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Columbia Journalism Review: “A2Politico—Accountability Journalism in Ann Arbor, Mich”

By P.D. Lesko

When I opened reporter Erik Schilling’s email to me, I had to read it twice. The Columbia Journalism Review News Frontier Program had assigned him to write a piece about A2Politico. The Columbia Journalism Review? For those not in the field of publishing, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism offers one of the most respected, if not the most respected journalism programs in the United States. Faculty members are leaders in their fields, and many have won numerous journalism awards including Pulitzer Prizes, Guggenheim Fellowships, the duPont-Columbia Award, National Magazine Awards, and National Book Awards. The school was set up with money given to the college from Joseph Pulitzer in the 20s and became the first school of journalism in the world. The list of grads is a Who’s Who of news reporting and publishing.

The Columbia Journalism Review is headed by Victor Navasky, former editor of The Nation. The publication, founded in 1961, is one of the most influential magazines covering the field of journalism.

Via a phone interview, I answered Schilling’s questions, and the result was a piece titled, “A2Politico — accountability journalism in Ann Arbor, Mich”

Schilling and I spoke at length about the need for local investigative reporting in general, and particularly in Ann Arbor. We chuckled about the fact that A2Politico.com has been censored by Ann Arbor city government for quite some time (Schilling called the city’s move to keep city employees from accessing A2Politico from city computers, when they can play on Facebook and read AnnArbor.com, “A badge of honor.”). When I began A2Politico in late-summer 2009, it was quite different than it is today, and in another year I have plans to change the site even more. The guiding principles by which I’m working are simple: A2Politico will provide thoughtful, provocative writing, as well as accountability reporting. The New York Times published a piece last Sunday in which the author argues that observation and punditry rule now, and intellectualism is on the decline. “The Elusive Big Idea,” argues that:

If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief.

I couldn’t disagree more, and I am betting that there are tens of thousands of people in our city and state who not only value thought-provoking prose, ideas and news coverage, but who are hungry for it. A2Politico writer Chris Savage and I had an interesting conversation about what I refer to as “vanity reading.” Some people are inclined to read news sites with which they agree. That’s not how A2Politico has built up its readership: in fact, local music man Jeremy Peters once Tweeted that there was an “out and out Republican in @A2Politico.”

I wrote this in response:

Now to answer the question: Is there an out & out Republican in @A2Politico? You bet your G.W. Bush Bobblehead Doll there is. As I wrote in another post, I voted for Ronald Regan. Twice. My maternal grandmother referred to President Franklin Roosevelt as, “That man.” My family is full of conservatives, Republicans, and we come from stock who voted for (and against) the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. I have relatives who were Federalists, as well. Confederate soldiers? Look no further than the southern branch of my divided Family Tree. Vets from the War of 1812? Look no further than another branch of my family tree.

I’m now a long-time convert to the Democratic Party who, thanks my upbringing, is bilingual in my political persuasion, and grateful for the ability. I voted for President Bill Clinton. Twice. Sometimes, when people can’t easily peg you, it’s hard for them to know what to do. When the tots were babies, it drove people crazy not to be able to discern whether the tot in question on the playground was a boy tot or a girl tot—totdrogyny. My politdrogyny made our blogger pup, who needs to know what’s what and who’s who, perhaps feel a bit confused and maybe even threatened.

Here’s something to chew (and comment) on. These are a few of those who follow A2Politico on Twitter:

The National Review Online [flaming conservatives]

Michigan Liberal [flaming progressives]

Sam Marvin [Chair, UM College Dems]

Gov. Jennifer Granholm [you decide]

Robert Macomber [GOP political consultant]

MSU Democats

A Local Blogger Pup…

…who, when s/he grows into those lofty progressive principles, may (I hope) realize that as long as “Republican” is used as a dirty word by progressives, and “liberal” as a dirty word by conservatives, bipartisan politics will forever end up on the cutting room floor.

The list of who follows on Twitter has grown, but stayed just as mixed, politically. The site has visitors who access it through the web servers in the White House, and the Republican National Committee offices. That dichotomy pleases me no end.

Schilling’s coverage of A2Politico.com was thoughtful. He writes, “The site would attempt to fill in the gaps she saw in the Ann Arbor News’s coverage of local government. She envisioned it as being characterized by a high volume of public records requests and little appetite for the former daily’s stodgy prose. Two years later, Lesko says, that work is beginning to pay off. A2Politico now averages 20,000 visitors per month, and has a string of scoops and hundreds of originally reported stories to its credit….She gets a regular stream of news from records requests of the city and state governments, and a number of stories, like one in May that laid out a series of extravagant expenses by city officials, are firmly steeped in the tradition of muckraking journalism.”

In 2009, I posted a piece that asks the question, “The Politics of Muckraking: Does A2 Need Watchdog Journalism?” The responses to the piece were interesting. David Cahill, husband of First Ward City Council member Sabra Briere writes, “Yes, ‘Chicago on the Huron’ really needs muckraking. Keep doing it!” Cahill stopped commenting after A2Politico outed Briere in January 2010 for withholding important information about John Hieftje’s attempts to secretly shop around a proposal from the locally-connected Valiant Group to develop a convention center atop the underground parking garage being built on Fifth Avenue next to the main library months before the RFP to solicit proposals had been issued by Council.

Here is a snippet from the CJR feature, and a link to the piece in its entirety. Enjoy.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN — When the daily Ann Arbor News announced in July 2009 that it would be cutting back publication to two days a week and firing a vast majority of its staff, the college town of Ann Arbor, Mich. suddenly became, after 174 years, a city without a daily newspaper. That’s when Patricia Lesko, a higher-education book publisher and thirty-year resident, saw an opening. She launched her own news site, A2Politico, within days of the newspaper’s closing. Lesko assumed that the end of theAnn Arbor News as a daily publication meant that residents would be soon be searching for an alternative, if they hadn’t already. The Ann Arbor News, Lesko says, “was dubbed ‘The Snooze.’ They never really pursued investigative or accountability journalism. It was always lacking.”

Lesko had already read the work online of other web news start-ups like Voice of San Diego and she was inspired. A2Politico, she said, was crafted on that model, though she founded her site in July 2009 as a for-profit venture, powered initially by her own investment. The site would attempt to fill in the gaps she saw in the Ann Arbor News’s coverage of local government. She envisioned it as being characterized by a high volume of public records requests and little appetite for the former daily’s stodgy prose.

To read the rest of Schilling’s piece, click here

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=9952

3 Comments for “Columbia Journalism Review: “A2Politico—Accountability Journalism in Ann Arbor, Mich””

  1. “Chicago on the Huron” or “Tammany Hall” are derisive comments I have heard to describe city government in A2. These obervations I consider valid and A2 Politico has done a superb job in exposing the conflicts of interest, ethical lapses, incompetence, and other misconduct and misfeasance occuring in the Mayor’s office, City Council, and in some of the boards and commissions within the city.

    The areas that I see neglected are the abysmal government performance at the county level. With the exception of A2Politico’s coverage of shenanigans on the County Commission, there has been very little other county government coverage. The County Prosecutor’s office and the Circuit Court both have aroused the ire of Washtenaw County citizenry over a period of many years but no one in the journalistic field seems eager about taking on the garbage that occurs in those entities.
    See e.g. http://www.a2buzz.org

    While I appreciate what A2Politico has accomplished, there is loads of bad-faith and incompetent governmental performance that has occurred and is occurring at the county level.

  2. It’s nice to know that Ann Arbor has investigative journalism. Ann Arbor.com serves the general news, Ann Arbor Chronicle provides a play by play recap of what happens in politics and A2Politico is the investigative journalism of Ann Arbor. It’s nice to have this variety of fact/opinions so we can make more informed decisions within Ann Arbor.

  3. While I welcome a2politico and read it, I should point out that the old Ann Arbor News received many awards before its demise for accountability reporting.

    It won a first place in a national AP contest for a series on athletes and academics at Michigan.

    It was the first to discover and report that EMU officials lied about the death of Laura Dickinson, which led to fines and resignations at EMU.

    It broke the story that EMU had inflated the cost of the president’s house after repeatedly denying otherwise, which also led to the downfall of an EMU president.

    It reported on the emails from city councilors who used the public comment time to belittle speakers and each other.

    These are just a few accountability stories that come to mind from the period before the paper’s demise.

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