The rise of U-M’s PR machine
Why the university is leaving student leader Michael Proppe — and you — out of big decisions
By Steve Friess
Photo by Benjamin Weatherston
Freedom of information laws are called “sunshine laws.” They promise to shine a light on shadowy activities in what should be the public sphere.
It seems there’s less sunshine on the University of Michigan today than ever before.
Part of that is due to the decline of the news industry.
Part is due to the rise of the PR machine.
A few weeks ago, the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents released the names of its appointees to an advisory committee that will vet candidates to replace U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. The list comprised only faculty and administrators; it did not feature any students, any external education experts or any alumni or Ann Arbor residents not on the U-M payroll.
This may or may not be a scandal, but student body President Michael Proppe believes it is at least anomalous. He offered local reporters gift-wrapped data in the form of a study he conducted that shows students were on the search committees of all but one of the past 25 searches for presidents of public universities in the nation.
Given the enormous significance of the selection of Coleman’s replacement — is there any unelected public job in the state, save for Detroit’s emergency manager, with more power or prominence? — one would expect to find exhaustive coverage of every sneeze and sniffle of the process. Proppe’s very reasonable complaint, at least, would seem likely to lend itself to some scrutiny and force administration officials, prompted by journalists, to explain the many omissions.
It did not. Instead, Proppe’s failure to get traction in the press became a telling case study, an illustration of how much less attentive and persistent the media is as it pertains to U-M more than 11 years ago when Coleman got the job. To many, the idea of leaving out key segments of the community in this process would have been unthinkable then and would have guaranteed the school a persistent, embarrassing lashing in the press.
It’s been a long time, though, since U-M was so sensitive to that sort of coverage — for good reason. The Michigan Daily reported Proppe’s concern on July 25 but only obtained a milquetoast written statement from a regent who offered lofty language about taking “great care to involve every stakeholder.” He didn’t offer any reasons for the omissions and, in replying via a statement, avoided follow-up questions.
AnnArbor.com, the city’s dominant professional daily news source and the successor to the defunct Ann Arbor News, wrote one piece, on July 19, that noted the committee’s lack of students, alums or locals but did not pursue comment from any of those groups. Since then, reporter Kellie Woodhouse has not revisited the question.
The Detroit media hasn’t shown much more interest; The Detroit News ran a brief rewrite of U-M’s press release on the committee names and The Free Press’ last bylined piece on any aspect of the search ran in May.
It’s tempting to blame the absence of traditional coverage of such a major hire on the dereliction of specific reporters or editors. Yet these aren’t traditional times in journalism, and it simply isn’t realistic for the paltry number of reporters responsible for playing watchdog to keep tabs on everything. Not only are there fewer journalists focused on the school, but U-M has gone on media offense, too, adding more than 50 new public relations positions since 2005.
Indeed, Woodhouse is no slouch. She penned eight bylined stories for AnnArbor.com about U-M in the week after the search committee list emerged on all manner of U-M news. The Free Press’ David Jesse, formerly of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com, is widely regarded as a solid, well-sourced veteran of coverage of U-M, but his job at the Freep includes coverage of 14 other public universities. The Detroit News has long since given up on anything more than perfunctory coverage of U-M or, for that matter, Ann Arbor itself. And even The Ann Arbor Chronicle, which once ran exhaustive synopses of U-M regents meetings, decided to stop earlier this year.
But that, not even supplemented by social media, blogs, YouTube and similar online media, is far from sufficient. True, people on those services have occasionally broken major national news, but that’s not the same as sustained, balanced scrutiny, according to University of Illinois communications professor Robert McChesney, author of several books on the demise of local journalism. “Even though we’ve seen the decline of journalism, to the naked eye there’s more journalism than ever. There is lots of stuff that’s called ‘news’ but there’s not that much journalism.”
This state of affairs alarms those who view inquisitive, aggressive journalism as indispensable to keeping public institutions accountable. It isn’t that those in power at U-M are necessarily corrupt or incompetent, they assert, but the near-absence of a robust, competitive media leaves the public unable to judge for themselves, significantly less aware of how their tax money is being spent and without journalists capable of explaining complex issues in common language.
“How do you pinpoint what’s not being uncovered?” asked Pete Bigelow, the Dexter-based associate editor of AOL Autos who served as sports editor at the News and later covered U-M football for AnnArbor.com. “There’s a sense that things are being missed, but without someone taking time to do that reporting, it’s hard to know what those things are. That’s the $1 million question.”
McChesney cited a case in which he was told by the head of social services for another university that they had a patient die under questionable circumstances. The director waited tensely for the inevitable media onslaught but faced no news coverage at all for the case. “They discovered they could kill someone and there could be no public accountability,” he said, declining to name the school. “That means the next time out, they know they’re not being watched.”
Contrary to Bigelow’s figure of speech, the matter actually comes down to far more than $1 million. As recently as the 1990s, The Ann Arbor News was a profitable newspaper thick with supplements and classified ads and stocked with a staff that approached 100. In those pre-Internet days, the paper was the most economical, efficient way to reach the local consumers; only the wealthiest businesses could afford to run TV ads in the vast, expensive Detroit market.
By the time the paper shut down in 2009, Craigslist had swallowed its classified ads, Google had cornered the market on microtargeted commercial messages online, a crushing circulation decline made direct mail more attractive to many companies that used to pay to insert circulars and the News’ staff had shrunk to about 70 journalists. Its online reincarnation as AnnArbor.com began with a staff about half that size, and today its masthead lists a mere 23 editorial staffers.
Just one, Woodhouse, is responsible for all aspects of coverage of higher education which includes, presumably, U-M, Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College.
U-M itself is “essentially a mini-city,” said Mary Morgan, a former News reporter and editor who left in 2008 to start The Chronicle. “They have a building department, a finance department, all the aspects of a municipality you would expect. To understand it takes a lot of time. As a single reporter trying to understand the university, to make sufficient contacts, to have a depth of understanding, you need a period of years to develop the beat.”
The result, many times, are reporters who aren’t well-versed enough in the issues and who make mistakes or fail to translate the schools’ point of view, said Justin Pope, until this summer the Associated Press’ national higher education reporter based in Ann Arbor.
(AnnArbor.com editor Paula Gardner said via email the outlet would be “declining to participate” in this report. Jesse, of The Free Press, was unavailable for comment.)
Morgan touched on another conundrum of the new media landscape, the fact that the pay scale is so low at AnnArbor.com that it hires reporters fresh out of college. Those who prove to have formidable skills are unlikely to stay more than a couple of years, leaving for bigger pastures before developing the rapport with sources that can lead to great scoops and leaks. Plus, the constant pressure to post online leaves reporters without time to pull back for the bigger picture and harried editors without time to mentor their charges or brainstorm with them, Bigelow said.
While most agree the coverage has diminished, some are less concerned about its impact. Dr. Fred Askari, the chair of the Committee on the Economic Status of the Faculty’s compensation policy subcommittee, is one such voice. “The press plays an important role in society, but I can’t think of any instance where the university has had a huge problem,” he said. “The university’s administration has been really responsive and do a lot of wonderful things for the community. I don’t see that there’s a horrible and nefarious subplot that isn’t being uncovered.”
And former News and AnnArbor.com sportswriter Jim Knight, who agrees there isn’t enough coverage, nonetheless noted that after he went to work for U-M’s publicity department in 2012 he was surprised by how focused those inside U-M were on being accountable for their decisions even without the prior level of media coverage. “There’s a drumbeat of ‘Let’s do better, let’s use this money wisely, how do we quantify what we’ve done over a 10-year period?’ That was a constant internal discussion. It was a very top-of-mind thing.”
Yet Knight also acknowledged that one of the most important projects he did at The News wouldn’t — or couldn’t — be done today. Knight took the lead in 2008 on a 13-story, multi-day series exposing how U-M helps student-athletes skirt the rules that govern their academic performances. The paper committed three full-time reporters for six months to the effort, something that would never occur now, Bigelow insisted.
Similarly, the resources don’t exist to replicate the sort of coverage The News produced during the six-year trek to the U.S. Supreme Court of the landmark affirmative action lawsuit against Michigan. The paper dedicated reporters for long stretches between the 1997 filing and the ultimate 2003 decision to do long pieces about the national impact the case could have on higher education, with staffers sent to Washington, D.C., where the case was argued and decided. “Today, they would’ve covered it, sure,” said Lynn Monson, former assistant metro editor who supervised that coverage. “They would have peeked in every so often over the course of those six years. That’s as much as they can do.”
Some criticism of AnnArbor.com and the condition of the local news business is undoubtedly prompted by sore feelings by staffers who were laid off or those nostalgic for bygone days. Several sources for this report, for instance, referenced U-M’s recent eminent domain tear, including the $1.5 million purchase of the iconic Blimpy Burger property, as an example of incomplete coverage. Yet reporter Woodhouse did produce an 1,800-word piece in February that dived deep into the topic, complete with a map of U-M land buys, several photos, a poll and an 800-word sidebar interview with Mayor John Hieftje.
While the media challenges in Ann Arbor are real, they are hardly unique or as extreme as they are in many other similarly situated college towns. “It’s going on everywhere in the country,” said McChesney, who teaches at Illinois and the University of Wisconsin, both in towns similar to Ann Arbor. “The problems in Ann Arbor are no more severe or less severe than anywhere else. It’s a crisis everywhere you look.”
U-M, in fact, is covered better than many similarly situated locales, said Pope, the former higher education reporter for the Associated Press. “Michigan still has the Freep, and I assume even if the Freep is someday down to three reporters, I would hope someone would be following U-M,” he said. “You look at any number of good universities that used to be covered by mid-sized and larger papers, you used to find two or three education reporters covering the institutions, two or three health reporters covering the health systems and research coming out of these institutions.”
The waning influence of the local media has prompted U-M and its brethren to beef up its public relations staff and use social media or email to speak directly to what they refer to as “stakeholders.” Between 2005 and 2011, the number of jobs with the words “marketing,” “communications” or “public relations” on the U-M payroll zoomed to 217 from 162, a 32 percent increase, according to public data available on MichiganDaily.com.
That meshes with a well-documented trend across the American media landscape where, according to a 2010 study co-authored by McChesney, publicists now outnumber journalists by more than four to one. “It wouldn’t shock me if it’s five- or six-to-one ratio now because we’re losing so many journalists,” he groused.
Entities like U-M “are filling the void with their own publicity that’s more to their liking. The ability to have an adversarial relationship is diminished.”
What’s more, Pope said many public relations departments hire local media veterans, effectively “subsuming the reporters who used to cover them.” Some are effective communicators who understand journalistic needs and pressures, but their output is “not a substitute for serious accountability journalism at the local and state level,” he said.
That Ann Arbor’s misery has company is of little solace to those who live and study here. But solutions are elusive given how dramatically the print newspaper business has lost its ability to make money. (To illustrate the deflated values, The New York Times sold The Boston Globe for $70 million last month, 20 years after buying it for $1.1 billion.) Some regions, including San Diego and Texas, have turned to nonprofit journalism outlets in which angel investors fund the reporting largely out of civic duty. But as yet none has sought to fill the gap left by local newspapers’ atrophied coverage of the nation’s major universities.
There is, in fact, a nonprofit publication focused squarely on the local campus: The Michigan Daily. If the Internet has disrupted the professional media industry, it also has made the student paper’s coverage more available than ever and increased the possibility that its scoops could redound in the regional or national press. Turnover and inexperience, once The Daily’s main drawback, now plague AnnArbor.com almost as much.
“The Daily is well-positioned to be an authority as much today as they ever were,” Bigelow said. “They’re the ones covering the faculty senate meetings and student government meetings every time, they’re the ones with multiple people out there every day.”
Proppe agreed: “You walk into the building, you see the newsstand. It gives it prominence. The Michigan Daily does a pretty good job of doing investigative reporting on student issues, maybe not administrative issues as much, though.”
Pope said he hopes U-M and its peers will begin to understand the dangers of a weak, overmatched local media. He said he’s heard university leaders and faculty here and elsewhere proudly proclaim they’ve canceled their subscriptions in protest of uncomfortable or incorrect coverage when, in fact, as educators they ought to be trying to help improve it. “One thing I always tell college presidents is that the best thing they can do to improve journalism is to send their best students into it. I would hope that institutions would recognize that they and their communities are not well-served by the demise of local media.”
Morgan believes a turnaround requires “an editor and publisher to decide that it’s a top priority.”
Bigelow, like McChesney, doubts it’s that easy. “I don’t see anything on the horizon that would change the current setup,” he said somberly, “except to make an even more lopsided situation.”
Steve Friess is a former Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan who recently moved back to the Ann Arbor area after a stint as a senior writer for Politico in Washington, D.C. Prior to his fellowship year, Friess freelanced regularly for The New York Times, Newsweek and dozens of other publications mainly from Las Vegas and Beijing. He can be reached at email@example.com.