Most parents have a pretty good idea of what their child is like by the time she or he is five.
As the founder and now chair of the nonprofit “think and do tank” Center for Michigan, I feel very much like a parent of our online news magazine, Bridge, which celebrates its fifth birthday this week and which is now drawing some 800,000 readers each year.
We started Bridge in order to help correct the information imbalance that started developing at least a decade ago, when the economics of mainstream print media – particularly newspapers – started rapidly deteriorating, in large part as a result of the extraordinary growth of the Internet as a distribution platform.
When I was the owner and publisher of a bunch of community newspapers, for example, something like half of our total sales came from “classified advertising,” those little ads selling used golf clubs, dishwashers, cars and the like. In the old days, I used to run something like 20 pages of classified in each edition.
That never happens any longer.
Those ads went to free sites on the Internet. And as the economics of newspapers changed radically, publishers discovered they no longer had the income to hire as many reporters or to run as many column inches of news as they used to. Not surprisingly, they cut editorial expenses drastically in a desperate attempt to survive.
When I started out in the business in the mid-1960’s, there were a couple busloads of reporters covering Lansing. I was up in the capitol a little while ago, and I found I could count the number of full time reporters on the fingers of one hand.
The consequence was the creation of an “information vacuum” between those who govern us – officeholders, senior policy officials, political insiders – and the governed. And as someone who believes passionately that the iron core of a functioning democracy is an informed public, an information vacuum was a very serious matter.
In place of the traditional, professional, fact-based news media there has arisen instead a cacophony of social media outlets – blogs, opinionated screeds, personal statements, and ideological tales of conspiracy. Anybody who has a computer can now be a publisher, which I suppose is fine. Only problem is that while everybody’s a publisher, nobody’s an editor. And the net result is a fractured media environment jam-packed with contending, ever-higher-pitched voices, each struggling for a piece of the public’s attention.
The traditional journalistic functions that lay behind the credibility of mainstream media had to do with maintaining news values of accuracy, fairness, attention to detail, suppression of unattributed rumors and relentless fact-checking.
This is how serious editors and professional journalists traditionally made their living, and the consequence was a media environment that was widely trusted by most people, excepting those who had an ideological knife to grind and who concluded that the “lamestream media” (Sarah Palin’s phrase) was the enemy.
Bridge Magazine is our attempt to remedy this situation by publishing serious, nonpartisan, thoughtful, fact-driven, trustworthy journalism to readers in Michigan. We’ve won a slew of state and national awards, including Newspaper of the Year from the Michigan Press Association. More to the point, I believe, we’ve grown rapidly in readership. We now have 800,000 readers and a total of 1.8 million unique visitors to our web site because Michigan citizens have found it important to have a journalism they can trust.
Journalism that provides insight into the events of the day and that helps provide a sense of community togetherness for us all.
Even the name – “Bridge” – suggests an intention of bridging the gaps among Michiganders, from north to south and east to west, between labor and management, Democrats and Republicans, urban dwellers and suburbanites and rural dwellers. Without an explicit attempt to bridge our differences by a trustworthy and accurate journalism, our common civic enterprise is made very, very difficult.
Our editor, David Zeman, shared in a Pulitzer Prize (journalism’s highest honor) for his work as an editor with the Detroit Free Press. Our team of reporters – Chastity Pratt Dawsey, Nancy Derringer, Ron French, Bill McGraw, Lindsay Van Hulle and Mike Wilkerson -- has more than 150 years of collective and varied experience.
I was a traditional newspaper publisher for nearly half a century. But nothing in my career has given me more pleasure than to have been associated with and to have helped give birth to this endeavor to revitalize serious journalism and help make Michigan a better state.