By TOM CHMIELEWSKI

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

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