John Bebow retires after building Bridge into national model for nonprofit news
- John Bebow is retiring after founding Bridge Michigan and serving most recently as its publisher
- The Mason native helped build a template for financial stability in nonprofit news
- Katy Locker succeeded him as CEO last year, leading the next generation of newsroom leaders
John Bebow began his journalism career on a bike delivering newspapers and ended it playing an instrumental role in shaping Michigan’s modern media industry.
Bebow, 56, will step down at the end of 2023 from his role as publisher of Bridge Michigan, a publication that under his leadership won more than 200 state and national awards and was lauded as a national model for economic viability in nonprofit news. He will remain as an executive adviser through 2025.
He had crucial roles in some of the biggest changes in Michigan media over the past 25 years, from uncovering corruption in Detroit as a reporter and helping launch the MLive online news site to launching and growing Bridge Michigan and its sister publication, BridgeDetroit.
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In 2006, Bebow was the first employee of The Center for Michigan, that launched what was then Bridge Magazine in 2011. When the latest round of expansion concludes in January, Bridge and the Center will have more than two dozen full-time employees, with offices in Ypsilanti and Lansing and a more than $4 million annual budget.
“It is exponentially more rewarding than any story that ever appeared under my byline,” Bebow said of Bridge’s growth. “It’s so far beyond my wildest dreams, it would have taken me two bottles of Jack Daniel's to have dreamed up the ridiculous success that has happened.”
Bebow has had ink in his blood since middle school, when he delivered the Lansing State Journal on a route in his Ingham County hometown of Mason.
After graduating from Western Michigan University, he worked at the Lansing State Journal, Traverse City Record-Eagle and Ann Arbor News before joining The Detroit News. There, he covered the mob, corruption in casino development and troubles in the city water department. He deployed to Iraq to cover the war for the News in 2003, and was injured in a military truck mishap. After a stint at the Chicago Tribune, John returned to his home state, where, for the Detroit Free Press, he investigated Baker College.
Bebow was part of the launch of MLive, which served as an early model for publications moving stories online. There, he rose to become editor in chief.
In 2006, John took the most impactful risk of his professional life, joining forces with former newspaper chain owner Phil Power to start the nonprofit “think and do” tank The Center for Michigan, where as CEO he was the driving force behind the 2011 creation of what is now the nonprofit, nonpartisan publication Bridge Michigan.
“Without John Bebow, there is no Bridge Michigan,” said David Egner, CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, a financial supporter of Bridge. “When he joined the Center for Michigan, the work the organization sought to pursue was no more than a loosely formed concept. It took courage to make the jump from a recognized investigative reporter to executive director of a start-up nonprofit that had not yet run a program. It was John’s leadership that resulted in the vision that would become Bridge Michigan.”
At Bridge, the former investigative reporter became a prolific fundraiser, a shrewd accountant, and a boss that demanded the best of his employees while sticking to a mantra of “family first,” giving staffers generous time off to deal with family issues.
“I have tremendous admiration and respect for my colleagues,” he said. “I lit a lot of fires, (but) I think a lot of that was needed at various points to get to where we are today. It was the product and the impact that were first and foremost.”
By almost any measure, those efforts worked. The initial goal of Bridge in 2011 was to reach 10,000 Michigan residents. By 2022, annual readership had swelled to 7.8 million. In 2024, there will be about 20 journalists putting out at least six online editions and five newsletters every week.
In all, Bebow and his team raised some $45 million over the years and Bridge Michigan’s journalism and newsroom was profiled and studied by the Columbia Journalism Review, American Press institute, Facebook Journalism Project, Institute for Nonprofit News, the American Journalism Project and more.
“John is a great leader for the same reason he is a great investigative reporter, fisherman and poker player: He hates to lose,” said Joel Kurth, executive editor for enterprise and impact for Bridge. “He never lost the chip on his shoulder and used it to build something incredible.
“Bridge and the Center will outlive all of us because of his hustle and hard work,” Kurth said.
Bebow’s influence goes beyond the awards he won personally as a reporter and those earned by his staff at Bridge, said Ken Sikkema, former House and Senate majority leader and a longtime consultant to The Center for Michigan.
“He had the understanding of the importance of independent journalism in a democracy, and he accurately saw the dangerous implications to a free society of the newsroom decline and decimation of the current era,” Sikkema said. “His vision, leadership and skill in building the independent journalistic voice of Bridge is a significant contribution, not just to journalism during a time of change, but also to the state of Michigan and democracy itself.”
At Bridge and through his work with the Michigan Press Association, Bebow championed government transparency, free press access and public records reform.
He helped lead a coalition of news agencies that sued the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission when it met in private to discuss legislative districts. The lawsuit led to a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that established all work by the panel should be conducted in public.
Bebow stepped down as CEO in 2022 and was succeeded by Katy Locker, who was chief operating officer.
"The Center for Michigan will not be the same without John,” Locker said. “For many years, he single-handedly built the business plan and helmed its operations. He did absolutely everything to make what we are today possible. And he did every bit of it with the utmost journalistic, professional and personal integrity. It now requires a team to do what John once did largely by himself.”
Longtime Senior Editor David Zeman is also retiring Feb. 1, with management of the publication passed to Kurth and Lisa Yanick-Litwiller, who begins in January as executive editor for innovation and daily news.
Bebow said he is excited about the new generation of leadership at Bridge, which has “a real chance of reaching that north star … of being a place that thrives and provides credible public information and journalism to generations of Michigan residents.
“I ran as fast as I could for as long as I could,” Bebow said. “It is now in great hands that aren't quite so tired and arthritic as mine.”
Bebow is quick to spread credit to others who helped launch and build Bridge, but it’s clear the publication and the business model other nonprofit news organizations now copy wouldn’t be here without the man who started out with a paper route.
“Future generations of journalists may not always know his name, but his tireless efforts will be a reason why they have a career,” said Bill Emkow, growth strategy director at Bridge. “Michigan is better because of John Bebow.”
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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