Could Livingston County lose its newspaper?

Well-sourced rumors have the Livingston Daily Press & Argus soon moving its operations to Oakland County’s Novi, while its building next to the Howell Theater in downtown Howell undergoes mold remediation.

I am crossing my fingers that the paper eventually returns to Livingston County, but I wonder whether this could be the beginning of the end for the Daily Press & Argus.

Once the newspaper leaves Livingston County, I fear it may never return. Or worse yet, that Gannett might fold the paper altogether, since in the past the corporation has never been shy about shuttering properties.

Think of how lucky Livingston County’s been to have had the attention of its own newspaper — and its own radio station — over the years. How many communities like ours can say that?

Since the glory days of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus (when I was there, of course, and when circulation was at its peak), there is no longer any “locally owned” news media in the community (outside of The Livingston Post, of course). WHMI-93.5 FM was recently purchased by Owosso-based Krol Communications, which owns radio stations throughout mid-Michigan. And Gannett, one of the world’s largest media companies, purchased the Daily Press & Argus (and the rest of HomeTown Newspapers, and the Observer and Eccentric papers) in 2005.

The Daily Press & Argus went from being Michigan’s newest daily to becoming part of Gannett’s Michigan’s properties, which include the Detroit Free Press, Lansing State Journal, Battle Creek Enquirer, and Port Huron Times Herald.

Since then, Gannett’s done what Gannett does: Squeeze its papers for profit.

If I sound cynical when I talk about Gannett, it’s because I know first-hand how the company operates. I was part of the bloody Gannett layoffs of 2008-2009, when it reduced its workforce across the country by 20,000 (or about 40 percent). Google Gannett layoffs 2009 to get the gist of just how close to the bone those layoffs were.

In the end, Gannett expanded its footprint by purchasing newspapers and television stations, hacking its workforce nearly in half, and bestowing upon its executives jaw-droppingly huge paydays and bonuses (which should have been excruciatingly embarrassing to Gannett, given what was happening to its workforce at the time, but was not).

Now, you can’t get rid of 40 percent of your workforce and not change, can you? Gannett has had to consolidate large portions of its operations. Printing of the paper is done in Ann Arbor (gone: the Daily Press & Argus printing plant and its workers). Its pages are designed and laid out in Louisville (gone: the Daily Press & Argus copy editors). It’s human resource needs are served by the Lansing State Journal. More and more of its content is no longer local, coming instead from Gannett’s other papers, including USA Today.

It also means Daily Press & Argus readers are getting a whole lot less of what I’ve always believed to be the paper’s strength: local personalities, local editorials and local columns.

Just a couple months ago, Gannett began branding its local newspapers as the “USA Today Network,” a move to help prop up USAT’s numbers and revenue, which also creates a homogenization of sorts of a collection of previously unique papers serving diverse communities.

The Daily Press & Argus building — which used to hold around 100 people — is now home to far fewer, maybe two dozen at the most.

I’m just speculating here, but the Daily Press & Argus doesn’t need that building. There’s no publisher there anymore. What reporting and editing staff it has can easily work remotely. Business office functions can be accomplished in Lansing or Detroit. And while the downtown Howell building serves as a distribution hub, that, too, can happen elsewhere, perhaps more efficiently from a location with more direct freeway access. Once the Daily Press & Argus moves to Novi, it could become part of Gannett’s HomeTown Life network of the old Observer & Eccentric and HomeTown weeklies, which share one big website.

What I fear most is that Livingston County’s location — smack dab in the middle of Gannett’s Detroit Free Press and Lansing State Journal territories — makes the much-smaller Daily Press & Argus vulnerable to bisection and cannibalization.

I am crossing my fingers that it never happens.


UPDATE:

Feb. 7, 2016
Jim Totten, managing editor of The Livingston Daily Press & Argus, said the building has no mold.

“There was some water damage in the walls, which probably has been going on for years,” he said. “The company is working on the best way to address this situation.

“Our staff will be working remotely in the community while renovation work is done. A few will be temporarily based in Novi, but they will still be spending most of their time in the county.”

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