#Ferguson Shows Why Citizen Journalism Is Still Critical

If you’ve been keeping up with the news from Ferguson, Missouri, chances are a lot of the updates and photos are coming from individuals who aren’t journalists, posting live video feeds from their cell phones. When members of the traditional media were being arrested by the police, and the cable news stations were all kicked out or, in the case of Al Jazeera Television, fired at with gas grenades, it was often the alternative news sources and citizen journalists who fed us new information and updates.

I spent most of last Friday night, as well as last night (Monday), following what was happening in Ferguson through a variety of Twitter users, including Vice News, Alice Speri, Ryan Reilly, and Adam Serwer, as well as alderman Antonio French (who was arrested Friday night), his wife @Senka, and several LiveStream, Ustream, and Vine users. That’s not to say the mainstream media wasn’t there — they were. But on that first night, most of the video footage and images they replayed over and over on CNN were coming from people uploading them from their phones to Twitter and Instagram.

 

I won’t rehash what’s been happening this week — the militarized police response, the protests, the tear gas and the flash grenades. The fact that you know about it at all is thanks to the mainstream media, the alternative and non-traditional media (Huffington Post, Vice News, Freedom of the Press), and citizen journalists. (Update: The police kicked nearly all the media out of the area at 12:00 am CDT, often pointing guns, firing tear gas, and threatening to arrest them. One journalist, Tim Pool, allegedly had his press badge ripped off his chest and told by a police officer, he “didn’t give a shit.”)

Citizen journalists can range from anyone with a Twitter account and a cell phone to an independent news organization as complex as a large blog or an online news website, like The American Reporter (disclosure: I’ve been the humor columnist for the American Reporter since 1997). And anyone with that basic technology can record and disseminate news on a micro scale, or have your content seen around the world by tens of thousands of people.

While the term citizen journalists is often spoken with air quotes around that second word, especially by professional journos, they still play an important role in getting out early information. Ever since George Holliday recorded the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles 20 years ago with a Sony Handycam, private citizens have become citizen watchdogs against the police, the government, and in some cases, even the media themselves.

In many cases, they’ve been doing it without protection, at their own risk, and without the benefit of a publication’s legal team to back them up. They’re the people who find themselves at the center of the action and rather than run away, they pull out their cell phones, hit the button, and stand around a little longer than is safe or wise.

This means anyone can upload videos of things they think are wrong, or want to record for posterity and history.

Of course this means we also have to become critical thinkers and viewers, making sure that what we’re seeing is real, and not a hoax. That we’re re-sharing news from people we trust, and not just blindly retweeting everything with the trending hashtag of the day.

We Also Need to Trust Our Technology

But while we were watching Ferguson news on Twitter, it turns out Facebook’s algorithm didn’t even allow #Ferguson news to show up in our news feeds at all. On that Friday night, if you weren’t looking at Twitter, you didn’t even know anything was going on. (And if you rely on Twitter’s U.S. trending reports to see what’s happening, you were told that #ThatsSoRaven was infinitely more important than #Ferguson, as the tweens’ show trended that night, while the civil unrest in our own country was supposedly not even happening. The hashtag trended in individual cities like Indianapolis and Nashville, but not the country as a whole.)

Medium writer Zeynep Tufecki argues that this shows why not only is net neutrality important — what if Facebook and Twitter didn’t want us to know about Ferguson? They didn’t mess with the algorithm, but what if they had decided to play that card? — but even the technology used by both real and citizen journalists could be affected. California is considering legislation that will require “kill switches” in cell phones. While the technology is there to discourage violent cell phone theft, who’s to say an overeager militarized police department won’t force a wireless company to throw that same switch when they’re about to come down on a crowd of protestors?

Citizen journalism isn’t going away, despite the gnashing of teething and rending of garments by the professional journalists who look down on the amateurs with only slightly less scorn than a militarized police force. It’s here to stay, and as we’ve seen in Ferguson, it sometimes may be the only source of information we have for a while.

Crisis Communications Needs Social Media to Be First, Be Right, Be Credible

Crisis communications has one overriding mantra, one foundational principle that drives every emergency they respond to: “Be first. Be right. Be credible.”

If you’re not first, you’ll spend your time playing catch up for hours, days, or even weeks.
If you’re not right, your mistake will be repeated, or worse, cited as the truth.
And if you’re not first or right, you will never, ever be credible.

Crisis communication — also called CERC, or Crisis Emergency and Risk Communication — is what emergency first responders use to communicate with the media and the general public. It’s how the health department communicates warnings and updates during a public health emergency. It’s how Homeland Security communicates with the public during a terrorist attack.

CERC, compared to corporate crisis communications, is all about getting the right information out as soon as possible, and being seen as the source for news and information about an incident.

But it’s not happening anymore.

Five years ago, it was enough to just email a press release — which had been approved by a committee — to the mainstream media. Then you answered media calls and arranged interviews. You didn’t communicate with the public, you communicated with TV and newspapers.

But the definition of “the media” has changed. Today, anyone with a smartphone and YouTube is a TV journalist. Anyone with a smartphone and Facebook is a photojournalist. Anyone with a laptop and a blog is a newspaper reporter. The citizen journalist is the person with news to share and a way to share it. Quickly.

This makes the mainstream media crazy.

Not only are the citizen journalists breaking news before the media, they are becoming the first, right, credible sources of information, not CERC.

These days, news is coming from the people who are on the ground. They’re repeating everything they hear and see, and everyone else is passing it on.

CERC communicators need up-to-date technology if they’re going to stay up to speed. They need access to the various social networks if they want to reach the public. Using 4-year-old Blackberries and laptops is not enough anymore. And letting IT block all access to social media networks only makes the problem worse.

(I’ll save the discussion about why IT should not be involved in communication issues for another time.)

If CERC communicators want to stay on top of a situation, rather than being third in the race, they need to remember their roots. They need to use the technology that will make them first. They need to learn how to be right without committee approval.

Because until that happens, they’re not going to be credible.

The Newspaper Industry Isn’t in a Position to Sneer at the Blogosphere

The Indianapolis Star just suffered another round of layoffs this week, losing 81 jobs to Gannett’s ineptitude and bean counting. Of these cuts, 26 of them were in the newsroom — including 8 reporters and 12 editors — and 19 were unfilled jobs, all made in the name of budgetary concerns and profitability. The cuts were part of Gannett’s larger bloodletting of 700 employees nationwide.

Meanwhile, their CEO raked in $9.4 million in 2010, doubling his pay from 2009, including a $1.75 million blood moneybonus that was partly a result of his “restructuring costs and creating efficiencies.” Translation: ruin the lives of 700 people, and we’ll give you their salaries.

Newspaper machines

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Believe me, even though I’ve called for more citizen journalism — and this is exactly why — I have complete sympathy for the Star employees who just lost their livelihood because Gannett wasn’t making enough of a profit. I worry about them and their families. Gannett seems to excel at accounting and numbers, but they suck at news reporting and suffer from a complete lack of understanding of community. Where Indianapolis readers see stories and personalities, Gannett sees dollar signs.

But Bobby King, president of the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild, managed to throw a damper on my sympathies stick his thumb in my eye with this line from his latest blog post.

So, the answer that Star publisher Karen Crotchfelt came up with was to gut suburban coverage, eliminate an entire layer of copy editors (that last line of defense which separates us from the animals in the blogosphere) and make a nip here and a tuck there to reduce expenses.

Animals in the blogosphere?

The one thing I can’t stand from journalists is the way they look down on bloggers with this sense of smug superiority. Look, you guys don’t have any special knowledge or skills that any other writer can’t get. You have editors who save you from misspellings and continuity issues. Without them, you’re no better than we are. You print your words on dead trees, we print ours on a free software platform. Your printers cost millions of dollars, and without them, you’re dead in the water. I run my entire corporate blogging business on a $1,000 laptop, and if it breaks, I can get another one and never miss a beat. Our industry is growing, yours is shrinking.

If journalists want to survive this, they’ll quit looking down on the blogosphere as the gathering of the great unwashed and recognize it’s the future of news. They’ll quit acting like the crew of the Titanic and sneering, “ew, a rescue boat? How droll.”

Look, Bobby, I know you’re pissed, and scared, and are watching the dismantling of a once-great newspaper by some clueless nimrod 1,000 miles away. But don’t attack bloggers or refer to us as animals. Sure, we didn’t go to J-school or spend 20 years honing our craft. But blogging is more than 15 years old, and there are some bloggers who can outwrite most newspaper reporters. Hell, a lot of reporters and columnists have found a new career and a new voice as a blogger. (And it wasn’t lost on me that your “animal” comment was made on a blog.) But these former journalists are the ones who make blogging better.

So you can sneer at bloggers all you want, but we’re going to be here for a long time. You can look down on us, or you can join us.

Photo credit: evelynyll (Flickr)

A Look at Old School Journalism

When I wrote for my college newspaper, the Ball State Daily News, one of the things I liked to do was to put some paper in the manual typewriter, hammer out a few sentences, rip it out of the typewriter, and yell “COPY!!” which would always crack my editor up.

This was back in about 1988, when we thought that kind of news writing — furiously banging out news copy on clackety old typewriters — was old-fashioned, and that nobody did it anymore. After all, we were nearly at the 21st century, using dummy terminals to put all of our news into a mainframe that would process the story into a single column, where it could be printed, cut, waxed, and pasted up on the layout page.

The fact that I just used terms that most younger readers don’t know — paste up, wax, typewriter — probably renders the whole COPY!! joke unfunny.

I recently spoke to some journalism classes at Ball State about how to blog for newspapers. I tried referencing a few of my student journalism experiences, and even told an OJ Simpson story, and was met with blank stares. I didn’t realize until later that many of these students were born the year before I got married. They were two when the OJ Simpson trial was going on.

Still, I always appreciate the history of journalism, and I like knowing things about it, like the fact that copy boys were the boys who ran around the newsroom, grabbing papers out of writers’ hands. Writers who had just ripped their story out of the typewriter and shouted “COPY!!

I was interested to find this video in a post, “How to be an Old School Journalist,” on Alltop.com. While the segment at 5:06 may be a little… upsetting, keep in mind that the video is around 70 years old.

Although I’m not sure exactly how old the movie is, you get some clues just by looking at the hats and suits, the cars, and even the phones. It’s an interesting look at what they thought of journalists — and women — back in those days.

It’s even more interesting when you realize how far we have come as a news gathering society.

  • According to Google’s Eric Schmidt, we produce as much data in 2 days as we produced from the dawn of history up to 2003.
  • More women blog than men. In fact, the Blogher Network boasts 2,500 women bloggers as part of their network alone.
  • A story written for a blog can be produced in minutes, not hours. Publication of a post is immediate. No typesetting, printing, or delivery. Hit Publish, and it’s out there. A news story can be written in minutes, but then it has to be pasted up (electronically, of course), and then printed, and delivered. The shortest amount of time it can take is 4 – 6 hours from the completion of the story.
  • To own a major newspaper takes millions of dollars and requires specialized knowledge to run specialized machines that only serve one purpose: to put ink on paper. To run a major blog takes a $1,000 laptop and a wifi connection. And when you’re done, you can watch a movie on it.

In Linchpin (affiliate link), Seth Godin talks about how the factory, the means of production, can be owned for $3,000 for a laptop (Seriously? $3,000? Seth, call me. I’ve got a deal on a few Dells for you, 2,000 bucks each.)

Bil Browning, owner of the Bilerico Project (the largest LGBT news blog on the web) runs his blog with four directors/editors, and 90 contributors (I even contributed an article last year). But he doesn’t have an office, doesn’t have printing presses, doesn’t have any overhead, other than his servers, and the salaries for him and his four directors. When I compare the low cost — $1,000 for a laptop — and ease of which he is able to reach hundreds of thousands of readers each month versus the time and effort we put into reaching people via newspaper today versus the time and effort we put into reaching people via newspaper 70 years ago, it’s a wonder we ever got it done at all. It’s also easy to see how Bil is able to reach his readership much more easily and cheaply than most big city newspapers.

Watch the video, see how our grandparents and great-grandparents got their news and information, and see if you’re not amazed.

Wither Goest the Newspaperman? Why Blogging is Killing Print Media.

Whither goest the newspaperman, that bastion of bulletins, that purveyor of print?

He is, I’m afraid, about to be swallowed up by the electronic era.

When I was in college, I wanted to be a reporter. I wanted my stories to be delivered with a thwack! on the front porch. To be folded up and carried in a suit pocket. To be clipped and stuck to the fridge. I wanted to use words like “lede” and “slug line.” I wanted to rip my story out of a typewriter, and shout “COPY!” (I used to do this when I wrote for my college newspaper, to great laughs from my editor.)

Sadly, it was not to be. Instead, I work as a professional blogger, and am looked down on by “real” journalists at “real” newspapers. (Full disclosure: I am also a newspaper humor columnist, appearing in 10 weekly print newspapers around the state. So there.)

Last year, 53 weeks ago in fact, I wrote a humor column about Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, who wrote his own column sneering at bloggers with:

I DON’T have a blog. If I did blog, this is what it would be like. (To make it seem like a real blog, I’ll include typos and factual errors.)

I would link to Stu’s original column, but it, like most of his fellow newspaper reporters, are no longer available. They have been cast aside, presumably to make room for newer, more up-to-date pieces.Stack of old newspapers

Bykofsky, who is perhaps best known for saying this country “need(s) another 9/11” needs to realize that blogging is not going to go away. Newspapers, on the other hand, are fast disappearing from our landscape. I think reporters would do well to rethink their attitude.

To paraphrase Chicago humorist Rex Huppke (@RexHuppke):

It’s funny when journalists mock (blogging). It’s also funny when people about to be eaten by a bear mock the bear.

Huppke’s quote was originally about Twitter, but mocking a bear is mocking a bear.

So what are the journalists’ complaints about blogging? That we didn’t go to journalism school? They’re teaching electronic media writing in J-school right now. That our pieces aren’t properly fact-checked and vetted by editors? Disgraced plagiarizer fabricator New York Times reporter Jayson Blair could tell you a thing or two about that. Or is it that our stories aren’t printed on dead trees? I found Bykofsky’s original column online.

Citizen journalists — the people who are picking up the slack that the mainstream media are missing — have taken to the web to cover the news and write about the issues that journalists have been missing. If they’re not former journalists who became bloggers, they’re learning how to do proper journalism. The really good citizen journalists are writing stories that are just as good, if not better, than a lot of the mainstream media stories.

These modern day pamphleteers share the news and their opinions via a blog instead of a printing press. And while they are still looked down on, these citizen journalists have uncovered a lot of stories that Byofsky and his ilk have ignored, overlooked, or scorned. We’re breaking the news before The News does.

Griping about bloggers is nothing but pure elitism. Snob journalism at its finest. When children start playing a game, it’s not uncommon for the child on the losing team to pout, whine, and make excuses for why he’s playing poorly. And Bykofsky’s blogging gripes make him sound like he’s taking his ball and going home.

The newspaper industry has been in decline ever since the advent of radio and TV news. It slipped further into decline when Craigslist became popular. And now, blogging is threatening to be the final stake through print journalism’s heart.

We’ve seen significant gutting at our local paper (the Indianapolis Star will now be laid out in Louisville. Sounds about right for Gannett.), and journalists are being thrown overboard left and right.

A friend of mine worked for the Associated Press in Indianapolis, and was let go right before Christmas 2009, after 17 years of service. Why? The AP was losing money because fewer newspapers were licensing their content. So rather than stick with the professional who had the most experience and best judgment, they let him go in favor of someone with a lower salary and less experience. In another state.

So we have younger, less experienced journalists — remotely — running our country’s newsrooms, and it’s bloggers who are being dismissed out of hand as Not Real Journalists?

I’m sad to be watching all of this unravel. I think the decline of the big city American print newspaper is one of the great tragedies of our time. But I also see the future of the industry, and if it’s going to survive, it’s going to be online, not on dead trees.

Journalists need to stop deriding blogging, and embrace it instead. Learn how to do it now, rather than watching it pass by. You can either mock the bear or turn and face it. Otherwise, your next byline will be from the south end of a north-bound bear.

For related reading, check out:

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Rules for Being a Media Blogger

This was originally posted at the DeckersMarketing.com blog on May 28, 2009.

I was really honored to be selected as a media blogger for the Indianapolis 500 this year (I’m covering it at my Laughing Stalk humor blog). I’m sitting up here with a lot of local talent, although there are a lot of empty seats right now (I’m in Dennis Neal’s seat from WLW radio in Cincinnati).Indy 500 Media Center

I learned a long time ago that there are a couple of unwritten (and written) rules for media people. And if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for a sports team or major event, you need to follow these rules. They’re the same ones the big-J Journalists follow every day. (“Big-J Journalist” implies that these people are serious journalists who make their living writing and producing important work. These guys look down on bloggers, because we’re not serious or well accepted in journalistic circles.)

  1. Never geek out. You were probably invited because you’ve got a passion for writing and for the team you’re covering. However, you’re the media now. You’re not a fanboy who bumped into your favorite player at a McDonald’s. Play it cool, be mature, and don’t try to be their buddy. You’re there to get a story, just like the real Journalists (see, I even used a big J), so act your age and get it done.
  2. Never ask for autographs or photos. My friend Amanda, who writes Red Hot Mama, the Cincinnati Reds/National League Central fan blog, said she once tried to get some media credentials for a Reds game, and was told it would never happen. It seems the year before, they allowed a blogger into the locker room, but the guy geeked out and asked for autographs and photos with the players. The guy turned into a total fanboy and gave the PR staff the only reason they would ever need to not invite bloggers to cover the team again. Now, we can argue the Reds are missing some great PR and coverage, but until that PR director leaves, he’s willing to give it up to avoid the hassles and headaches.
  3. Blogging is not big-J Journalism. And it never will be if you don’t act like it. Sure there are writers like Chris Brogan, Jason Falls, and even political writers like Matt Drudge and the Daily Kos are all professional bloggers and speakers. They take their reputations and brands seriously, and work hard to make blogging an accepted form of media. If you’re going to be a serious blogger — and maybe we should start calling ourselves big-B Bloggers — write your blog as if you have a serious brand to promote.
  4. On the other hand, you’re not there to write fluff either. Don’t feel like you have to be the company yes man on anything. I was eating lunch today with a reporter who had also been a blogger for his newspaper. He wrote a not-so-nice post about one of the racers and his wife last year, and was griped at by the racer’s staff via email. While he is no longer blogging for his paper, he is still employed by them. He still writes critical pieces if he needs to, and realizes he’s not there to be the PR mouthpiece of the racers or their teams. The takeaway: if you find or see something that could be seen as negative, write about it anyway. Do it respectfully, and treat it like a big-J Journalist would. Write the facts, keep your opinion out of it, and be a professional.

Bloggers are still getting a bad rap from most of the mainstream media as being an unreliable source of news. And it will be, until we change our reputation and quality of work. That, and when the newspapers all go out of business, and network news is replaced by cable news and, well, blogs.

Until that time, as you grow your reputation and reach as a quality Big-B Blogger, practice journalistic techniques. Read books on newspaper writing (it’s still the gold standard of writing quality and ability), use Associated Press writing style, and study as many newspaper writers as you can.

But most importantly, for the love of God, don’t geek out.

Bloggers Are Citizen Journalists

A common complaint I hear from big-J Journalists about bloggers is that we’re not “real” journalists. That we’re somehow beneath their contempt and notice.

Bullshit. We’re citizen journalists!

I first saw this attitude when I worked at the Indiana State Department of Health, and a few of my colleagues said we would never deal with bloggers because they only wanted to put out bad information. And in dealing with other Journalists, they almost seemed to say “blogger” with a sneer. As if “blogger” was something they stepped in on their way to the office.

Bloggers are citizen journalists, like it or not.

Bloggers are citizen journalists, like it or not.

As a result, many Journalists don’t believe things like Reporter Shield Laws should apply to us citizen journalists. For example, if an environmental blog were to uncover environmental violations by a large corporation, that citizen journalist could be forced to reveal who his or her sources were. But if a newspaper wrote the same story, the reporter would not.

The biggest question comes down to who is a real journalist and who is only a blogger/citizen journalists. In the Branzburg v. Hayes case, Justice Byron White said

“Freedom of the press is a ‘fundamental personal right’ which ‘is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. … The press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.’ … The informative function asserted by representatives of the organized press in the present cases is also performed by lecturers, political pollsters, novelists, academic researchers, and dramatists.”

— Quote from an article by David Hudson of FirstAmendmentCenter.org

Even back in 1973, when Justice White threw open “The Press” to anyone who produced the printed word, technology has widened the definition to anyone who writes for blogs, the 21st century’s electronic pamphlet.

In his article, Hudson also cited Kurt Opsahl, the staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who mentioned a couple examples where bloggers outperformed the big-J Journalists

“Bloggers hammered on the Trent Lott story (Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond) until mainstream media was forced to pick it up again,” he said. “Three amateur journalists at the Powerline.com blog were primarily responsible for discrediting the documents used in CBS’s rush-to-air story on President George Bush’s National Guard service. And the list goes on.”

Cox lists several other national-headline stories affected greatly by reporting from blogs, including: Dan Rather and the Texas Air National Guard memos, the White House giving press credentials to James Guckert/Jeff Gannon, the resignation of CNN news executive Eason Jordan after publicity surrounding his remarks at the World Economic Forum and the John Kerry-Swift Boat Veterans for Truth controversy.

Or to put it another way, the big political scoops in the last 5 years have not been by the media, but by bloggers. Also called little-J journalists.

So, other than an overwhelming sense of elitism by the men and women of the dead-tree media, what really separates us from being real Journalists?

Is it the medium? Many former newspaper reporters and columnists have left the printed word, and gone on to start their own blogging career:

  1. Ruth Holladay who is serving brilliantly as a cheerleader for traditional media and a thorn in the side of her former employer, Gannett
  2. Lori Borgman the former arts columnist for the Indianapolis Star
  3. Columnist Saul Friedman who retired from Newsday rather than let his column go up behind a paywall

(I’m curious what their colleagues think? Have these writers somehow fallen from grace, and are no longer “good enough” to be considered Journalists? Are they now mentioned with the same sneer I heard three years ago?)

Maybe the pay is the issue. The fact that bloggers don’t get paid as much as newspaper writers (who, frankly, are not known for their lavish pay and glamorous lifestyle) may be the deciding factor. However, there are some online writers who make a lot more money than most successful businesspeople, let alone Journalists. So that argument doesn’t seem to hold weight.

Maybe it’s the training. The aforementioned paper-turned-pixel writers notwithstanding, Journalists seem to think they have the super-secret training that makes them a font of reliability and trustworthiness. Yet I know a lot of journalists who can’t spell, don’t know grammar, and in some cases, just plain can’t write. I took several journalism classes in college, and I can tell you they don’t teach anything extra special that someone with a penchant for the written word couldn’t pick up.

Even the Washington Post isn’t immune from bad writers. Meanwhile, there are several outstanding bloggers who produce some outstanding prose that would make any big-J Journalist green with envy.

Maybe it’s because the media is trustworthy and bloggers aren’t? You know, trustworthy. People like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Ruth Shalit. Of course, Shalit is back in journalism, Blair is a life coach in Virginia, and Glass is now a multi-millionaire, thanks to the book and movie deals he has gotten.

Admittedly, these three are the exception to the rule, and not the rule themselves. But my point is there are bad apples in blogging and bad apples in Journalism. Still if you’re going to accuse bloggers of not telling the truth, you need to look at the journalists who make stuff up too.

I just don’t see what the big difference is, other than bloggers don’t kill a lot of trees to get their message out through a dying medium. Yes, there are bad bloggers, but there are bad journalists. Yes, there are bloggers who lie, but there are lying journalists as well. (Some people might say that term is redundant.) Yes, journalists are trained as writers, but there are a lot of trained writers who use the electronic medium instead of newsprint.

If the U.S. Supreme Court opened up the definition of Citizen Journalists to pamphleteers and leaflet-writers, then they can certainly open it up to bloggers. And as bloggers, we need to make sure we can meet that expectation. We need to take on the mantle of Citizen Journalist ourselves, and then make sure we live up to that standard. (I’ll discuss that more in the future.)

So what do you think? Are bloggers journalists? Or are we a bunch of cranks sitting in our parents’ basement under bare light bulbs, writing about conspiracy theories and Paris Hilton sightings?

Stacks of newspapers photo: John Thurm
Ann Arbor News photo: mfophoto