by Joshua B. Kay | Photographs by Tobi Hollander
Mary Morgan is the founder and executive director of the CivCity Initiative and former publisher of the Ann Arbor Chronicle (2008-2014), which she co-founded with her husband, Dave Askins. The Chronicle reported on the activities of local government. Launched in November 2014, the nonpartisan CivCity Initiative works to promote year-round civic responsibility and involvement by encouraging and educating citizens to participate in all aspects of governance.
Joshua B. Kay: When did you come to Ann Arbor?
Mary Morgan: In 1996, from Rochester, New York, where I was working for the Rochester Business Review.
Kay: What brought you here?
Morgan: I took a job with the Ann Arbor News. I was brought here to increase business coverage and cover the tech community, which did not previously have a reporter focused on it. I had a variety of positions there, including business editor, columnist, and, when I left in 2008, I was the opinion page editor. It was a great gig in many ways, but I wasn’t happy with how the paper was going. At the time I was considering leaving, I thought there were important pieces of the community that weren’t being covered or weren’t being covered well, including many government entities. The News covered the city council and city government, and they covered to some extent the county board, but they didn’t cover the library board and the DDA [Downtown Development Authority], entities that have significant authority, in some cases elected and in some cases appointed.
[When we started the Chronicle], I felt there was a lot that we could do well and comprehensively. Frankly, by that time, the technology barriers were low enough so that we didn’t have to have a print publication. We didn’t have the financial resources to publish in print, and with a couple of laptops and a domain name, it was conceivable to do.
Kay: Do you have a sense of how many Chronicle readers you had?
Morgan: We got 30,000-40,000 unique IPs [Internet protocol addresses] on a monthly basis. We didn’t really track a lot of the metrics that other websites would track, so we didn’t pay attention to page views or time on site, because we didn’t want to sell the Chronicle to advertisers based on those metrics because we couldn’t compete. But 30,000-40,000 unique IPs per month was pretty respectable.
Kay: What was the Chronicle’s business model?
Morgan: We started off thinking it would be advertising only. We almost immediately started hearing from readers asking, “Why can’t we give you money as a subscription?” They were getting something out of what we were doing, and they wanted to pay for it. So we set up a PayPal subscription option. Unless people opted out, we listed all of the subscribers, because we didn’t want to get into the question of people wondering if we were backed by shadow individuals. By the end, it was 60 percent advertising and 40 percent subscriptions. With the Chronicle, we really were proud of what we were doing, and we did it for six years and it supported the two of us. We also paid all of our freelancers, and we’re proud of that. We had an idea of what might need to be done to increase revenue. It involved creating a different kind of content or additional content that would drive site traffic to make a broader pool of advertisers willing to support us. But that’s not the kind of publication that we wanted to run.
Kay: Dave recently took a newspaper job with the Madison Daily Leader in South Dakota. How did that come about?
Morgan: He really missed doing local journalism and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to be possible to do that here in Ann Arbor. So he started applying for jobs in other parts of the country. All along, I’ve said I’m not just going to move wherever Dave found a job. I’m committed to CivCity, and it’s not clear what I’d do in Madison, South Dakota. But there’s a lot that’s intriguing and really exciting about this for him. For one, we’re definitely getting out of the Ann Arbor bubble, and given the political context in our nation, I think it’s an interesting and important time to do something like that. I don’t actually know what the community is like, and that could shatter any assumptions I have, so that could be good, too, right? I’m certainly looking forward to hearing from him as he learns about the community there. But also it’s an interesting move in terms of going to a small, family-owned, daily newspaper that is a viable enterprise and has been for well over a century. To put that in the context of our national media and what’s happening in Ann Arbor, we can’t sustain a daily paper. Ann Arbor thinks of itself as this really great, “we can do anything” kind of place. I love this town, but I also recognize that there are a lot of things we could do but don’t, and having a local newspaper that the community can be proud of is not happening.
Kay: Are there linkages between the missions of the Chronicle and CivCity?
Morgan: I come from a place as a journalist of believing in openness and inclusiveness. When we did the Chronicle, we didn’t have outreach and education as part of our mission, but we did believe that if people had more access to information, and if we pulled back the veil on how government operates, it would eliminate some barriers to participation. We found that a lot of people, even if they went to a meeting [of a governmental body], would have no idea what was happening or wouldn’t understand the jargon. When we closed the Chronicle, I started thinking about how the work of the Chronicle could be amplified in a different way. And I added the idea of an organization that would try to inspire and do outreach and try to provide educational opportunities, but not just in a traditional sense of offering workshops or something. Instead, I really looked at education and motivation in a broad way. The idea is to saturate the community so that you’re constantly bumping up against ways to make you think about what is happening and what the government is doing and providing ideas for how you can get involved, whether you’re a kindergartner or a senior or anyone in between. So that’s a pretty big idea. Geographically, we have a contained area to try to do that in. Some people ask, “Why aren’t you doing it in places like Ypsilanti or other parts of the country?” We’re trying to do a proof of concept [in Ann Arbor] with as many partnerships as we can create to have a high impact and start to change the culture and how people view their government. We want to break down that “us versus them” sense that “those guys” are making decisions and really help everyone understand instead that it’s all of us. We are collectively either participating directly or electing our neighbors as representatives to act on our behalf, and that’s a very interactive relationship.
Kay: It sounds like after the Chronicle, you were reflecting on what you had accomplished and how you could grow certain elements of it.
Morgan: Yes. I say this, though I have no data to back it up: let’s just say there are a couple hundred people in town who understand in a deep way how government works, and they know most of the players in town, and they are the ones who have influence over public policy. So you have that small core. You see the same names come up over and over on boards and commissions, and in elected office and on campaign finance sheets. How do you make that a bigger core? I don’t think we’ll ever get everybody in the community intensely involved in that way, but surely there are a lot of bright people, people who are engaged in the world in other ways, oftentimes beyond the borders of our city. How do we get some of that attention diverted back into our own community?
Over and over in elections, you have candidates who are unopposed. In this past election cycle, the mayor was unopposed. Several ward seats were unopposed. The county board is another example where the Ann Arbor representatives — there are three main districts — none of them had opponents in the primary and again in November. There are consequences to not having choices. We just don’t have a very deep bench. People say, “Well, we don’t have very many Republicans here.” Even if you accept that, there isn’t very much competition at the primary level for Democrats, either. If you look at diversity on the city council, they tend to be pretty homogeneous as far as race and socioeconomic level, so that doesn’t reflect all aspects of our community. I would love to have different voices and see a wider variety of representatives. And if you look at boards and commissions, they’re not very diverse, either. How do we eliminate the barriers to participation, whether it’s a lack of information or a lack of services like childcare for people when they need to go to [civic] meetings? Or is it just inspiring people to think about themselves in a different kind of role in the community? How do we, as a community, make those changes?
Kay: CivCity’s tagline is “fighting civic apathy.” Tell me about that.
Morgan: What I hear regularly is “I couldn’t get in to participate because I didn’t know the right people.” Or there’s this distaste for politics, and I think that reflects the national and state level. That’s what the media focus on. That’s where we get bombarded with the toxicity of political discourse. That gets translated to the local level even if people don’t have any experience here. There’s also competition for people’s time. You have family responsibilities, entertainment options, professional constraints — you’re competing for that. There’s also a sense that Ann Arbor is doing okay, and it is okay. By many, many metrics it’s a great place to live. People sort of have a sense of, “Yeah, sure, somebody’s taking care of that.” Unless they have a perception that things are off the rails, they can let things coast. They don’t need to know who’s on the school board or even who’s on the ballot. On the night before the election, maybe they’ll call or email somebody they know and say, “Who should I vote for for [University of Michigan] regent or whatever?”
It’s good to know what issues are coming up so that if you want to weigh in, you can. Particularly in the kind of media landscape we have, I think a lot of people don’t have that awareness of what decisions are in the pipeline now, so they don’t know until the eleventh hour, when it’s too late to weigh in, that this is something they can give feedback on. I’d like to increase that awareness, too.
The barriers are time and attention, and it’s a sense that if I do have time, do I really want to spend it thinking about city council or the library board or issues that are so beyond what I know at this point? We’re trying to chip away at that by providing little ways to get a little bit of information over time so that you wake up one day and say, “Oh yeah, I do know who my city council representative is, and this is going to be coming up on the agenda, and what do I think about that?” And then have a conversation over dinner, or send an email about it.
Kay: I saw on the CivCity website that you want to make participation fun.
Morgan: I think you have to meet people where they are. You have to make it fun. You can inspire and make it fun while people learn, and then they will participate, even if it’s just by having intelligent conversations about these issues.
Kay: CivCity is nonpartisan. Is it progressive, in the sense that you’re trying to advance a progressive agenda?
Morgan: We are nonpartisan. “Progressive” carries with it a lot of baggage, I think, because it is associated with the Democratic party and liberal leanings. So I wouldn’t use that word to describe our work at all. That said, social issues like poverty and other issues that governments and citizens can address to create a healthier community are definitely something we’re interested in. Shouldn’t we all be?
Kay: So CivCity would provide information about candidates of any stripe?
Morgan: Yes! I think our Ann Arbor Votes site did a way better job than any voter guide I saw at covering all of the candidates [in the last election]. I can’t tell you how much time I put into finding information about them. My allegiance is to the voters, so I want to provide the spectrum of their options the best that I can.
Kay: How are you getting the word out about CivCity?
Morgan: That is a big challenge because we’re on a shoestring budget. We use social media, and that reaches people to a certain extent. We have Facebook and Twitter accounts for both CivCity and Ann Arbor Votes, and I try to leverage my Facebook presence personally and try to publicize that way. Our general philosophy is to partner as much as possible, and part of how we spread the word in general about what we’re doing is through partnerships. For example, I made posters about registering to vote with a link to AnnArborVotes.org. We’re giving those to anyone who wants them, but we’re also creating a distribution network. Food Gatherers gets a bunch to distribute to all of their food pantry partners, and the Ann Arbor Housing Authority posts them in their public housing complexes. Avalon Housing does that, too. Community centers get a bunch. We want to put them in libraries and in social service agencies like Ozone House. I would love to get a better network in places of worship, because I think those are important places for civics to have a presence, although there are widely varying degrees of acceptance. Some people say that goes against separation of church and state, and others are fine with it. We try to post in places around town that reach people in different demographics. It’s about partnerships and networks that reach into places where people are for other reasons. I would love to partner with FestiFools and build a big “citizen Ann Arbor” puppet and have volunteers passing out information. So it can be fun and entertaining while getting in some information, and it is going out to where the people are.
Kay: And what other projects are going right now or you’re thinking about launching?
Morgan: Ann Arbor Votes is a big deal. And this effort to increase the diversity of our boards and commissions, that’s a pretty big thing that we’re just in the initial stages of. I’d like to get an advisory group together to figure out what we can do realistically to start a news and information service, given our constraints. I’ve also asked one of our interns to push the city and county to see if we can create an election task force that would work collectively to publicize local elections. Another possibility, though I hesitate to mention it because it’s just at the beginning stages… There’s an organization in Seattle called Citizen University, and they’ve started doing something called Civic Saturdays. I love the idea of having a place and time people can get together and share information about what’s coming up. I haven’t made a lot of inroads into that yet. It would have to entail partnering with lots of organizations. I think it would be important not to just have it downtown but also at community centers and other places like library branches and maybe places of worship and community organizations or public housing sites in order to reach people who might not come downtown for something like this. Or coordinate it with things like food pantry pickups.
Kay: It sounds like, at its core, there’s a strong motivating belief that if you can reach people and invite them in, ultimately they’re going to enjoy civic involvement.
Morgan: Yes. The premise is that it’s a good thing to be involved, and that people would, if given the right set of circumstances and opportunities, want to be involved. Not all at the same level, but we’re living in a democracy, and I think the bigger goal is to heal our democracy and make it work. If you look at the national level and say, “I wouldn’t even know where to start,” you might feel somewhat hopeless and small. So we can ask, “What can I do where I am with what I have?” I think that if everybody asks that question, they will find that it won’t take forever and it’s not hopeless. We do have problems, like poverty and economic disparity and homelessness. Why can’t we fix those within our community? We should fix them nationally, but let’s at least fix them where we live. We’re not an advocacy group for ending those problems, but we are an advocacy group for giving people the tools and the interest, for trying to inspire them in whatever way they might want to participate, to then address those problems themselves. In our strategic plan for CivCity, we say that we’re trying to increase civic access and participation, particularly for marginalized groups, low-income residents being among those. We’re trying to expand access and bring a wider group of people to the table.
Learn more at www.civcity.org or call (734) 645-5368. Also, check out CivCity’s online voter resource, Ann Arbor Votes, at www.AnnArborVotes.org, where you can find sample ballots, descriptions of candidates and ballot proposals, and information about voter registration, polling places, and absentee voting.