Local journalism needs passion and commitment to a community to succeed



It was the elephant in the room, after all.

While last week’s Breaking the News Part 1 panel discussion was meant to look forward on how to reinvigorate the level of local journalism Kalamazoo once enjoyed when the Gazette was a healthy, vibrant newspaper, inevitably someone would ask the panel to look back. Toward the end of the evening, the question came from the audience.

After 4-1/2 years of the Kalamazoo Gazette/Mlive’s digital/print integration, “how would you evaluate it? Does it seem like a vibrant business model, both journalistically or financially?”

The question was like a pitcher grooving a fastball right down the middle of the plate, daring a batter to swing at it. Instead, I expected the panel to be taking all the way. At first, that seemed to be just what the Battle Creek Enquirer’s executive editor Michael McCullough intended to do when he “stepped up” to the mic and said, “I can’t sit here and tell you what business model is better because I can’t see their financials.”

But then came his swing.

When it came to local journalism, “I think it’s an abject failure.”

Out of the park.

I was almost surprised the more than 60 people in attendance didn’t stand up and cheer for the affirmation of what they already felt. Why else would they be there? Why else  would InterCom, the Kalamazoo Area Association of Communication Professionals, feel the need to organize this panel discussion? Why did the logo for the event include a tag line “Local Story Missing!”? What stories weren’t we seeing anymore if not those we used to read in the Gazette?

“that connection to your community is the most important asset that you have, something I guard jealously.” – Michael McCullough, Battle Creek Enquirer

I am a board member of InterCom, and for 10 years I was a reporter for the Gazette, from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. To be clear, the InterCom board from the start formed this panel with a goal of looking ahead. Part 1 last week brought together representatives from a variety of journalistic endeavors across the state. We wanted to give those involved from our area in traditional and niche media, public relations and others a chance to learn from voices they may not normally hear or read. For that purpose, the panel discussion was a clear success.

But there was also something more to learn from McCullough’s answer, the need to hold a passion for local journalism in order to succeed at it. He described MLive’s efforts as a “perilous path they’re on, and believe me, I understand the pressures. But that connection to your community is the most important asset that you have, something I guard jealously.”

For the reporters and editors still working at MLive in Kalamazoo, Flint, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Muskegon, Grand Rapids and Bay City, the passion and commitment for local journalism is still evident. But their resources and staff numbers continue to fall.

Panel moderator Anna Clark, correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review, noted that MLive was invited to be on the panel, but the company declined.

The Enquirer and the Gazette were never true newspaper competitors except where their circulation areas abutted, somewhere near Galesburg and Augusta, I suppose. But being neighbors, the staffs used to read each other’s papers, and McCullough said he still reads MLive. He also hears from their readers.

“Because we are next door, the complaint I hear from people is they don’t feel it reflects who they are. That’s a very dangerous place to be if their commitment is to community journalism. Now that commitment may be to something else, and that may work for them.”

Maybe it does. But during the evening, I was sitting next to Jim Mosby, who was editor at the Gazette when I was there. All he could say about the Gazette discussion was, “It’s a shame.”

Best quotes of the night

The funding model has changed for journalism. Where once there was a wall between editorial and the business side of operations, that wall doesn’t seem as strong as it once was. More news outlets accept, at least in part, some form of public funding. Editorial has been forced by economic circumstances to accept a greater understanding that without money, there is no local journalism. Clark said one Ohio news outlet explained it this way.

“They don’t see it as a wall between editorial and business any more but as a four-foot fence where the neighbors can talk to each other but still keep the dogs in the yard.”

And another quote from McCullough, this one trying to understand what “millennials” want in news coverage.

“A third of my staff is millennials, and I discovered they’re no better connecting with millennials than I am.“

Part II in August

Look for more details to be announced soon on the InterCom website for Breaking the News Part 2 on Aug. 25. The August session will focus on existing and developing local news outlets and their efforts to fill the local coverage gap.

Rick Chambers / Local News: Picking Up the Pieces

MLive Reductions Cast Shadows on Local Journalism


Crossing the fairness border in Dem Town Hall

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I sometimes tune in to watch Andrea Mitchell’s show on MSNBC because she has a fair reputation for how she treats the news. But when she was talking with Jose Diaz-Balart today about the exchange with the Latino woman at the Democratic Town Hall last night, whose husband had been deported for 10 years, I felt Mitchell either missed the boat or was intentionally padding the Hillary support. I realize that most Washington insiders feel that Clinton has the better chance in the general, but I am really surprised at this one bit of reporting today because it made Mitchell sound very naive.

Maybe that is a persona she adopts from time to time in order to serve another purpose; but for my part, I was outraged last night to begin with at how that whole first question was handled by the media and then, predictably I might add, by Clinton. Sanders won the coin toss and went first. This automatically sets up the opportunity for the following candidate to one up him on the topics that were brought up in his segment.

The woman asked when and how he would enact policies to bring her husband home. And she interrupted his answer as well, in order to press the question of “when”; so he had to splice his answer in by saying that it would also depend on Congress to act, even though he said he would make it a priority. I don’t believe the other candidate ought to be allowed to watch the first candidate’s Q&A if it gives them the benefit of forming a more studied response when it is their turn.

 Just for the record, at that moment Clinton did not offer anything better or different than Sanders had. She just shouted it louder.

In the first place, Clinton herself was never asked the question directly, which means that she did use her speaking second status to take advantage of the format to intrude herself into the topic and make it appear that she was more empathetic to the woman and her plight. Just for the record, at that moment Clinton did not offer anything better or different than Sanders had. She just shouted it louder. But that doesn’t mean her efforts would be more effective than his. When pressed later on by Diaz-Bolart to set a timeline on helping Latino causes, Clinton seemed compelled to answer that she would propose it within the first hundred days of her administration. She insisted the “legislation would be introduced” within that time period because these causes were so important to her. Balart asked her to reaffirm that, and Clinton seemed almost desperate to do so.

For his part, Sanders also missed the opportunity to link the theme of his campaign of grassroots activation of voters to how soon he could effectively address the woman’s issue. He did say that Congress would have to act, but his premise has consistently been that enough voters can motivate Congress to act. This could have been linked to an effective response to the woman’s question.

But it was unfair of Mitchell to contrast, as she did, the compassion of Hillary’s supposed outreach to the woman, and Sen. Sanders’ failure to do so. Clinton had a full half hour or more to form that response after viewing Sanders’ impromptu exchange on the question.

Young people are not gravitating to Hillary because they sense this manipulation of the facts and circumstances. This type of grand standing is evident to them. They are drawn instead to someone with passion, but who doesn’t feel the need to impress people with inflated rhetoric and over the top style.

And I would like Mitchell to refrain from making transparently naïve or partisan observations on situations such as last night’s, and to give a more insightful analysis on what is a complex scene.

MLive’s Reductions Cast Shadow on Local Journalism



There’s a saying among politicians that all politics is local. The same is true for news.

canstockphoto5414691So what happens when MLive Media Group announces yet another round of cutbacks in the state, including 29 layoffs in editorial staff –apparently divided among the eight news hubs in the cities that once had vibrant newspapers – and the relocation of “News leadership,” what we used to call editors, out of local offices?

That, of course, includes the Kalamazoo Gazette. MLive, in its carefully worded, cryptic announcement on Jan. 6, stated “the number of staff members producing content … remains intact statewide, although some roles will evolve based on audience demands.” Yet in the very next sentence, the announcement went on, “Overall, 29 content positions will be eliminated.”

I think MLive’s announcement could have used some better editing, though MLive said positions eliminated will be “primarily through reducing management roles and jobs related to newspaper production.” Perhaps more ominous for local news coverage, John Hiner, MLive’s vice president of content, said, “News leadership has been restructured around regional management.”

The emphasis is on statewide coverage. That’s important, but local communities also need local news if we’re going to make sense of what’s going on, in our towns, our cities, our state. Hiner said MLive will maintain “essential news coverage in local markets,” but the decision on what local news is essential and how it will be reported will not be made locally. But hey, MLive’s Michigan’s Best food and travel series will be expanded. So what’s the problem? More

Diving into App World

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I never saw ebooks as simply a print book without paper. It struck me that ebooks offer the opportunity to be more than transferring words on paper to words on screen, or to be just an easy way out for self-publishing authors and publishers with extensive backlists to put their titles on the market. I thought that was throwing away the potential of books published on electronic media. So I looked for ways to experiment. I found it at a medieval feast.

Chef Channon Mondoux put on a banquet for several hundred medievalists here in Kalamazoo, Mich. She had meticulously researched recipes from the 16th century Ottoman Empire and earlier centuries that would have been served at the palace of Süleyman the Magnificent in Constantinople, now known as the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. I covered the feast for a magazine, but I thought this was too cool, too exotic. I found the subject for my experiment. More

Writing for myself



Writers rarely, it seems, get a chance to write for themselves. I have written for grizzled newspaper editors, corporate magazine editors, demanding book editors and anonymous online copy editors. Some have been good, others not so much. As one might expect, the anonymous online editors for production line content providers include some of the worst, but others there may have been among the best. The contact with them, however, has been too minimal to know. The nature of the beast, I guess.