It was 20 years ago today that Livingston County got a daily newspaper, and this is the story of how it all came together and how it all came apart.
On Sept. 7, 2000 – 20 years ago today – the first edition of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus was published. Livingston County’s two twice-weekly newspapers – the Livingston County Press and Brighton Argus – combined to become the new Daily Press & Argus.
Maria Stuart and I were the co-managing editors at the time. I worked out of the Argus office in Brighton (at the Old Town Hall), while Maria was at the LCP’s main office in Howell. We managed a news staff of about 20 people – copy editors, sports guys, photographers and reporters.
Twenty years ago today, we were exhilarated and excited and exhausted. Starting a daily newspaper essentially from scratch is an amazing experience, and everyone at the newspaper was incredibly proud of what we had accomplished.
When we look at it now through the prism of history, though, it’s just sad. Really, really sad. As I’ve documented before – including here and here – the Daily Press & Argus is a newspaper in name only now. What started as a robust daily paper 20 years ago today is a flimsy piece of nothing now.
But 20 years ago today – the day it all began – it was a real paper.
Let’s begin with a little Livingston County newspaper history. The Livingston County Press and Brighton Argus both had long histories that began in the 1800s. The papers had various names and owners through the years, and at times were fierce competitors.
In the 1970s, the LCP was owned by a guy named Dick Milliman. The Argus was owned by a guy named Bill Sliger. The Argus bought out the LCP in 1980 and then both papers were bought by a guy named Phil Power.
And then in 1983, the Golden Age of Livingston County Journalism really began when I showed up at the LCP as the bright and bushy-tailed new 22-year-old sports editor. Three years later, I was promoted to editor of the Argus. Maria Stuart came along in 1990 as a reporter, and a few years later, she was named editor of the LCP.
And so, in the 1990s, Maria ran the LCP and I ran the Argus. Rich Perlberg was the publisher and Phil Power owned the papers.
In the 1990s, owning a local newspaper meant you pretty much had a license to print money. That’s certainly how it was at the Argus and LCP. The economy was booming and the newspapers were booming. Both Livingston County papers were chock full of display ads and classified ads, and when the paper hit your porch on Wednesday morning, it landed with a thud. The paper was HUGE. Our reporters were clocking all the overtime they wanted, and we got nice raises every year.
So in 1997, Phil Power made the decision that because we had so damn many ads and so much news, we needed to start publishing not just once a week but TWICE a week. On Oct. 19, 1997, we published the first Sunday editions of the Argus and LCP, and for the next three years, we put out a paper every Wednesday and every Sunday.
And this is important to note: Every single page was filled with local news, ads and photos. Every. Single. Page. The Wednesday paper was about 80 pages every week and the Sunday paper was about 40 pages. All filled with local stuff.
It was a glorious time. There was this new-fangled thing called the Internet that nobody could really figure out, but we didn’t really think it would hurt us that much.
And now we get to the year 2000. Early that year, Phil Power’s company – HomeTown Communications Network – started talking in earnest about starting a daily newspaper. Phil owned about 80 newspapers in Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky, but every one of them was a weekly or twice-weekly. There were no dailies in the bunch.
A lot of Phil’s papers were located in affluent areas – he had all of Oakland County and western Wayne County covered – and he could have started a daily paper in any one of those communities. But for a variety of reasons, he decided to start his one and only daily newspaper in Livingston County.
I didn’t know this at the time, but it’s my belief now that the reason Phil Power decided to start a daily newspaper was to make his company more attractive for a buyer in a few years. He said all the right things at the time – that he was doing this to better serve the community and blah blah blah – but my belief is that he was just trying to make his company look better to a buyer. A newspaper company with a daily looks a lot more appealing than a company with nothing but weeklies.
But no matter. It was his company and his money, and he could do whatever he wanted with it. And as we’re about to see, in about five years, he absolutely fleeced the morons who ended up buying his outfit. So it worked out just fine for him.
In any case, we had been hearing for years that we were going to become a daily paper. I remember hearing Phil talk about it as early as 1994 or so, but nothing ever came of it.
In early 2000, though, the talk began again, and this time, it was real. Phil decided it was time to pull the trigger, and in early June, he announced it to the entire company at a big celebration and picnic at our printing plant on Burkhart Road (by the Howell outlet mall).
There were more than 100 LCP and Argus employees there. He passed out shirts that said “Livingston County Daily Press & Argus” on them, and we all gathered for a group photo, with Phil and Rich standing right in front. It was all grand.
It was decided that the first edition would be published in September, that we would be a six-day-a-week publication (no Saturday paper), and that we would come out in the afternoon. That meant we would lay the paper out late at night and in the morning, which would allow us to get in all the meeting news and sports from the night before.
That gave us the summer of 2000 to plan the daily newspaper in earnest, all while continuing to publish our twice-weekly paper.
Going from a weekly to a daily is a lot more difficult than it sounds, because there’s a whole lot more going on with a daily. Such as:
- You need to subscribe to the Associated Press and whatever other wire services you want, you need to figure out how to use it, and you need to figure out how to mix in the national and international news along with the local. In our case, we had to install a big satellite dish on the roof, and it didn’t always work.
- You need to configure a copy desk that can edit copy and lay out six editions a week, as opposed to just two.
- You need to add comics, TV listings, crossword puzzles, stock-market reports and everything else that people expect to see in a daily paper, none of which we had in our twice-weeklies.
- You need to beef up your circulation department and figure out how to deliver six newspapers a week instead of just two.
- You need to interview, screen and hire a bunch more people for your news staff. In our case, we added two sports guys, a photographer, two copy editors and a couple reporters.
And so on. We all worked like hell in the summer of 2000 to get it all set up, and on Sept. 6, the day before our first paper was coming out, we were ready to go.
Or so we thought. It was kind of a shit show that first day (pardon my language; it’s how we talked in the newsroom).
The stories that night were taking a lot longer to edit than we thought they would. The AP satellite was going in and out. The jerky tech guy who was supposed to format our sports agate (all the box scores and everything) didn’t do his damn job and set it up, which meant that our sports editor, Tim Robinson, had to do it all manually. It’s hard to explain what I mean by that, but trust me, it was like having to move a pile of sand from one spot to another, one grain at a time.
But we did it. Somehow, we did it. On the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2000 – that’s 20 years ago today – the first edition of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus hit the streets.
It was an exhilarating time for all of us. A couple months later, we got to cover one of the biggest national stories of our lifetime – the Bush-Gore Florida recount. A year later, we covered 9/11. It was an amazing time in history to be running a daily newspaper.
My personal life took a turn in 2002, when I quit my job at the newspaper to run for state representative. When that didn’t work out the way I was hoping, I returned to the paper in early 2003 in a new role, as the editor in charge of features, sports and the copy desk.
In some respects, working at a daily newspaper is no different than working at a weekly newspaper. You’re still writing stories, editing stories, taking photos, etc. But in other respects, it’s much different.
As a local weekly, we never had to worry about how we were going to blend national, international and local stories; it was all local. When we became a daily, though, we had daily meetings about what we were going to put on the front page. We always tried to make it as local as possible, but we also knew that as a daily, we couldn’t ignore things like the Iraq War or the Bush-Kerry presidential election.
Anyway, now let’s get to the part where the newspaper begins to crash.
Whereas in the 1990s, owning a newspaper was a license to print money, in the mid-2000s, that was not so much the case. The Internet was in full swing, and nobody in the news business could figure out what to do about it. Do we put all our stories on the Internet for free, and if we do, who in their right mind will want to buy a newspaper? And if we don’t, won’t our readers just start looking somewhere else for their news?
And the classified ads, which were always a gold mine for newspapers, were being obliterated by this new website called Craigslist. Why should I pay the Daily Press & Argus $20 to advertise my used car, when I can do it on Craigslist for free?
And so, Phil Power, owner of the newspaper, decided to get while the getting was good.
In March of 2005, he convinced the sucker of all suckers – the Gannett Co. – to pay him tens of millions of dollars for his newspaper empire. That empire today is worth about three dollars – give or take three dollars – but in 2005, he sold it to Gannett for millions. It was the fleece job of all time.
Good for Phil Power. Bad for us. And really bad for Livingston County.
As I’ve detailed before, since taking over the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus 15 years ago, Gannett has systematically destroyed everything we built. The Internet and Craigslist obviously had something to do with it, too, but other local papers in Michigan have found a way to survive. Not Gannett. Their job is not to publish good local newspapers. Their job is to suck them dry.
In 2009, Maria and I were both laid off and our jobs were eliminated. More layoffs and more cuts followed. They closed the printing plant on Burkhart Road, they outsourced the layout of the paper to some operation in Louisville, Ky., and they stopped caring one bit about local news.
Today, the paper is nothing but a tiny version of USA Today. There are no local editorials, no local columns and almost no local news. Twenty years ago today, it was a real daily newspaper. Today, it’s nothing.
So that’s the story of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, which is celebrating its very sad and pathetic 20th birthday today. What started with such enthusiasm and promise 20 years ago today is now nothing.
Phil Power’s entire newspaper empire is in shambles today, and even as he has those millions in the bank to comfort him, it has to be depressing for him to see what’s become of it all.
That’s certainly how I feel. Twenty years ago, Maria and I worked like hell with a lot of great people to build something new, and today, it’s all destroyed.
Ah, but that’s not what I want to dwell on today. Instead, as I look back on the 20th anniversary of the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, I’m choosing to remember how I felt on that day.
Proud. Very proud.
Onward and upward, dammit.