnist and opinion page editor at the paper. She left the News in 2008, just before it ceased daily publication, to launch The Ann Arbor Chronicle, an online publication that became well-known for its painstakingly detailed reports on city council and other local board meetings. She and husband Dave Askins shuttered the Chronicle in 2014 to focus on launching The CivCity Initiative, a nonprofit aimed at combating apathy towards government and increasing civic engagement.
Though her methodology has changed over time, Morgan's focus on promoting constructive, well-informed community dialogue has been unwavering. Whether covering city council, drafting a blueprint for a local independent news organization in Ann Arbor, or simply moderating discussion on her Facebook page, she's consistently been an authoritative, cool-headed, and proudly nerdy presence in the community.
Morgan announced last week that she'll be leaving town by the end of this year, and that CivCity will dissolve due to financial issues. She'll move back to her home state of Indiana to live in Bloomington, where she attended Indiana University. She plans to eventually reunite there with Askins, who left Ann Arbor last year to work at a daily newspaper in Madison, S.D.
In advance of Morgan's departure, we chatted with her via email about CivCity, the future of journalism in Ann Arbor, and the challenges that lie ahead for our community.
What prompts you to leave Ann Arbor after 22 years in town?
A combination of personal and professional reasons. CivCity wasn’t on a clear path to financial sustainability, for one. And at some point I’d like to live in the same town as my husband, Dave Askins, who’s been working as a journalist in other parts of the country since early 2017. So it was time to make a change.
From a financial standpoint, CivCity got off to a rough start with a $100,000 fundraising campaign that only garnered $25,000. How did you manage to keep CivCity going for nearly four years in the first place, and what was the final straw that made it financially unsustainable?
We had local grant support that really helped, especially from the James A. & Faith Knight Foundation and the United Way of Washtenaw County. We had funding to lesser degrees from other local foundations, too, and a core of individual donors. But it takes a lot of people contributing $10 or $100 or $500 to reach a stable funding level, even for only one full-time employee with a modest salary. And fundraising isn’t something I enjoy, frankly. I’ve developed a deeper respect for nonprofit leaders who shake the local money trees to support their work – especially in a city with the University of Michigan’s relentless, well-resourced fundraising maw. So there wasn’t really a final straw, but more a combination of factors.
When we discussed CivCity in its early days you said that "maybe 200 people in this community know how the system works, know the key players." Do you think you've succeeded in expanding that pool?
I’m not sure I’d frame it as success or failure. CivCity definitely made a dent in expanding the pool. But I don’t underestimate the impact of the 2016 presidential election in amping up people’s interest in government and politics – and some of that translated to the local level. There’s definitely a heightened sense of the need to take responsibility for what happens in the civic arena, and CivCity has helped people become more engaged locally. It’s just hard to untangle our work from the national zeitgeist, which has dramatically shifted since we began.
Your recent Medium article about creating an independent local news source for Ann Arbor ended by asserting that you intended the piece as a starting point, a template for someone to solve a problem that no one currently knows how to. Does the discussion that's resulted from that article give you hope that someone will move forward with such a project, or do you think the reasons you listed that it hasn't happened yet will continue to win out?
After I published that column, I’ve had some really great discussions with a few people who are in a position to lead this effort – who work at institutions with the capacity to push it forward. That makes me hopeful. I’m an optimist by nature, yet I’ve been disappointed more times than I can count. I’d be thrilled to see this community pull together to launch an independent news organization. I hope momentum continues to build toward that after I leave town.
What do you see as Ann Arbor's greatest challenge as you prepare to leave it?
There’s tension or outright hostility between people with different visions of what Ann Arbor should be. Those divisions are becoming fossilized. So now, rather than responding to proposals that should be debated on their merits, people are reacting to the individual who proposed the idea – trying to suss out whether someone is “with us or against us,” and then arguing based on those assumptions. It’s toxic. (If anyone is reading this and thinking, “You’re right – those folks are awful!” then you’re proving my point.) And this affects the community’s ability to seriously address entrenched problems, like economic/educational inequities and racial injustice.
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications.
All photos by Doug Coombe.