What is your official title?
Editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette and MLive.com/kalamazoo. The Kalamazoo Gazette is the Kalamazoo hub for MLive.
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
I get up pretty early, usually the first on in my house up. I check my email and Twitter, habitually, that’s the first thing I do, just to see if there’s any breaking news from the night. We have a new reporter that starts really early so it’s not that I’m doing it because I need to write a story myself, but I need to be aware of what’s going on, what the day is going to look like and if there is anything developing from overnight. I make coffee, help the kids get ready for breakfast, and I’m usually in the office by 8:00am. By then the website is well underway for the day. Our police reporter, Aaron Mueller, is in the office around 6:00am so he is off and running. Ed Finnerty, who is our Manager Producer, which means he is like the “City Editor” in old newspaper terms, he is the one that is bird dogging the stories of the day. They have the daily news for the site started for the day. What is great about this job is that everyday is truly different. There are new stories, different collaborations — I may be brainstorming story ideas with staff, having lunch with a community leader or a board I’m sitting on; truly everyday is different.
The other thing about the digital news business is that the day doesn’t really end. We all try to have a good work-life balance but when news breaks we do what we have to do. The earthquake is a good example of that, it hit at 12:23 on a Saturday afternoon I was on Drake Road after my daughter’s soccer game when my phone started blowing up — of course I didn’t text and drive — but I wasn’t far from home either and things just took off from there. My reporters were calling, even though most of them were off, saying ‘how can I help?’ ‘I’m available if you need me’. We have such an awesome staff of people. When news is developing they know what they’ve got to do and they make it happen. We have a great mix of veteran reporters, at least five people who have been here for two decades and we have people in their 20s and early 30s. It’s a great mix and everyone is dedicated to covering the community news.
Tell us about MLive.
MLive Media Group was created in 2012 out of what use to be known as Booth Newspapers, a Michigan chain of 8 newspapers – Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Flint, Bay City, and Saginaw. Our ownership, and everyone really, could see that the future was changing, that news consumers habits were changing and advertisers were shifting where they wanted to advertise. Our newspapers were still financially healthy, but everyone could see the trend lines and where the future was moving, so we decided to make a dramatic shift to position ourselves for long term success. It’s imperative that we have quality local journalism long term in our community.
The Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper has been here for 178 years. I believe we are one of or the oldest businesses here in Kalamazoo. So, MLive media group was created out of the eight newspapers. We also have hubs in Detroit and Lansing to cover Michigan; it’s important to be in those two areas. MLive.com is the state’s largest news and information website. It covers community news and statewide news through our Lansing hub. We do statewide investigative projects, sometimes our local hubs will take leads on those — for example we did a pretty important project in December run out of this hub run by Julie Mack and Rosemary Parker about Michigan’s low vaccination rates. They did a top-notch job creating and executing that project.
That’s all on the journalism side, but what many don’t realize is that we offer digital services through our sales team that truly helps local customers reach their target customers. I’m not an expert on the sales side, but one of the examples that resonates with me is that our sales reps can go to a local business that needs to reach a customer in Tuscan, Arizona or South America and help them with digital services and digital advertising instead of just reaching Kalamazoo County. Digital sales opens up other opportunities for our folks to help Michigan companies generate additional revenue.
Can you tell us about your background?
I grew up in Jackson, Michigan. I am the youngest of four children. My mother was a newspaper reporter at the Jackson paper and my dad was in printing sales. My mother’s mother was a newspaper editor, so I have ink in the veins from that standpoint. I came to Kalamazoo in 1990 to go to Western and all of my siblings went to Western too, so it was comfortable. I had a great experience there; it was the best decision I have ever made. I didn’t come here with the intention of going into journalism, but my sophomore year I started working at the Western Herald and once I did that it just started to feel like the place I was suppose to be. One thing lead to another and I got sucked into journalism — in a good way!
I went to Grand Haven Tribune for my first job out of Western, it was wonderful because of the great state park and beach — I loved the summers there. I left and started to work at the Kalamazoo Gazette in January 1996 and was here for 3.5 years. The first year I covered a lot of community news, but I really wanted to do local public policy so I switched over to that for the next two years. It’s funny because now I might be searching something in the archive and stumble upon one of my articles by chance. Then I went to Graduate School at Columbia in New York City to get my Masters in Journalism. I graduated in 2000, got my foot in the door and started to work at The Chicago Tribune as a one-year resident, then after about 6 months got offered a permanent job. I lived in Oak Park and used to take the green line to work everyday. Both of our kids were born in Illinois, but my wife and I are Michigan people — I’m from Jackson, she is from South Haven, we both went to Western. Kalamazoo was the right place to be. So we moved back in January 2008. I was hired back as a local news editor for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Then the recession hit, the newspaper industry was flipped, things changed, and here we are today.
How has digital affected journalism?
The web put newspapers back in breaking news game. Not that long ago, nobody thought of us for breaking news because we have no platform for breaking news. If an earthquake hits at noon on a Saturday, you’re not getting your newspaper for 18 hours. The Internet put us back into that game. This makes our staff accessible to the community. Our reporters go into our comments section or on social media and answer our reader’s comments and questions — for instance, “did fracking play a role in the earthquake here?” We try to find the answer to that questions. Newspapers are a one-way engagement, just like tv and radio unless you’re doing a call in. It’s more than news now, it’s an engagement piece, and it’s an accountability tool too. Our reporters are putting their work directly onto the site, open for public criticism and review. It can be intimidating. It’s truly a great thing, but it is also one of the ways that digital has changed journalism. This is particularly true at MLive because we ask our reporters to go interact with readers in the comments section, we encourage those interactions. It’s better to have our reporter in the conversation. That’s why we chose our new space downtown — it’s the physical embodiment our new approach.
Another thing is that people don’t need us to share basic information. So where does our value come in? In terms of the earthquake we verify what was it that people felt. We gather that information, we talk to the experts, and we have excellent reporters who have credibility. Do we make mistakes, yes of course we do, everybody makes mistakes. Over time I believe that we’ve built up a body of work that is extremely credible and high quality local journalism; that’s why people come to MLive to get their news instead of other sources.
Do you see digital opening up more opportunities for journalism?
Let’s say, hypothetically, we do an investigative story on a high school coach involved with controversy with players. When you run a story in a newspaper, maybe you get a copy of the personnel file, you quote from the personnel file that some parents wrote in letters complaining about the coach, then there was a meeting and the superintendent wrote the coach a letter of reprimand. With digital, you curate the information and put it in a nice readable fashion, just like you did a newspaper, but then on top of that you can post the other documents that you used for information for people to read themselves. It just adds to the credibility of the story when you can say hey I want you to read my article, but here is all of the information that I used to write it, in case you want to read that too. Then the readers can make their own decision.
Another thing is the interactivity with readers – we get tips from social and from our own comments section. When I posted the earthquake story on my personal Facebook page the first comment was a question was about fracking. People want to know the answer to their questions and digital cuts the time of that process dramatically. Our reporter, Julie Mack goes to ask the fracking questions to scientists and other experts, then she broke it down and gave people really good information, quickly.
And lastly, think about photography. Mark Bugnaski is one of the best photographers in the industry. In print we have to pick what photos our consumers see and what photos they don’t see, but online we can run 20 of them. I love print. I love the newspaper. But it’s a limited medium.
Tell us about MLive’s new facility.
We moved in here in February 2012 when MLive Media Group officially launched, February 2nd, 2012. We moved in that day, we changed the design of the homepage of our website that day, it was a big day. We intentionally chose this space because it really does exemplify our digital approach. It’s on the ground floor, it’s welcoming for the community to walk in, it’s an open office environment which helps the staff communicate, and it supports and promotes brainstorming internally. It’s got a fishbowl transparency feel to it which works for us two ways: 1. The community can walk in and see who we are and what we’re doing and 2. If our reporters are here and sales folks are here working then they are constantly reminded that the community is right here and we are here for the community.
The Gazette newsroom was really traditional; we were on the 2nd floor at the [Chicago] Tribune and it was the same idea, but we were on the 4th floor. Both were behind security and locked doors, you had a budget to get in and an elevator to get off the ground. I love the old Gazette building it’s beautiful and a great historic structure, but it’s like an institution, kind of like a City Hall, and we are not that imposing institution; we are here as part of the community and want to be accessible to the community.
We don’t advertise the cafe as a public space but we have guest wifi and different folks have come in to hang out, grab some internet, get some work one. We’ve used the space for Startup Weekend, South West Michigan Land Conservancy had their annual meeting and members gathering here for the last two years, and we continue to host many Art Hops.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
It’s people. Kalamazoo has really great people.
I’ve lived here in different parts of my life. I was here as a student and it’s wonderful that we have such a vibrant student population with Western, K-College, and KVCC. It has a great mix of young people that get it. Students and young professionals who are smart and they get it that Kalamazoo is a cool place to live and work and that we have a lot of advantages here. College town, close to lake Michigan, great downtown scene happening. We have a great collection of young people that get Kalamazoo and want to grow it – bike trails, cool new companies, like Maestro and other digitally focused companies that are growing that culture. I’m in the family stage of life right now and come on, my kids will have the opportunity to go to college for free — how can you beat that?
I don’t want to sound trite, but we have really well-intentioned people here who want to make Kalamazoo the best it can be and continue to grow Kalamazoo. We are a vibrant community intentionally. We’ve also had wise leaders, generous leaders that help make Kalamazoo keep going in the right direction.
What do you think can be improved about Kalamazoo?
Baby swings. I’m serious. My kids are too old for baby swings now, but we need more parks with more baby swings. When I first moved back my son was just under a year and I thought, Kalamazoo needs more parks, more baby swings. I even wrote a column a year and a half ago, kind of joking, kind of not joking, talking about putting swings in Bronson Park. I got some hate mail from that, but I really just wanted to spark some conversation about it. You see that frog out there on the mall in front of our building? I love the Frog. Yes, it’s a little tacky, but from day 1 I’ve loved the Frog. If you sit here you’ll notice there is not a kid that walks by that doesn’t want to stop and climb on that Frog or take a picture with that Frog. I’d love to see our park system in the City of Kalamazoo focus on young families. When my kids were younger, I would take my kids to Portage for parks. They have incredible family friendly parks that are welcoming to children. Child friendly spaces. When I was in Oak Park there were “tot lots” all over the place. It wasn’t a giant playground, it was something small, but they were very effective. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but with the Kalamazoo Promise I have to believe more families are moving to Kalamazoo and an element to help improve that would be to add more child-friendly parks.
How do you take your coffee?…or do you?
Black. If I go out Something’s Brewing across the street is great, it’s right by our hub. That’s my place.
Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?
I have a lunch circuit, does that count? We have some great places to sit down and have lunch for meetings and whatever else, but more often then not I’m looking for something quick and easy. Taco Bobs, Irvings, and Totally Brewed in the Comerica building are my spots. I think our staff helps to keep Taco Bob’s in business and people forget about Totally Brewed but you need to go in there, I had it today actually!
What have you been jammin’ to recently?
I’m pretty much a rock music guy, for the most part. I grew up listening to rock music and it’s my go to. I like to think I have wide array of rock music I listen to though.
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Somewhere in-between a Football play and a Rockstar. I grew up playing the drums. I gave it up for 20 years, but picked it up again recently. I have a group of Dads that I play with from my neighborhood, we have a little Winchell rock band. We actually played in the Winchell neighborhood for the Marathon, I thought ‘lets just set up and play’. It was great fun, we don’t play a circuit or something we just do it for fun.
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Enjoy the moment. Which is always easier said than done. We’re constantly planning the next thing, always moving ahead. Especially at work, that is what we do and that is what we have to do. I find myself saying it to my kids sometimes — just enjoy the moment.
What is the most memorable story that you covered?
When 9.11 happened I was working in Chicago and I spent 4 days at O’Hare Airport just writing different stories about people traveling through. I spoke with a New York City detective who was trying to relieve his comrades. I still have the card of a man who worked in the World Trade Centers, but was out of the office traveling when the planes hit. It was an experience to hear all of the stories.
Most recently and locally would be when Officer Zapata was killed. That was a huge community story. We have our role, that is to tell the stories and to tell the community what is going on. He was killed late, 11:30 at night. Ed Finnerty was working that night, he heard something on the scanner and went over to the Edison neighborhood. We ended up breaking the story online when we posted the story at 3:45 in the morning. Talk about newspaper vs. digital. That’s a fast turn around for a big story.
What are your goals for MLive in the future?
My goal for MLive and for the Kalamazoo Gazette specifically is to do quality local journalism in a sustained way, for a long long time to come. To serve this community with quality journalism. It’s vital, it has to be done, and we are best positioned to do it, particulallary in the digital space. Yes we still publish the newspaper 7 days a week and that’s important to a segment of our readers. But the reality is that our consumers and our advertisers are moving online. The goal, short-term and long-term is to prove our relevance and earn our credibility through great quality journalism.
Who would play you in a movie?
I ran into Kevin Romeo the other day at Arcadia and he turned to his friend and said, doesn’t he look like a working man’s Tom Cruise? I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not… My mother and sister think I look like Matt Damon. I play the straight square guy, I’m not a beard and mustache guy.
How do you handle the most ridiculous comments on MLive?
The important thing to know about our comments section is that we have community rules. I think our users don’t realize that they can flag a comments and we can flag comments. Locally in-house Tammy Mills is our community engagement specialist and deletes them if need be; if they are out of bounds and violate the community rules. We do err on the side of free speech; however, there are comments that have been deleted. MLive is the best place to have community conversation and digital communication and it’s important that people see it as a welcoming space where we can have conversation. I think sometimes people are just put off by a comment because they don’t agree with it, but people are different — some people are polite and some people are less polite, some people like this, some people like that. It’s one that we have to stay at every day.
Some newspapers have handed their comments section over to Facebook which really limits who will participate and you’ve given over your comments section to Facebook’s rules. You may disagree with the comments or think we need to delete something, but at least we take ownership of it, I think that’s important for people to realize. And you know what? The more well-intentioned people who join the conversation the more positive it will remain.