by Patricia Lesko
On Aug. 8, Anne Bannister (D-Ward 1), Zachary Ackerman (D-Ward 3), Jack Eaton (D-Ward 4) and Chip Smith (D-Ward 5) won the Democratic primary elections. Smith and Eaton will face Independents (Ali Ramlawi and Diane Giannola) in the Nov. general election. Who won is important, of course, but the fact that voter turnout in Ann Arbor has risen significantly since 2011 is also big news.
More people are voting in Ann Arbor’s August primary elections. Since 2011, voter turnout in Ann Arbor’s August primary elections has risen by 40 percent. On Aug. 8, 2017 thousands of additional Ann Arbor voters boosted voter turnout to 12.8 percent. If voters on the rolls who are inactive (moved away or who have died) are included the overall turnout, it could have been as high as 16 percent. In 2015, the voter turnout for the August primary was 10.9 percent of the registered voters in Ann Arbor. That was up from the 8.9 percent voter turnout for the August 2011 primary election.
While turnout is rising, Ann Arbor, recently recognized as the “smartest city in the U.S.,” is not among the top 100 U.S cities in terms of total voter turnout. United States cities that boast higher voter turn out than Ann Arbor include Portland, Oregon, Kansas City, Missouri, Seattle, Hartford, Connecticut, Minneapolis, and Madison. Toledo, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan and Yonkers, New York have higher voter turnout rates than does Ann Arbor.
Could that be changing?
A 475-page report published by the FCC identified a connection between voter turnout and investigative reporting. In 2009, the Columbia Journalism School commissioned a major report on the state of the American news media that concluded, “What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs.”
The Ann Arbor Independent, launched in 2013, now reaches 39,000 readers monthly. Between March and July 2017, readership rose by 22,000 readers. The paper is on track to have over 44,000 readers in August. In 2017, The Ann Arbor Independent submitted more Freedom of Information requests than any other local print, digital or radio news source in Ann Arbor. The paper regularly publishes investigative reporting, and since its first year in operation has been recognized with awards for investigative reporting, including by the Society of Professional Journalists (Detroit).
Between July 2016 and Feb. 2017, according to web traffic tracking sites, MLive.com page views dropped from four million to three million. The site’s page views rose to 3.3 million in July 2017, but are down, overall, 17.8 percent year-over-year. In 2016, MLive’s eight Michigan newspapers won 52 awards from the Michigan Associated Press (AP), a membership organization. Ann Arbor News government reporter Ryan Stanton won an award for Public Service reporting. The Ann Arbor News won no AP awards for investigative reporting. Likewise, in 2015 MLive newspapers won 60 awards from the Michigan Associated Press and the Ann Arbor News won no AP awards for investigative reporting. Stanton again won a Public Service reporting award. In 2012, Stanton won an AP award for investigative reporting. The AnnArborChronicle.com Publisher Mary Morgan (whose publication was never recognized for excellence in reporting) asked the AP to review Stanton’s 2012 award. In June 2012, Morgan wrote in a scathing editorial:
“It’s worth noting that Stanton’s article about fire safety won a first-place award from the Michigan Associated Press for investigative reporting. And yes, I spewed my coffee when I heard about that….We’ve asked AP’s regional bureau chief if Michigan AP will be reviewing its award to the fire response story, but haven’t received a reply. I’m not holding my breath – AnnArbor.com is a member, and The Ann Arbor Chronicle is not.”
AnnArbor.com Content Director Tony Dearing subsequently published an acknowledgement that data used in Stanton’s award-winning piece had been incorrect. Based on that, Stanton and AnnArbor.com should, indeed, have returned the investigative reporting award.
Stanton responded to Morgan’s criticisms in a comment on AnnArborChronicle.com. His comment was labeled “misleading” and Morgan’s husband David Askins given the opportunity to pen a long refutation. Askins’s response included further criticism of Ryan Stanton’s work habits: “Ultimately it’s your responsibility as a reporter to get the accurate information. And if you don’t, it’s not the source’s responsibility, it’s yours.”
The FCC report suggested that towns in which there is little investigative journalism (the reports calls it “accountability reporting”) there is a serious risk of apathetic, uninformed voters and local government and local schools controlled by people who are rarely held accountable. Towns with media that are incurious or unwilling to investigate claims of wrong-doing and/or corruption, face a risk of public corruption, the report concluded.
Between 2010 and 2017, Ann Arbor readers saw the demise of AnnArbor.com (2013) and the AnnArborChronicle.com (2014), the launch of The Ann Arbor Independent (2013) and the rebirth of the Ann Arbor News (with a pooled reporting staff of around 12, down from 45 dedicated reporters in 2009).
The Ann Arbor Observer has been criticized by its readers and others as producing Council candidate features that don’t focus on the campaign issues, but instead focus on horse race journalism. According to the City’s check register, available online, between 2014-2016, the city of Ann Arbor spent over $150,000 advertising in the pages of the freely-distributed Ann Arbor Observer. That amount is equal to about 12.5 percent of the publication’s total ad revenue in a year, according to co-owner and editor John Hilton speaking in a July 2017 interview.
Likewise, according to former Publisher Mary Morgan, when up and running AnnArborChronicle.com took in only 15 percent of its revenue from reader subscriptions. Between July and September 2011, according to the site, AAChronicle.com took in the bulk of its online ads from the City of Ann Arbor, city departments, county government, and businesses run by locals who actively donated to and supported those in local office. AnnArborChronicle.com never published investigative reporting. Morgan is now the sole proprietor of a small non-profit called CivCity Initiative, which aims to improve citizen participation in local government.
According to a 2015 federal tax return, the majority of the $74,000 in donations taken in by CivCity went to pay the salaries and benefits of Morgan and her husband along with business expenses. Among the organization’s “program service accomplishments,” are a Twitter account, a quarterly literacy newsletter and a series of videos relating to primary elections.
A book titled Just How Stupid Are We? puts what media reports is the sorry state of the American electorate into some pretty hysterical historical perspective. The book’s Amazon.com blurb says it best: “In lucid, playful prose, the author illustrates how politicians have repeatedly misled voters and analyzes the dumbing down of American politics via marketing, spin machines and misinformation.” For politicians to be able to repeatedly mislead voters requires a symbiotic relationship between a local news media uninterested, unwilling or unable to identify marketing, spin and misinformation served up in heaping portions by those same local politicos.
United States cities that boast high voter turnout than Ann Arbor include Portland, Oregon, Kansas City, Missouri, Seattle, Hartford, Connecticut, Minneapolis, and Madison. Not only did Ann Arbor not make the recent Men’s Health magazine top 10 list of Star Spangled cities, Ann Arbor didn’t even make the top 100. Toledo, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan and Yonkers, New York have higher voter turnout rates than does Ann Arbor.
The FCC report suggests that the answer to the dual dilemmas of voter apathy and local government run for the benefit of local government rather than citizens, won’t be offered up by billion-dollar companies such as Advance Publications, but rather by independent media, as well as hyper-local news sites and even bloggers.
Vivienne Armentrout, a two-time Council candidate, writes Local in Ann Arbor. Armentrout’s blog focuses on local politics, in particular transit issues. Since 2015, a former food blogger and camping enthusiast has turned her attention toward covering the AAPS Board of Education meetings. AnnArbivore.com chronicles in real time (live blogs) what is said and done at the meetings. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the Superintendent of AAPS is delighted with the coverage. The blog offers no investigate reporting and the blogger does not factcheck information presented to the public by AAPS Trustees and staff.
DamnArbor, overseen by graduate student Ben Conor Barrie since 2010, provides information about local politics and elections, as well as more whimsical writing (“Whittaker the Turkey gets obituary in The Atlantic“). The site posts new entries several times weekly.
In reality, 2017 was Ann Arbor’s final odd-year election before switching to a new system with four-year terms for the mayor and City Council members. After 2017, Mayor and Council members will be up for reelection only in even years. This doesn’t mean the odd-year turnout gains are insignificant. The next election for Council members in 2018 may find a larger percentage of the city’s registered voters going to the polls, as well.