ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Municipal committee meetings — the tedious minutiae of Ann Arbor’s local governance — do not tend to draw a crowd. On a recent afternoon, Katherina Sourine was among only a few in attendance.
But Sourine, a University of Michigan senior, was there because she had to be. As one of four city and government reporters for Ann Arbor’s sole daily newspaper, she had biked through a steady rain between classes to take notes on the city’s plans for developing a new park.
“If we weren’t covering it, no one would know what’s going on,” said Sourine, 21, who also plays rugby and is taking a full schedule of classes this semester. “It’s really hard to take time out of my day, especially when breaking news hits. But a lot of people rely on us to stay informed — not only students, but the people of Ann Arbor.”
For more than a decade, the Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper, has been the only paper in town. After the Ann Arbor News shuttered its print edition in 2009 — and eventually its online presence, too — a staff of about 300 student journalists has worked hard to provide incisive coverage about the city’s police, power brokers and policymakers, all while keeping up with school.
Student journalists across the country have stepped in to fill a void after more than 2,000 newspapers have closed or merged, leaving more than 1,300 towns without any local news coverage. And several young reporters have broken consequential stories that have prodded powerful institutions into changing policies.
A high school newspaper in Pittsburg, Kan., forced the resignation of the principal after discovering discrepancies in her résumé. After writing an article about a school employee’s unprofessional conduct charges, high school editors in Burlington, Vt., won a censorship battle against their principal.
And when the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine resigned abruptly last month, a 20-year-old junior at Arizona State University broke the news in the school’s student newspaper, a scoop that gained international attention. The university’s Cronkite News Service has offices in Phoenix and Los Angeles, as well as in Washington, where this semester 10 student journalists are contributing to more than 30 professional news outlets in Arizona.
“We’re the largest Arizona-based newsgathering operation in Washington because we’re the only Arizona-based newsing operation in Washington,” said Steve Crane, director of Washington operations at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Despite little training and no university journalism program, the staff of the Michigan Daily has embraced its vital role. Last year, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it published a lengthy investigation that detailed sexual misconduct allegations against a professor, leading to his early retirement. In 2014, the paper published a major scoop about a sexual assault that the university concealed to protect a football player.
And on the first day of classes this semester, the Daily reported that the university had quietly stopped offering free testing for sexually transmitted diseases, prompting protests that forced the school’s administration to reinstate the program.
The Daily also covers issues that matter to Ann Arbor’s 121,000 residents, such as the inner workings of the municipal government, cuts to the county’s mental health budget, and a police oversight commission that was created last year in response to the shooting death of a black woman and the violent arrest of a black teenager.
Ann Arbor became the first city of any size to lose its only daily newspaper when the Ann Arbor News ceased print publication after 174 years and many rounds of staff cuts. The Ann Arbor Chronicle, an online news publication that focused on city government, folded in 2014 after six years.
Today, the Daily’s closest competitor is MLive.com, a news website owned by Advance Publications that covers the state. Although the company regularly publishes articles about Ann Arbor, including in a twice-weekly print digest branded as the Ann Arbor News, some residents said the student paper has often more effectively covered the community.
Unlike many college newspapers, the Daily has financial support — in the form of a $4.5 million endowment — to sustain its breadth of reporting, said Neil Chase, chairman of the university’s student publications board.
Metropolitan daily newspapers would quite likely envy the Daily’s rare financial position, said Chase, who was its editor-in-chief in the 1980s and is the former executive editor of the Mercury News in San Jose, Calif., and the East Bay Times in Northern California.
“In a city of 100,000 people, you have to decide if you’re going to cover a City Council meeting, a car crash, or some other local news because you only have a few people to go around,” he said. But the Daily “has so many people, they don’t have to make those tough decisions.”
During the academic year its print edition, with a circulation of about 7,500, is dropped off five days a week at more than 100 locations on and off campus, said Tommy Dye, 20, the paper’s business manager. Print costs are mostly covered by advertising revenue, helped in large part by special sections.
Still, as reader habits have shifted, the newsroom has embraced a more digital future. Its website fetches nearly 500,000 page views every month, and the staff has created four podcasts, including a weekly news podcast that includes coverage of city issues.