Death by a thousand cuts: What has become of our once-mighty local newspaper?

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I was at Uptown Coffeehouse in downtown Howell on a recent morning when I looked at copy of the Livingston Daily Press & Argus.

My jaw dropped.

The homepage of the May 8, 2017, Livingston Daily Press & Argus’ website features a mix of stories from around the world.

The wisp of an A-section had not one single local story on any of its six pages.

Not a one.

On top of that, there were no local editorials or columns.

That paper, quite frankly, could have been from any community in Michigan.

The once-mighty, once-proudly local newspaper at which I was honored to work for nearly two decades is gone, replaced by a ghosted version of itself. It’s taken a dozen years, but media behemoth Gannett is finally sucking the last drops of blood from the successful, local print publication it purchased in 2005.

Since that day, the local editorials — on opinion pages that once roared with righteousness — became fewer and fewer. Today, the pages carry editorials from the Detroit Free Press, Lansing State Journal or some other Gannett paper, including crown jewel USA Today.

Local columnists, who gave the paper personality and perspective, are, sadly, a thing of the past.

I wrote about the future of the paper in February 2016: “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.” These days, readers are getting none of the above.

I am waiting to see what happens now that the paper’s headquarters in downtown Howell has been sold to a developer. The building, which once bustled with over 100 newspaper folks, now houses just a handful, and it’s unclear how long they’ll be working from there. (I wrote about what was happening at the newspaper’s building a year ago. Click here for that post.)

The paper’s printing plant near the Tanger Outlet Mall is now owned by a manufacturing company; printing is done elsewhere. Pages are copy edited and laid out by folks in Kentucky, and the handful of local reporters in Howell take direction from a regional editor in Lansing who remains unknown to folks in these parts.

Though I lost my job at the paper in 2009, I remain visible in the community. When people tell me how unhappy they are with the paper, I explain that the skeleton crew of journalists left is doing the absolute best it can, that it’s impossible to do the same kind of job we did pre-Gannett with an editorial staff the corporation has slashed by 75 percent.

“It’s Gannett,” I tell them. “It’s not the local folks.”

And then I make sure they know about what we’re building with The Livingston Post.

Responsibility for the local newspaper we have today rests squarely on the shoulders of Gannett’s ridiculously compensated executives. Had the previous owner not sold the paper, or had a company committed to community journalism bought it, it sure as heck wouldn’t look anything like it does today.

There are other community papers in Michigan that continue to provide great local coverage and advocacy, including the Traverse City Record Eagle and the Grand Haven Tribune.

In 2000, one of the biggest stories in Livingston County was that its two weekly papers (which had also produced a joint edition on Sundays) became Michigan’s newest daily. It was an exciting time. Being part of the team that created that daily paper remains a highlight of my career in journalism.

It was also huge news, illustrative of Livingston’s status as Michigan’s fastest-growing (and one of its wealthiest) counties. Subdivisions and strip malls sprang seemingly overnight from fields during those years when the county’s motto easily could have been: “If you seek a bunch of construction equipment, look about you.”

As much then as when I first moved to Livingston County, the papers were a community institution and a powerful force. Today, the anorexic paper breaks my heart. If I were a prosecutor, I’d charge Gannett with First-Degree Death by a Thousand Cuts.

The March 29, 2017, six-page news section had just three local stories, as well as a column by its regional editor in Lansing explaining that the times, they were a’changin,’ that the print edition of the paper would carry in-depth, investigative pieces, while the website would provide “content you can’t get anywhere else — local reporting on issues that matter to you.”

There are some days, I guess, that Gannett feels it’s acceptable to not give a print-edition hoot about anything local. And the local website — which looks just like most of Gannett’s other newspaper websites — isn’t really local, featuring a jumble of local, state, regional, national and international stories.

In 2009, the first layoffs claimed 10 percent of the local workforce, or about a dozen people, me included.

Over the next few years, positions didn’t get filled. There were more layoffs and buyouts. The last local editors standing were laid off earlier this year. That there is any local news at all is testament to the commitment and hard work of the handful of journalists left.

No one knows what the future holds. The paper I helped birth might fade away, or it may end up little more than a “local” wrap for USA Today, with a journalist or two working from a rented storefront or mobile office. There’s no way of knowing what Gannett will do.

Whatever happens, what I do know is that people long for local.

On social media, when people complain about the paper it’s always about lack of local: People want more local news; they take offense to out-of-area stories taking up what little space there is. They crave local editorials. They grieve their love/hate relationships with their local columnists of old.

While Facebook serves its purpose, it can never replace the mighty, mighty local paper of the past.

With no local opinion pages, the community loses its biggest watchdog, cheerleader and advocate. There’s no one to right local units of government when they veer off course; there’s no one to tell the emperors in the community’s various fiefdoms that they aren’t wearing any clothes.

A healthy, robust community newspaper doesn’t just report the news. It loves, respects and serves its community; it informs and educates on complex issues; it goes to bat for its little guys; it gives voice to big ideas and pushes for needed change; it protects the community, too, from outside forces as well as from itself. How can any of this happen with out-of-area editors and no local editorials and columns?

The losers of this bloody job-whacking aren’t the journalists who lost their jobs — most of us have found that life goes on after newspapers. The loser is the community, which doesn’t get the in-depth, local coverage and advocacy it desires and deserves.

Back in the day, we used to say that readers paid us 50 cents a week so they didn’t have to sit through a city council, township or school board meeting. Today, folks are on their own a lot.

The sad thing is this never had to happen. No one forced Gannett into a Sophie’s choice of the community or its bottom line.

The slow death of my beloved newspaper by a thousand cuts has been a sad, sad thing to watch. It’s breaking my heart.

What do you think about what’s become of the local paper? Leave us a comment below.

About Maria Stuart 86 Articles
Journalist Maria Stuart lives in Howell. She worked at The Livingston County Press/Livingston County Daily Press & Argus as reporter, editor and managing editor from 1990-2009. She is often spotted holding court at Uptown Coffeehouse.