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 daily paper in town. After The Ann Arbor News shuttered its print edition in 2009 — and eventually its website, 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 help fill a void after more than 2,000 newspapers have closed or merged, leaving more than 1,300 communities 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, Kansas, 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, Vermont, 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 newsgathering 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.
“We’ve been given this mantle of holding the powerful accountable, five nights a week, with no department backing us up,” said Finntan Storer, 21, managing editor of the Daily. “It’s a huge responsibility.”
In a sign of how seriously the Daily takes its responsibility to fully cover the city, Maya Goldman, 21, was elected editor-in-chief only after she was able to name the 11 members of the City Council, along with their wards and party affiliations.
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 of Michigan. The company regularly publishes articles about Ann Arbor, including in a twice-weekly print digest branded as The Ann Arbor News, and it employs a staff of local journalists who cover the city’s government, real estate, police and other beats.
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, most of which have suffered through annual cuts to their news pages and editorial staffs, 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, California, 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, such as an annual issue that includes baby photos of graduating seniors and brings in up to $45,000, he said.
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.
Like the local news industry at large, the Daily, which had a daily circulation of 10,000 copies only a few years ago, has struggled to retain print readers.
Across the United States, digital readership of campus newspapers has continued to grow while print advertising revenues have plummeted. The University of Maryland at College Park’s student newspaper, The Diamondback, announced this month that it would begin publishing only online in March, joining a long list of student newspapers that have cut back or ceased print production in recent years.
Other challenges facing student journalists include the temporary nature of their positions. Unlike their professional counterparts, student reporters and editors learn on the job, and they invariably move on after a few semesters, well before developing sources or truly understanding the complexities of their beat, whether City Hall or the financial markets.
“I’ve pretty much become the institutional memory,” said Crane, who has worked for Arizona State in Washington for nine years, overseeing an army of students who have come and gone.
Shelby Lindsay, 23, who worked as a reporter and camerawoman for Cronkite News in Washington during her final semester at Arizona State, said it was too easy for people in authoritative positions — such as police or elected officials — to ignore student requests for interviews.
“People didn’t always take us seriously,” she said, and “older journalists who’ve been doing this for years just kind of look at you like you’re not there.”
On a recent evening, undergraduates wearing shorts and Michigan sweatshirts crowded around long tables in the Daily’s newsroom, housed on the top floor of the university’s art deco-inspired student publications building. A cluster of sports reporters was watching the Washington Nationals play the Milwaukee Brewers. As deadlines loomed, bagels and cream cheese sat largely forgotten.
Reporters are expected to write their articles in the newsroom, usually seated across from their editors. “If it’s getting late we can breathe down their necks a little bit,” said Leah Graham, 20, the paper’s no-nonsense city and government editor, who was waiting for more reporters to arrive from a city planning commission meeting and other events around town.
Elizabeth Nelson, a member of Ann Arbor’s City Council who started a blog to keep residents informed about the council’s votes and agendas, said the student newspaper covers a lot of things that MLive.com does not, adding that local journalism is even more crucial at a time when many residents are getting information — and disinformation — through social media.
While Nelson said she appreciates that the Daily’s journalists contact her for comment and context, she said their lack of institutional memory can make their reporting — and the students who read it — vulnerable to political spin.
“Council members are able to frame issues in a way that’s compelling for university students who don’t necessarily understand the history,” she said.
Many residents simply wish there was more local journalism.
Edward Vielmetti, 54, who works for a technology company and has lived in Ann Arbor for 37 years, said he misses the days when he could turn to one source for the latest city news, including restaurant openings, real estate prices or school board meetings. An avid follower of local politics, he said he often attends City Council meetings, where he has met some of the Daily’s staff.
“It would be nice to not have them be the only reporters in the audience, and yet they are there,” he said. “Without The Michigan Daily, this town would be a lot poorer for knowledge about what’s actually happening.”
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