Michigan’s Continued Journalism Drain

By on February 21st, 2020

If you haven’t noticed, there are fewer, if any reporters working at Michigan and the country’s newspapers in the last decade. They were the public’s eyes and ears for what’s taking place in their backyards and standing on guard as a watchdog over politicians and community leaders. 

SACRAMENTO, CA – MARCH 10: A man looks at a Sacramento Bee newspaper rack March 10, 2006 in Sacramento, California. McClatchy Company, the publisher of the Sacramento Bee and other papers across the U.S. is said to lead bidding for Knight Ridder newspapers after bidding closed Tursday for the multi-billion dollar newspaper chain. Gannett Company, MediaNews Group Inc. and dozens of other papers have reportedly bid as well. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Now we are losing all of that. We have lost our front row seats to see what’s taking place in our government.  There may be “Freedom of the Press,” but there’s no press to protect and preserve. 

When I took my college journalism last week to my former Northern Michigan newspaper last week, it was like walking into a morgue. The place was nearly vacant.

General Manager Christy Lyons had left the week before after 24 years of service because she couldn’t lay off any more staff. Executive Editor Jeremy McBain for the Petoskey News-Review, and now state editor for several dozen newspapers, was one of the few remaining in the newsroom. 

McBain attempted to put a positive spin on what’s happened to the paper that has provided news to Petoskey residents since its beginning.  The first newspaper in Emmet County was founded by Rozelle Rose in Petoskey in 1875. He printed on a headpress, feeding each sheet into the press one at a time.

It was hard not to say much while sitting there listening to him.  I had hired Jeremy and promoted Christy to management after the Alanson native returned home after graduating from the University of Michigan.  He and Lyons were two of the few remaining that I had hired.

The staff chatter and noise from the presses has been replaced by silence in an office now full of mostly empty desks.  The staff of some 120 full and part-time staff had dropped to just over 30, and the print circulation of 12,500 to just about 4,000 since I left.  I originally moved to Petoskey from the Lansing State Journal  in 1972 for half the wage be a reporter and photographer.  I then departed to become a college instructor 12 years ago after my 34-year career at the News-Review. 

Ironically, back then the State Journal’s new owner, Gannett, was the reason I left my hometown newspaper.  Then Publisher Louis Weil sold his group of mid-size papers–Federated Newspapers–that included the Battle Creek Enquirer and Port Huron Times-Herald and a few northwest newspapers in 1972. 

Even at age 22, I learned what happens when someone new takes over a newspaper: They cut expenses and staff.   I was a young up-and-comer, but didn’t like seeing what was happening to the many journalists and editors I looked up to when I started there as a young writer at age 14. Gannett back then was a much different and healthier company than it is now; the only commonality is the name. It maintained higher standards for good journalism than GateHouse, known for poor newspapers after slashing and burning its acquisitions.

Back at the Petoskey News-Review, Jeremy pointed out that circulation is much larger when one adds the on-line audience; unfortunately the revenue from digital products is about a third or less of what newspapers get from print advertising.

When two of America’s largest newspaper chains announced last August that they would merge and bring hundreds of local newsrooms under a single company, I suspected it would mean the near death for many community newspapers, including the one I worked for in Petoskey for 34 years.

Unfortunately, I was right.  That’s why local general manager, Christy Lyons, quit after 26 years: There weren’t any more staff to lay off.  One of the final moves was to shut down the press and lay off the staff; to save money the paper will now be printed in Detroit and brought up north daily along with the Detroit Free Press.

“Since we made the announcement about our press closing, I’ve heard a lot of negative comments from readers and community members”, she wrote in her final column.  “As difficult as some of these recent changes have been, I don’t blame GateHouse, Gannett, or any of the other large newspaper companies. People simply aren’t consuming their news in the same way anymore. More people are reading their news online and many of those people don’t want to pay for it. Additionally, advertisers have shifted more of their dollars online into companies like Google and Facebook. Gannett is just trying to keep the newspaper business alive and, unfortunately, with a drop-in advertising and circulation revenue, must come a drop-in expense to stay in the black,” she wrote. 

My own guess is that the 30,000 square foot building that houses the Petoskey News-Review across from the city will be sold like many of the other Michigan newspaper buildings have been, from Grand Rapids to Detroit, and across the rest of the state.  The skeleton staff will probably be housed in rented office in the downtown area as has happened with other newspapers.

New Media Investment Group, the parent company of GateHouse Media, said that it had arrived at an agreement to acquire Gannett (GCI) for a combination of stock and cash.  Both companies have vast portfolios. Gannett publishes USA Today, in addition to many well-known local newspapers. GateHouse Media operates in 612 markets in 39 states. The $1.4 billion merger will result in an estimated annual savings of approximately $275 to $300 million, the companies said in a press release.

It’s the loan interest that will be owed to the equity firm that will tell the real story about the future of local journalism, the place where communities find out what’s taking place in its schools and local government.  The Detroit Free was the first daily newspaper in Michigan. It championed statehood for what was then a territory.  It was one of the first American newspapers to publish a Sunday edition, beginning in 1853. 

News continues to trickle out about the announced layoffs of veteran news staff.  As has happened in too many other cities, the once-daily Petoskey News-Review has lost its soul and institutional memory over the city and state it stood guard over for so many years.

One of the few bright stars emerging from this catastrophe has been Ann Arbor-based Bridge Magazine (https://www.bridgemi.com/) founded nearly a decade ago by former Michigan and Midwest newspaper publisher and U of M Regent Phil Power. The organization is run by long-time journalist, President & CEO John Bebow. Bridge is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization which provides fact-based journalism on the state’s diverse people, politics, and economy.  It also serves as a watchdog; the role once filled by print newspaper. It has been able to hire many veteran journalists and editors to fill the void created by the loss of Michigan newspapers.

Ken Winter

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

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