The death of the Press & Argus, and the future of journalism in Livingston County

The mostly empty parking lot at the Livingston Daily Press & Argus in Howell in the middle of a weekday is a clear indicator of what's happening with the newspaper.
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In a Facebook post a few months back, I was lamenting the sad shape of our local newspaper, the Livingston Daily Press & Argus. I noted that the front page of that day’s paper looked exactly like the front page of its sister Gannett paper, the Lansing State Journal, and how both of them looked like crap.

Several of my Livingston County friends chimed in, agreeing on how sad the newspaper has become, and none of them put it better than longtime Howellite Roger Dresden:

“I think we all know that we are watching an old friend taking in its last few gasps before passing on…the parking lot is empty, local events are not recognized nor covered…sad to see and sad to say, but I don’t think the LCP will be around at this time next year.”

That’s exactly it. We’re watching an old friend take its last few gasps before passing on. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Livingston Daily Press & Argus is technically still in business, but I think we can all agree that the Livingston Daily Press & Argus is dead. It’s a newspaper in name only, and it’s only a matter of time before they call the coroner. It might be weeks or it might be months, but sometime soon, Livingston County’s newspaper will be no more.

I have no inside information on this. I’m merely speculating. But my hunch is that the Livingston Daily Press & Argus – where I spent 26 years of my life and career – will soon be gone.

Some might argue that it’s already gone; that it’s pretty much just a wrap for USA Today these days. And that’s quite true. As far I can tell, the current situation at the newspaper is this:

  • There are only three or four reporters left, and no editor. The paper is overseen by a person in Lansing who might not ever set foot in Livingston County. I have no idea who decides what gets covered and what doesn’t.
  • The newspaper is laid out in Louisville and printed somewhere outside the county.
  • There are, at most, two or three local stories in the paper each day, and most days it’s less than that. The bulk of the paper is national and world news from USA Today.
  • There are no local columns or editorials, and they don’t take stands on local issues anymore. If anyone still says that the paper is “too liberal” or “too conservative,” that’s not true. They’re not “too” anything. They’re nothing.

So yes, while it might technically still be the Livingston County newspaper, it’s not. The Gannett Corporation – which owns the paper, as well as USA Today – might elect to keep it going for a while longer to milk whatever local revenue is left from legal ads, but it’s fair to say that the paper is dead. They’re going to keep cutting staff until nobody is left, and they’re almost there now.

It’s not a bad newspaper; it’s a nothing newspaper. There’s nothing there.

And please understand, this is not an indictment on the handful of reporters who are still there. I don’t know any of them, but this isn’t their fault. You can blame Gannett for bleeding the paper dry, but don’t blame them.

Now, obviously, I have a dog in this fight. As I said, I spent 26 years at the Press & Argus. I started at the Livingston County Press in 1983 as the sports editor, and in 1986, I became the editor of the Brighton Argus. A few years later, I became the managing editor of both the Argus and LCP. I was the managing editor when the paper went twice-weekly in 1997, and also when it went daily in 2000. I was there for the salad days.

I left the paper in 2002 to run for state representative, and after THAT didn’t go so well, I was hired back in 2003 as the features editor. I remained in that position until 2009, when my job was eliminated. I was part of the first big wave of layoffs in the newspaper industry and at the Press & Argus. Many more would follow.

So while all of us in Livingston County have a stake in what’s happened to the Press & Argus, I would selfishly argue that I have a little bigger stake. I helped build the paper. I worked there for 26 years, so to see it crumble like this is personally heartbreaking. It would be like building a house, and then coming back 26 years later to find it sitting in ruins. It sucks.

If you’re wondering how this happened – how a once-mighty newspaper is now virtually nothing – the easy answer would be: “The Internet.” And that might be mostly true. The Internet created a bunch of industries and wrecked a bunch of others, and it’s hard to argue that the newspaper industry isn’t No. 1 on the list of wrecks.

But I would also argue that a tipping point came in 2005, when Phil Power (owner of the Press & Argus) sold his HomeTown Communications empire to Gannett. I worked for Phil for 22 of my 26 years, and he was a great newspaper owner. When he sold his papers to Gannett, the Press & Argus was the only daily paper in his profile, and it was certainly the crown jewel.

If Phil Power still owned the Press & Argus, there’s no question it would be much different (and probably much smaller) due to the Internet, but there’s no way it would be THIS. If Phil Power still owned it, the paper would at least be something. I’m convinced that he never would have let his newspaper get this bad. He would at least have an editor there, for Pete’s sake.

But to use a cliche, Phil got while the getting was good. He made a pretty penny from the sale of his papers, and then the bottom fell out.

If you look around the state, there are still plenty of local daily newspapers that look like a local daily newspaper. The Grand Haven Tribune. The Traverse City Record-Eagle. The Holland Sentinel. The folks who live in those towns might say otherwise, but when I pick up a copy of those papers, they still look like a newspaper.

I’m not sure what their secret is, but it tells me that it didn’t have to come to this. Livingston County is still a vibrant community, and the Internet aside, I know that it could still support a local paper. If somebody else owned our local paper, I’m convinced it wouldn’t look this bad.

But hey, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas. Gannett owns our local paper, and it is what it is. The Livingston Daily Press & Argus is dead, so as a community, we have to figure out where we go from here.

But before we throw dirt on the coffin, it’s OK to do some mourning. It’s OK to look back on how wonderful it once was when Livingston County had a real newspaper.

Or two real newspapers. In my view, Livingston County’s true salad days were back when the Livingston County Press and Brighton Argus were both weekly papers. Remember how great that was? In the days before the Internet, Wednesday was the high point of the week – the day when the LCP and Argus came out. Each paper was filled with dozens of stories and columns and editorials and photos, and every last one of them was local.

And was there anything better than seeing your name – or better yet, your child’s name – in the LCP or Argus? You clipped the story out, and I’m guessing it’s still sitting in a scrapbook or a box in your house somewhere.

Sigh.

Yes, those days were the best, and sad to say, they’re pretty much gone. The Press & Argus is dead, and it’s not coming back.

And as I said, the question for us now is: Where do we go from here? What’s the future of journalism in Livingston County?

Quite obviously, Livingston County needs a local source of news and information. Our paper might be dead, but we NEED a local source of news and information.

We can’t depend on Facebook for everything. Facebook isn’t going to cover local meetings and tell you what’s going on. Facebook isn’t going to interview local candidates. Facebook isn’t going to do offer local commentary.

Well, check that. Facebook is going to do exactly that. But it’s not going to do it very well. We still need a local source that we can all count on to be consistent and trustworthy, and Facebook certainly isn’t that. We still need a local newspaper, even if it’s an online one.

In terms of breaking news and things like that, we still have WHMI, and thankfully, the news department there still seems like it’s in fine shape. They do a great job of doing what they do, and they’re certainly filling a lot of the gaps left by the death of the newspaper.

But a radio station is different from a newspaper, and there are certain things WHMI just can’t do – including commentary on local issues, in-depth stories about local events, and running insanely long stories about the death of the local newspaper. Things like that.

Which brings me to the future of Livingston County journalism.

You’re looking at it.

Not me – The Livingston Post. This, my friends, is the hope and savior of journalism in Livingston County. The Livingston Post is the future of journalism in Livingston County, and it needs to thrive and survive. And if you own any sort of business, you need to help it.

Full disclosure: I’m not an employee of the Livingston Post. I don’t receive a dime from it, and I never will. Maria Stuart owns and operates the Post, and I’m merely a blogger here. I just write things whenever something pops into my head (like this), but I’ve never gotten paid for it and I never will. So please know that when I tell you that you need to advertise in the Livingston Post, I’m not getting anything out of it.

If you’re not familiar with the Post’s history, here it is. Maria and I were editors together at the Press & Argus for many years, and we were both laid off at the same time in 2009. I decided I wanted to do something else with my life, but she decided she wasn’t done being a Livingston County journalist yet, so she started an online publication called LivingstonTalk, which soon became the Livingston Post.

The Post grew gradually at first, but in the last year or so, it’s exploded. Page views last year were well over 795,000, and they’ll be well over a million in 2018.

The rise of the Livingston Post has obviously coincided with the death of the Livingston Daily Press & Argus, and more and more people in the community are beginning to look to the Post as their No. 1 news source for Livingston County.

Case in point: A few months ago, the publicity person for a local community group, a friend of mine, called me in frustration. She was trying to get one of their events publicized in the Press & Argus, and was having no luck. She couldn’t get through to a human being on the phone, they weren’t returning her emails, and they weren’t putting anything in the paper.

Knowing that I used to work there, she called me and said, “What should I do to get something in the paper?”

My answer: “I have no idea.”

But then I told her to send all the information to Maria at the Post, and she did. Maria got it in right away, the stories started getting views and shares all over Facebook, and my friend and her group were thrilled. And they’re never going to worry about getting anything in the Press & Argus ever again. It’s the Livingston Post all the way from now on.

This is not an isolated story, either. I’ve heard from so many other people that they can’t get the paper to cover anything or get anything in, so they’re all starting to rely on the Livingston Post now. One look at the Post’s community calendar will show you just how true that is. There’s no better way to find out what’s happening in Livingston County.

The best sports coverage in Livingston County is also now found in the Livingston Post. Longtime Press & Argus sports editor Tim Robinson (who is also the sports director at WHMI now) covers the hell out of Livingston County’s teams (including Cleary University), and even does play-by-play of games.

The Livingston Post is also the only place you’ll find any local columns or commentary. The people you used to love (and hate) to read in the Press & Argus are all here now. Maria and I have been writing since the beginning, and longtime publisher Rich Perlberg is even writing here now. There are a host of other great local bloggers, and their pieces run the gamut from local politics to local events.

And this is only happening in the Livingston Post. This is the future of journalism in Livingston County. Everyone in Livingston County should be getting down on their knees and thanking Maria Stuart for starting this publication, because without it, we’d be screwed.

But here’s the thing: This isn’t going to be around forever if you don’t support it. If you own a business in Livingston County or the surrounding area, or if you’re a real-estate agent or attorney or insurance agent or whatever, you need to be advertising in the Livingston Post. Advertising is really, really cheap in the Livingston Post, and it’s really, really effective.

Think about the ads you see all the time in the Post. Do you want to know why those companies are still advertising in the Post month after month after month? Because their ads are working.

Advertising in the paper was not (and is not) cheap. Advertising in the Post is. And you’ll get a heck of a lot better exposure.

When you saw this story on Facebook and clicked on it, you saw an ad at the top of the page, right? You saw other ads around it, right? Well, that could be you. That could be your business. The readers are starting to flock to the Livingston Post in droves, and they could be looking at your ad every day.

So if you own or operate any sort of business, or if you’re a professional who advertises, you need to click here to get all the details. Livingston County’s business community needs to support the Livingston Post, and please realize that this isn’t some sort of charitable contribution. Your business will grow if you advertise in the Post.

So, yes, it’s incredibly sad that the Daily Press & Argus is basically dead. As Roger Dresden said, we’re watching an old friend take its last few gasps before passing on. And it would be great if we could snap our fingers and all go back to 1988, when we had two weekly newspapers that were stuffed with local news every Wednesday.

But those days are gone, and they aren’t coming back. The good news is that the future of Livingston County journalism isn’t bleak at all, thanks to Maria Stuart and the Livingston Post. We just need to make sure that this friend stays healthy.

About Buddy Moorehouse 130 Articles
Longtime Livingston County journalist Buddy Moorehouse is director of communications at the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

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