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Introducing Minutes, a new tool to keep track of local government in Michigan

All information from local government meetings is public. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find.

Most cities and counties in Michigan do a decent job of publishing information about these meetings online. But if you go looking for it, you will quickly find yourself in a maze of drop down menus, pdf links and videos that stretch on for hours.

Helping to navigate all this information is a big part of what local news organizations do. But we can’t be everywhere.

So Michigan Radio is trying a new approach.

Today we introduce Minutes, a new project at Michigan Radio to help make public meetings in Michigan more public.

Here's how to subscribe.

You can now subscribe to podcasts of city council meetings for more than 40 cities in Michigan.

We’ve been working on this project for more than a year, with funding from the Google News Initiative. And what we've built is a program that can search for and download content from the videos of public meetings from dozens of cities and counties from every corner of Michigan.

These meeting videos are made available by the cities and counties themselves, and the content is already public thanks to Michigan's Open Meetings Act

One way we’re making these meetings more public is by setting up new podcast feeds, so you can subscribe and listen to the meetings for your city. You can listen whenever is convenient for you – in the kitchen, in the car, or out on a walk. And, you can fast-forward through the parts that aren’t relevant to your life. Every public meeting in the feed comes directly from the city’s own broadcast. The audio is unedited, and there are no ads. 

We’ve already created feeds for more than 40 cities in Michigan. You can find the full list and subscribe here.

But Minutes is more than the podcast feeds. We’re also using speech-to-text transcription technology to create a database that allows our newsroom to keep better track of what’s happening in these local meetings. When we can't assign a reporter to cover the meeting live, we'll still be able to know what happened from these automatically-generated transcripts. Anyone who’s ever used a speech-to-text tool knows the transcription isn’t always perfect. So we’re not publishing those transcripts. But we have created a database to store them so that our reporters can search for key words and topics to inform our reporting. So far, we have transcripts for 500 of these public meetings, with new ones coming in almost every day.

Our hope is this tool will allow our reporters to go deeper on stories, to draw connections between communities that we may not have known were there. And, we hope it will mean that we can do more stories about communities that rarely get coverage on Michigan Radio.

We all know that local journalism is facing a challenging time. A report from the University of North Carolina calculated that Michigan had 78 fewer newspapers in 2019 than it did in 2004. The pandemic made the business of local news even more precarious. News organizations across the state have had to furlough, or lay off reporters just to stay alive. 

All of this means there are fewer reporters around to keep you informed about local government meetings in this state. Local journalism is worth supporting, and we're hopeful that news organizations in our state will bounce back. But at Michigan Radio, we want to do our part to help keep you informed. With Minutes, we'll be able to track local governments better than before. 

So stay tuned for more coverage from us. 

And if you have any questions or suggestions, you can reach us at minutes@michiganradio.org

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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