Michigan, the home state of the first — and so far, only — single-newspaper city in the nation to close its daily newspaper, is a microcosm of the nation’s media experimentation and innovation.
“With our down-in-the-dumps economy, we’re more on the bleeding edge than anyone else,” said Mike MacLaren, executive director of the Michigan Press Association. “The big question is, ‘Will the new ventures be sustainable?’”
Among those ventures are local initiatives such as AnnArbor.com and the Ann Arbor Chronicle in Ann Arbor, Mich.; state-focused enterprises such as Dome Magazine and the Michigan Messenger; regional-oriented ventures such as Changing Gears and Xconomy; and those that focus on niche reporting on the local, regional, national and international levels such as CircleofBlue.org.
“There are so many changes going on, at so many different levels and in so many places,” MacLaren said. “There’s a multitude of free-market dynamics. It’s all part of a metamorphosis in a changing media market.”
The founding of the Ann Arbor Chronicle in September 2008 and the Detroit News’ and the Free Press’ shift in early 2009 to a two- and three-day-a-week delivery model and a stronger online presence were early indicators of change.
The second wave of significant change came with the closing of the Ann Arbor News on July 23, 2009, and the layoff of 272 staffers in the affluent, educated, tech-savvy and broadband-rich town that is home to the University of Michigan. The opening, one day later, of AnnArbor.com, a Web-first product accompanied by a print newspaper on Thursdays and Sundays, heralded a new era for Michigan’s media.
AnnArbor.com, funded by Advance Publications, morphed existing news formats into a different model. Content initially went in reverse-chronological order in a one-column cascading format, with the most recent story pushing others down the page. Tony Dearing, the chief content officer and former editor of the Flint Journal, said AnnArbor.com chose not to model the site after a traditional news site because those sites don’t get a lot of traffic.
However, the news flow has changed since the start to reflect the more traditional hierarchy of news. “AnnArbor.com is responsive to reader/audience feedback,” Dearing said. “There are many changes on the site based on input from readers.” He noted on his blog: “We’ve said from day one that AnnArbor.com is a work in progress and that we’ll be regularly improving it and adding new features.”
Emphasizing hyperlocal news and relying for its content on about 35 reporters (called “content creators,” about 20 of whom had worked at the Ann Arbor News) and members of the “preferred blogging community” as well as using social media (Facebook and Twitter) and crowdsourcing, AnnArbor.com has as its goal to become “a true community hub.”
Today, that “community hub” is progressing through the venture’s online presence, and offline, through its physical space downtown and its employees’ outreach to the community.
Former Community Director Stefanie Murray (named real-time engagement officer in November) said AnnArbor.com wants people to feel ownership, to have active engagement. “We want people to consume, react and share on our site,” she said.
AnnArbor.com has set up a community space in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor on the first floor of the building in which its offices are housed.
“The large space is ringed with windows,” she said. “People see us. They meet with reporters. This is a place to see and be seen. It’s a gathering place.”
Asked whether he believed AnnArbor.com was achieving its goal of becoming a community hub online, Dearing cited an example of how the site mobilized a response to a city council member’s proposal to charge for downtown parking from 6 to 10 p.m. A poll on the site drew 1,500 votes on the proposal; there were lots of letters to the editor; and about 70 comments were posted on the initial story.
“The strength of the online publication was that it was able to engage, connect and mobilize,” Dearing said. ”To me, that’s a community hub. That’s being a real community resource with the whole community becoming aware, mobilizing and changing public policy because of the way you exist and operate online.”
Similar in philosophy to AnnArbor.com, the Ann Arbor Chronicle offers a more traditional news format but also is a hyperlocal daily site. Publisher Mary Morgan, former Ann Arbor News opinion editor, and her husband Dave Askins, now editor, initially noted on the site’s “About Us” page that the Chronicle was launched “to fill a void — to create a daily news site that reflects and embraces the energy, oddities and character of our community.”
Morgan and Askins stress the value of community. Early on, they noted: “Whatever the stuff is that fills your day, your neighbor’s day, your colleagues’ day — that is the stuff we chronicle. Because when people share these experiences, it becomes the stuff that underpins a community understanding of broader issues.”
The current “About Us” page notes that the Chronicle “is an online newspaper that focuses on civic affairs and local government coverage.”
“Although we’d likely be classified by most folks as ‘new media,’ in many ways we embrace an ethos that runs contrary to current trends: Longer, in-depth articles; an emphasis on factual accuracy and thoroughness, not speed; and an assumption that our readers are thoughtful, intelligent and engaged in this community.”
Advertising and subscriptions support the Chronicle. Within six months of the site’s launch, Morgan told David Westphal in an interview in the Online Journalism Review that revenues were covering her household bills. She told him, “Aside from the initial investment in equipment (primarily laptops and digital cameras) and site design, we’ve kept our overhead costs fairly low. … Given the economy, especially in Michigan, I’m pleased with how things are going.”
Reports since then have suggested that the Chronicle is one of few to be sustainable.
NOT EXCLUSIVE TO ANN ARBOR
Of course, hyperlocal initiatives are not exclusive in Michigan to the Ann Arbor area. They proliferate throughout the state and are based on a variety of models.
For example, GrossePointeToday.com was launched in April 2009 in the Grosse Pointe suburb of Detroit with capital from its three editors.
Ben Burns, director of the journalism program at Wayne State University and a former executive editor of the Detroit News, said he and his fellow editors had obtained a New Voices Grant from the Knight Foundation, channeled through Wayne State University. The online publication is a non-profit 501(c)(3).
“We’re reinventing the newspaper of the 1950s to be the newspaper of tomorrow,” he said. “This, in part, means having a news source that is locally owned and operated, with content that is important to the daily lives of its residents.”
Across the state, the Grand Rapids Community Media Center (GRCMC) started The Rapidian.org, a citizen journalism initiative, on Sept. 15, 2009, with grants from the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Slemons Foundation.
Laurie Cirivello, publisher of the Rapidian and executive director of the GRCMC, noted in an article on the site: “The Rapidian is an experiment. Not so much about technology, but about community building. The free flow of local information is crucial to community, vitality, civic engagement and a functioning democracy. The Rapidian is a project to address this need through citizen-generated news and reporting.”
The Michigan Press Association’s MacLaren agrees.
“There’s no silver-bullet solution here,” he said. “These enterprises have lower overhead but a smaller audience. The key is to meet consumer tastes, but hopefully society’s needs are met — that we have an informed electorate and a healthy democracy, the end product that newspapers would deliver.”
Xconomy, an enterprise focused on high-tech innovation and with sites in Boston, Seattle and San Diego, launched in Detroit in April 2010.
Funded by the Kauffman Foundation, the site aims to link up the Detroit area’s inventors, entrepreneurs and big companies.
Bill Mitchell of PoynterOnline wrote in April that the Michigan roots of Xconomy chief correspondent Wade Roush and Rebecca Zacks, co-founder, COO and executive editor, contributed to the decision to launch in Detroit.
Howard Lovy, Xconomy’s Detroit correspondent, told Mitchell: “A great deal of what I expect to report will be attempts to get things moving. … Also, I’ll likely cover the region’s attempts to diversify from automotive and show how there has always been the seeds of a diversified economy within Michigan’s ‘one industry.’”
That’s precisely what Changing Gears is doing.
A product of the Upper Midwest Local Journalism Center, Changing Gears was created through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to look at the future of the industrial Midwest through a public media project.
Micheline “Micki” Maynard, former Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, is the senior editor of Changing Gears.
“Our job as journalists at Changing Gears: Remaking the Manufacturing Belt, a public media project, is to report the situation and address the region’s prospects,” she wrote in an article for the winter 2010 edition of Nieman Reports.
“Although our reporting assignments focus on core issues such as the economy and jobs, we also look to other beats — food and culture, to name just two — to tackle the breadth of issues facing the industrial Midwest,” she wrote.
Changing Gears is based at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor, and its partners are Michigan Radio; WBEZ, Chicago; and WCPN ideastream, Cleveland.
Keith Naughton, the deputy Detroit bureau chief for Bloomberg News and former Midwest (Detroit) bureau chief for Newsweek who has covered the auto industry for most of his career, sees Changing Gears “as a way to keep deep-dive, heavily reported, labor-intensive journalism alive.”
Diminished budgets lead to immediate cuts, particularly in investigative journalism, he said.
“Every major newspaper based here (in Detroit), every news service, has lost revenues and staff, and bureaus have closed in the past five to 10 years,” he noted. “This is a reflection of the economy. There are a number of people trying to keep high-quality journalism going.”
Recent Changing Gears’ projects have included multimedia presentations on families of autoworkers, the movie industry in Michigan and fresh food supplies in Detroit.
THE LOCAL/REGIONAL/NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL
Circle of Blue, founded by Traverse City, Mich., native J. Carl Ganter, publishes WaterNews and runs a website, CircleofBlue.org, from The Village at The Commons, a large redevelopment project in the former state-run psychiatric hospital in Traverse City.
Funded by various foundations and trusts, Circle of Blue is, according to its website, “the international network of leading journalists, scientists and communications design experts that reports and presents the information necessary to respond to the global freshwater crisis.”
Ganter, a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he said he earned his investigative spurs “working with Professor David Protess on the Medill Innocence Project,” is interested in doing in-depth reports on fresh water and everything associated with it — the environment, health, the economy, politics.
Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and a former editor and publisher of the Detroit News, wrote in the spring 2010 edition of Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences:
“As journalism quickens the pace of its move on the Web, Circle of Blue is filling a niche by providing specialized content that is considered essential by an audience of shared interests but that can’t be found in such detail anywhere else.”
For Ganter, “Circle of Blue represents an opportunity to shape public opinion and policy on issues related to water by combining in-depth investigative journalism with top-quality multimedia production.”
Circle of Blue lists among its major reports work on the water crisis in Tehuacan, Mexico, and the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia. In December, Ganter had five teams reporting on China’s water-energy collision, he wrote in an e-mail from Xilinhot, China (Inner Mongolia).
“Ganter is the prototype of the new entrepreneurial journalist: an award-winning broadcast reporter, writer and photojournalist whose work has appeared in major magazines and newspapers and on television and radio networks,” Giles noted.
Affiliated with a number of journalism programs — The Medill School at Northwestern, Ball State, Western Kentucky and DePauw — Circle of Blue makes its highly coveted and competitive internships available to top-flight students.
Ganter said that part of the internship experience is to teach students how to get funding for their projects, how to research and write grants so they can undertake their own initiatives.
Like so much of what is happening in Michigan, Circle of Blue has defined its niche in the media — and policy — world. Although the state is said to have been in a depression while the rest of the country is in a recession, it is a state where there is a smorgasbord of change.
“There’s nothing like a terrible economy to make people innovate,” MacLaren said. “It is painful, but it forces people to become entrepreneurial.”
And that is what Michigan’s media are right now — entrepreneurial, innovative, hyperlocal, regional, global, public and private, and experimental.
“It’s been a very tough time in this state,” Naughton said. “Suburban newspapers have just cut back or gone away. There is no one to go to school boards. AOL’s Patch.com is doing that now in suburban areas such as Northville, Ferndale and Grosse Pointe.
“And Lynette Clemetson, Kirk Cheyfitz, Shirley Stancato and Bill Mitchell have just put together a proposal for a Knight News Challenge Grant for ‘Detroit143.’”
Detroit143 is a multiyear project designed to help Detroit develop “new journalism forms to engage the community in the region’s most urgent challenge: re-shaping a metropolis,” the proposal noted.
Asked on the Knight News Challenge application form: “What terms best describe your project?” the proposal writers’ answer was: “Community, digital, interactive, sustainable, innovative, replicable.”
Much like other innovations in Michigan’s morphing media.
Lori F. Brost, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Central Michigan University, and Maria B. Marron, Ph.D., is a professor and department chairwoman.