Mary Morgan and Dave Askins
Getting people to care more about local government.
From the February, 2015 issue
"We didn't get married because the Chinese government said we have to!" says Dave Askins indignantly. He and Mary Morgan--editor and publisher, respectively, of the late Ann Arbor Chronicle--tied the knot in 1989, a few months before departing to China for a two-year stint teaching English. Morgan has just recalled how their employer there would not hire them as an unmarried couple; Askins bridles at the implication that they got married for any reason other than love. Morgan responds with a tolerant "oh, honey" laugh--and changes the subject,
Morgan and Askins have been mixing marriage and work ever since. They launched the Chronicle--which featured very detailed coverage of city council and other governmental meetings--on September 2, 2008, their nineteenth wedding anniversary. They retired it on their twenty-fifth anniversary last fall.
While freelance writers did some of the work, Askins estimates that they personally attended 180 meetings a year (though some are broadcast, they thought it important to be there in person). Advertising and reader contributions--which came to about 40 percent of the revenue the year before they closed--paid the bills, but the work was all-consuming. And Morgan recalls "constant worry" to the point that if she took time out to bake cookies, she felt guilty for not selling Chronicle ads. This past Christmas, for the first time in six years, the couple found time to put up a tree.
Now the pace is picking up again. At year's end they sent a fundraising letter to Chronicle supporters announcing their next bold goal: to "crack the nut of civic apathy."
The Chronicle kept Ann Arborites informed about local government and city issues. Their nonprofit, CivCity, will try to involve them. Morgan and Askins want to develop software to add a "civic ticker" to the local resource website ArborWiki.com, enabling and encouraging residents to post timely news items with links to background information. And they envision partnering with schools, libraries, and community centers to develop games (including a "Civic Quiz"
run on social media) and projects where young people could learn about local government.
"The point is to make residents think about their role within civic life and to think about local government," says Morgan. While Askins notes that Ann Arborites are more likely to have strong views on Obamacare than on downtown zoning, Morgan says that in her pre-Chronicle life as a reporter and editor for the Ann Arbor News, it became "increasingly clear to me you could actually make a difference in the community where you live."
Askins and Morgan meet me at the Kerrytown Sweetwaters, a mile from their Old West Side home. Askins biked here, and Morgan bussed (they gave up their car five years ago). Askins, fifty, sports a fluffy beard and large owlish glasses, and talks intensely and at length. Morgan, fifty-four, has a glowing complexion and brown hair that feathers at the ends, and talks to the point. (Friendly as I found them both, I occasionally wished Askins would shut up and Morgan would say more.)
Both grew up in the suburbs of Indianapolis. Morgan edited the newspaper of her large high school and acted in school plays, while Askins, though a top student, claims he "wasn't even on" his school's social ladder. They met in a graduate class on foreign-language teaching at Indiana University. On the final day of class, Morgan slipped a note in Askins' pocket with her phone number. Eighteen months later they were married and headed to China.
On their return in 1992, they landed in Rochester, New York. Morgan wrote for a business publication, while Askins completed the coursework for a PhD in linguistics at the University of Rochester and wrote a draft of a dissertation. But when his advisor insisted on major revisions, Askins recalls, his response was "OK, screw it"--and he said goodbye to a potential academic career. When Morgan landed a job at the News, the couple's future direction was set.
Asked what each brought to the Chronicle, Morgan says, "My strength was in the connection I had built in the community. I think Dave brings an incredibly analytical mind that works in the world in unique ways." Askins replies, "Mary Morgan is way more diplomatic than I am. My reflex is to be as blunt as possible in my interpersonal dealings."
That toughness was on display in 2010, when the Chronicle sued the city, alleging that city council was holding closed sessions in violation of the state Open Meetings Act. It was ultimately dismissed, but Askins claimed a moral victory: a follow-up article documented a dramatic drop in closed sessions after the suit was filed.
Askins and Morgan estimate that they poured 10 million words into the Chronicle. Though it's doubtful anyone else read them all, they added up to an invaluable resource for anyone who cared about local government. When the closure was announced, many readers mourned. "The Chronicle was a labor of love--love of community and love of accurate reporting," emails First Ward councilmember Sabra Briere.
Askins and Morgan are counting on that wave of goodwill to help bring CivCity to life. "Almost uniformly, people have said, 'It's a great idea, it's needed,'" says Morgan. "Because of our experience with the Chronicle, they're less skeptical."
As the Observer went to press, the couple was anxiously awaiting the results of their December fundraising appeal. The group A2Geeks, which agreed to be their "fiscal sponsor," planned to open and tally the tax-deductible checks in late January. The couple also are applying for a small grant. Their initial goal is $100,000. That would be enough, Morgan says, to allow them to "do general planning and development, working out details for programs and services."
If they raise less, she says, they will still launch CivCity, but incrementally. "We aren't independently wealthy," she says, and while Askins continues his small delivery-by-bicycle business, it's far from a moneymaker. If necessary, one or both will take another job.
Askins expresses cautious optimism about CivCity's prospects. He recalls with pleasure how the Chronicle partnered with the Ann Arbor District Library on its Summer Game: about fifteen individuals and families collected points by going to the polls in August and reporting on primary results.
"If we can accomplish that much with one tiny effort," he says, "I've got to believe that we can begin to move the needle on the question of civic engagement."
[Originally published in February, 2015.]
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