This newspaper is gloriously stuck in time, and it shows what could have been for Livingston County

This is the tale of two small daily newspapers in Michigan with very similar names and very different appearances.

One of the newspapers is interesting and local and thriving and vibrant and great. The other is the Livingston Daily Press & Argus.

I had the opportunity last week to take a glorious walk back in time. I was able to go back in time to a day when a small-town newspaper office looked and felt and even smelled like a small-town newspaper office. And I can’t begin to tell you how cool it was.

That newspaper is the Owosso Argus-Press, and I’m about to tell you why it’s my new favorite newspaper in the world. I went to Owosso last Friday to visit a friend of mine who works there, and for a small-town newspaper guy, it was one of the coolest experiences ever.

Before I tell you the story — and before I explain why the Argus-Press is a zillion times better than the Press & Argus — we need to begin with a little boring background about me.

My journalism career started exactly 40 years ago this fall, when I joined the sports staff of the Michigan Daily. I was a sports-loving sophomore at the University of Michigan who didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up, but the first time I saw my byline in the paper, I was hooked. I wanted to be a journalist.

In 1982, I got a job straight out of college as the sports editor of the Clinton County News and DeWitt-Bath Review in St. Johns, and after about nine months, I moved to Howell to take a job as the sports editor of the Livingston County Press. I spent the next 26 years of my life there, until an awful company called Gannett (which had bought the newspaper) eliminated my job.

In 1983, when I started at the LCP, there were so many employees in the downtown Howell location that the editorial staff actually had to be relocated to the second floor of the Century 21 real estate office, about three blocks away.

It was a thriving, active, vibrant place to work back then. The newspaper came out once a week, on Wednesdays, and it was filled with dozens and dozens of local stories, editorials, letters and ads. People in town devoured it every week, loving every last page.

The newspaper building itself was exactly what a small-town newspaper office should be. And the best thing about it was that the presses were located right in the back of the building. Once our editorial office moved back into the main building, I could finish laying out the paper, and a couple hours later, grab a copy as it was rolling off the presses.

For a newspaper guy, there’s nothing better than grabbing a copy of that day’s paper as it’s literally coming off the presses. Flipping through the pages before the ink is even dry. It’s the best thing ever.

The presses moved to a separate facility near the outlet mall in Howell Township in 1988, but the newspaper itself continued to thrive. We went twice-weekly in the late 1990s, and then in 2000, we became a daily paper.

And then Phil Power, who owned the company, sold it all to Gannett in 2005, and Gannett proceeded to do what Gannett does best:  wreck things. It’s all detailed in this piece that I wrote last year.

The Press & Argus is now one of the worst, most nothing newspapers I’ve ever seen. Gannett has made so many cuts that there’s almost no staff left. There are virtually no local stories or ads, no editorials or opinion pieces of any type, no local flavor. The paper doesn’t even have an editor anymore. It’s laid out in Louisville by people who have probably never been to Howell or Brighton, and it’s printed God knows where. Most of the stories inside come from USA Today. It’s a newspaper in name only. It’s awful.

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.

And as I learned last week, it didn’t have to be that way. You can argue that the Internet is what really killed the Livingston Daily Press & Argus, but just a half-hour north of Livingston County is proof that the Internet wasn’t fatal to every newspaper.

Meet the Owosso Argus-Press. Whereas the Press & Argus is an absolutely awful newspaper, the Argus-Press is absolutely wonderful.

As I learned last week, and as you’ll see on their history page here, the Argus-Press was founded in 1854, and it’s been located in its current building since 1919. The building was basically a barn back then, housing animals used for a local horse-and-buggy operation.

It’s been 100 years, but you can still tell the building used to be a barn, with well-worn wooden floors that definitely look like they once had horses walking on them.

But the point is, they haven’t changed their location for 100 years. And aside from getting computers for everybody, they haven’t changed much else, either.

The best thing about any newspaper building is the press room. In Owosso, they still have presses in the building, just like we did at the Livingston County Press in 1983. A reporter in Owosso can file a story, slap it on a page, put a headline on it, and an hour or so later, grab a copy off the pile as it’s rolling off the presses.

And I’m here to tell you, that is the coolest feeling ever. For a small-town newspaper guy like me, just being in the room while the presses are running is simply nirvana. Until last Friday, I hadn’t been in a newspaper press room in more than 10 years. But the moment I walked in, it felt like I was walking back into one of the most glorious times of my life.

Listening to the presses run and smelling the ink and paper — a newspaper press room has an ink-and-paper smell that’s so nostalgic for someone like me — was pure joy. I just stood there for several minutes, smiling and smelling and taking it all in.

These presses at the Owosso Argus-Press were installed in 1967 or 1968, and they’re still going strong today. The presses are located in the back of the newspaper building in downtown Owosso.

I couldn’t believe this kind of place still existed — a real newspaper with real newspaper employees and a real press with real ink and real smells. It was like being in a working newspaper museum. People like me —former journalists who once worked in a place like this — would die to take a field trip to the Owosso Argus-Press.

Being in that press room brought me back to the best time in my professional life, when it actually meant something to work at a newspaper.

And so, the question is: How has the Owosso Argus-Press been able to survive, while the Daily Press & Argus has flopped and failed? These towns are just 30 miles apart. They’re almost exactly the same size, and they’re both filled with smart, hard-working people who love their communities. Why is one newspaper great and the other newspaper is awful?

The answer, in a word, is ownership.

The Owosso Argus-Press is owned by the Campbell family, just as it’s been for the past 124 years. Tom Campbell is the current owner and publisher, and he’s the fourth generation of his family to run the paper.

The Owosso Argus-Press is one of the last remaining independent, family-owned newspapers not just in Michigan, but in the country. And that makes all the difference in the world.

These days, most newspapers in Michigan and around the country are owned by a handful of large chains like Gannett and GateHouse Media (which recently agreed to buy Gannett). They buy these papers up, they cut the local staffs to the bone, they consolidate all operations in other cities, and they suck the life out of them. They take good newspapers and they make them awful.

That’s exactly what happened to the once-proud Livingston Daily Press & Argus, and it’s what has happened to hundreds of other papers around the country.

Which is why the Owosso Argus-Press is all the more remarkable.

I’m sure Tom Campbell has had plenty of offers from the vultures through the years to purchase his newspaper, but God bless him, he hasn’t done it. It’s still a local paper with local reporters and local ads, laid out by local people and printed right in the back of the damn local building.

I hope the people in Owosso and Shiawassee County know how lucky they are. Those of us in Livingston County envy you. You still have a real newspaper. We do not.

The Argus-Press has a total staff of about 45 people, compared to the five or six who still work at the Daily Press & Argus. The day I picked up a copy, the Argus-Press had about 10 local stories in it and a bunch of other news briefs, it had an editorial page, it had four full pages of local sports, and it had about 40 ads from local businesses.

That’s what a real newspaper looks like.

You can’t blame Phil Power for selling his small newspaper empire back in 2005 — he fleeced Gannett in that sale, getting millions in the process — but if for some reason he hadn’t, I’m convinced it would still look and feel like a real newspaper.

But that didn’t happen. He sold the Daily Press & Argus to Gannett, and they wrecked it. The Owosso Argus-Press still has its family owner, and it’s doing great.

As I stood in the Owosso Argus-Press building last week watching the presses run, I shook Tom Campbell’s hand and I said, “Thank you for this. Please, don’t ever change it.”

“I don’t intend to,” he said.

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