Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thinking About News: Part I

It's been about a year since the Ann Arbor News closed. In its last few years, the News had been the subject of much disinvestment, and the paper was in a sorry state, as far as I am concerned. This post does not (directly) compare the News to the .com. Rather, it (tries to) ask and answer the questions:

Parts I and II:
What do I think about the evolution of (And yes, this gets review-y.)
Part III:
What have I learned about my own relationship to news and information?
What are the implications for the community?
This is Part I of Thinking About News. Find Part II here. Find Part III here.

A year of What do I think so far?
This does get rather critical. So I want to state, at the outset, that I am not critiquing the work of the reporters (or "digital journalists," gag, gag). Seriously, I think that on balance their work has ranged from good to excellent. It's just that there are not enough of them. Really, what did we expect? I see that advertises something like 35 journalists, but my count is a little different (and based on their Contact Us web page). Eight news reporters (local, business, entertainment) and five sports reporters. With the number of changes going on in education alone, Washtenaw County should probably have several education reporters. Given that the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University are huge economic engines for this county, having one higher education reporter is not enough. I'm not even sure that there are enough sports writers--but at least the balance is a little bit closer. Every time someone goes on vacation, or there is a "special report" (for instance, David Jesse and Tina Reed did one on poverty in Washtenaw County), they get pulled off their regular beats to do that--and there are not enough general reporters to cover--or to do those special reports. Juliana Keeping, the higher education reporter, got pulled to write a story about the Washtenaw County Road Commission just the other day.

Yes, I realize that there are some "producers," "copy editors,"  "community staff" and others that do some writing, but they are not  primarily reporting. Nor should they be. Editors have different jobs.
One of the great lacks of is in copy editing. If I read another article where the person's name is wrong (or different in two places), where Ypsilanti is spelled wrong, where a location is misplaced...and the correction is pointed out by a commenter...what is wrong with that picture? It is completely sloppy work. That is the job of a copy editor! I sometimes wonder--does everything get copy-edited before it gets posted? (I don't think the answer is yes. But--if the answer is yes, then my opinion is that it's not done very well.)
The name and the acorn are just poor choices. I thought I would get over it, but quite honestly, I haven't. Well, logos can change over time. But the name... here is my problem. Our town, Ann Arbor, is comprised of two words, with two capital letters. There is a space between the first word and the second. Web sites typically run words all together without capitals. When you get the print version of the paper, they print it as Ann (yes, space, capitals). On the web site, it says ANN but that won't get you to the url, which is: If you should happen to find it at the end of an article, it looks like this annarborcom. 
And I noticed that when they post a link, they write it as, as in this sentence lifted from their web site:
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at...

As an editor and an English teacher, and (I guess) as a blogger, I find this stylistically confusing and wrong.  I will quote that slim classic, EB White's Elements of Style, here:
It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the  rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually  find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of  the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably  do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to  write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the  secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature. (Emphases added.)
My point is this: choose a style that makes sense (even if it violates the rules of rhetoric) and stick with it.  I know this could be hard, because the .com at the end of Ann Arbor didn't really make sense as a name from the start.

Regarding the "hyperlocal" focus: That's all well and good, but my interests don't stop at the borders of the city. In particular, I feel keenly the loss of Michigan news. When the state's legislators are discussing education funding, I want to know what they are saying. Why should I have to visit the Lansing State Journal web site to find out?  If something important happens in Grand Rapids, might that be of interest to me? Isn't affiliated with MLive and Booth newspapers? Since MLive has reporters that actually cover the Capitol (including the outstanding commentator Peter Luke), and reporters that cover Grand Rapids, why not make it easy to link to their feeds?

What about the blogging?
I think this has been a partial success, and the part of the paper where it seems like evolution has made sense. I see that the bloggers are now a smaller part of the paper, and that's good. Some of the bloggers are very good. In addition to "lead blogger" Ed Vielmetti (from whom I have learned a lot about the FOIA process and the possibilities of blogging), I have loved reading educators Jeff Kass and Scott Dzanc Beal (who works with Dzanc Books--talk about my own need for copy editing!), and I recently linked to excellent articles by Annie Zirkel and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang. They are not the only good bloggers by any means.

I have two complaints about the blogging. First, they suffer from the same problem as some of the reporting: not enough copy-editing. Some of the bloggers are excellent writers...others are not. Copy editing (and general editing) would make a big difference. Second, if you look at the "Contact Us" page, there are many bloggers who have not blogged in months. In fact, there are bloggers still on the list who have publicly stated on their own (home) blogs that they are not going to continue contributing to as a blogger. That's fine--but why does persist in listing them? I think it is probably to make the staff list look larger. I would encourage to make it an accurate list of current bloggers.
How long should articles be?
My ninth grade English teacher introduced me to the (somewhat sexist) explanation, when asked that question about a required essay, "Like a woman's skirt. Long enough to cover the subject, short enough to make it interesting."  So in case you are wondering, if you have read this far into this post, we are at somewhere between 1100 and 1200 words. And you are still reading. may or may not have told their reporters that they had to keep their articles short (my money is on yes, although publicly has said no, they haven't), but I tested a few articles out, and most of them are 300-400 words.  Articles on the Free Press web site, by comparison, tend to range from 300-600 words or more, and it's easy to go to the related articles because they are listed clearly.
On, that is not so true. The search function is terrible. The site now holds a large volume of material, but try to find it. Is there a way (for a non-tech savvy person, a "regular Joe") to find articles that were written within a certain date? How about for a certain subject? With a particular "tag?" Want to find related articles? For instance, suppose you know about a certain crime and you want to know if there was a follow-up article written--can you find the article? There are people who organize things like this. They are called librarians, and many of them are trained in digital media organization. If you are going to an all-digital format, that doesn't mean you don't need organized archives. You need them more than ever.

Sure, there's more to critique. I would like to see more photographs. I would like to be able get an overview of the articles that there are to read when I glance at the front page (see or for examples). I don't really care what the journalists look like but I would like to know if it's really just a link to an AP article, another news source, or homegrown writing. (That's still not always clear.) As far as layout, I assume it's a design that is driven by trying to sell ads, but I don't find the ads very attractive and I know I miss articles I would like to read because they are not "featured." When it comes to layout, especially, I assume that there is going to continue to be evolution. I'm told that it's still a Work In Progress.

In Part II, I am going to give specific examples about why the length of articles, the search function, and the capacity (aka the numbers) of the reporters are all related. I'm going to use education articles for my examples, but please don't take that as a critique of David Jesse's work. I could have used other subjects (government, business...) but this is, after all, an education blog.


  1. Great series so far and I haven't even read the other two. Comments:

    1. What's not to like about a blogger who cites Shrunk & White?
    2. Totally agree about the copy-editing deficit. Once I actually had to comment online to do some of it myself. There were misspellings and they even duplicated a picture, obviously not edited at any level.
    3. Agree about the search function, but here is a fix: Google subject (for example, " education" yielded 34,400 results, vs. 10 results for the search engine (though one of those was a list). Thanks to Ed Vielmetti for passing on this bit of wisdom.

  2. All good, thoughtful comments, thanks.