Bridge Michigan top editor David Zeman retiring after award-winning career
- David Zeman will retire in February after leading Bridge Michigan for 10 years
- Zeman leaves a legacy of meticulous editing, deep investigations and treating staff like ‘grown-ups’
- Bridge is led by Joel Kurth and Lisa Yanick-Litwiller
David Zeman, senior editor at Bridge Michigan, will retire on Feb. 1 after leading the nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom through a decade of remarkable growth and over 200 state and national awards.
The newsroom is now led by Joel Kurth, who became executive editor for impact and enterprise on Aug. 1, and Lisa Yanick Litwiller, who starts Jan. 3 as executive editor for innovation and daily news.
Zeman, 64, joined Bridge in 2013, two years after its launch. At the time, what was then Bridge Magazine was a twice-weekly publication, with a three-person editorial staff and a readership of 322,000 annually
By 2022, annual readership of the re-branded Bridge Michigan had swelled to 7.8 million. When Bridge wraps up its latest expansion in January, there will be 15 reporters and editors putting out at least five online editions and seven newsletters every week,
“We've expanded beyond what I could have ever dreamed,” Zeman said. “We just continued to grow, juxtaposed against the media landscape beyond Bridge, and that’s been very gratifying.”
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Zeman was born in Detroit, the son of a Detroit public school teacher. He earned a law degree from the University of Miami, but found himself sneaking peeks at a newspaper under his desk while writing another in a line of boring interrogatories in a Miami law office.
He wanted something with a faster metabolism, so he quit the law and earned a master's in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. He worked as a reporter in Raleigh, N.C., and Miami before joining the investigative team at the Detroit Free Press. As editor of investigations, Zeman built a national reputation for explanatory watchdog reporting. He won state and national awards for reporting on education, politics, the legal system and business, projects that ignited reforms and legislation. As a Free Press editor, he directed an investigation of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kirkpatrick that won some of journalism’s highest national honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the George Polk Award and the Worth Bingham Prize.
Since Zeman took over, Bridge has won six Newspaper of the Year or News Media of the Year awards from the Michigan Press Association. He edited two projects that won national Education Writers Association awards, and Bridge reporters have won the past three annual Journalist of the Year honors at the MPA.
Zeman has a reputation as a tireless and meticulous editor. Each story was read multiple times, with every adjective and verb examined under a microscope as if they were precious gems.
“I'm not sure David liked it, but I often called him 'Michaelangelo' for his unmatched editing ability — the way he made every story sing,” said John Bebow, the publisher of Bridge Michigan and former CEO of The Center for Michigan, which publishes Bridge and BridgeDetroit.
Bebow is retiring at the end of 2023 and will remain an executive adviser through 2025.
“A compliment from David carries a lot of weight,” said Bridge Business Editor Paula Gardner. “I admit to an intimidation factor from working with David, due to his Pulitzer and career as an amazing writer and editor. I started (at Bridge) early in the pandemic, and as I watched him edit my stories, even during 12 hours or more shifts as he managed through COVID, I could see immediately how he found the holes in my reporting, the rough edges in my phrasing and the missing answers to questions like, ‘how is this appealing to a Bridge reader?’”
Zeman said he is proud that Bridge has a nonpartisan DNA that has made it a “pain in the ass” both to the administrations of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Inside the newsroom, he’s proud of its culture of kindness and respect, something he swore he’d oversee if he ever ran a newsroom.
“I wanted reporters to feel like they were sitting at the adults table,” Zeman said. “I wanted it to be a kind of place where reporters felt comfortable pushing back on stupid ideas that editors came up with. That was important and that’s what I insisted on.”
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a newsroom leader who cares more about his reporters as people,” said Bridge Environmental Reporter Kelly House. “I don’t think there’s a person at Bridge who hasn’t been grateful for David during a personal loss or family emergency. That great humanity carries over into the standards David has set for Bridge’s journalism.”
Bridge data reporter Mike Wilkinson agreed. “David is one of those editors who makes reporters jealous — his word skills and ability to turn a phrase almost always trumps your own. But what set David apart was his humanity. As serious as he could be as a journalist, he was just as serious at making sure his employees knew that family came first, that at any moment of crisis — sick parent, an ailing child — work became secondary.”
In an industry fraught with layoffs and closures, the respect Zeman offered his staff earned loyalty even among traditionally cynical reporters.
“When you treat people as grown-ups,” Zeman said, “they're willing to go through a brick wall for the organization.”
“The highest compliment I can pay David is you never want to disappoint him,” said Kurth, who served as Bridge’s managing editor for six years before being named an executive editor. “He has such credibility that he never needed to raise his voice or pound a table. You brought your best because he is the best.”
Lunch and Learn
Join Bridge editors David Zeman and Joel Kurth to discuss journalism, impact, public service and Zeman's career during a virtual Lunch Break from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 24. Register here.
See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:
- “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
- “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
- “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.
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