Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

September 13, 2012

Phil Power: Filling the knowledge gap

Once upon a time, newspapers were king and Lansing was recognized across Michigan as an important source of news. When I broke into the business back in 1965, it would have taken a couple of bus loads to carry all the reporters working in Lansing. Today, you can count the number of Lansing-based journalists on your fingers.

This is, of course, the result of the decades-long deterioration of "mainstream media," mostly newspapers. Information, and especially advertising, have migrated to the Web. Although newspapers are beefing up their online coverage, the e-revenue stream isn't nearly enough to replace what's been lost.

Result: Some newspapers have gone out of business. Others, previously published daily, are now printed and/or distributed only two or three days a week — witness the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News and many of the old Booth Newspapers around the state.

Another, even more significant result: A public far less informed than it used to be. Sure, there is a torrent of stuff available on the Web — mostly opinion masquerading as fact, rant disguised as thoughtful commentary, outright errors manipulated so that every ideology gets to promulgate its own particular "facts." With all my heart, I believe an informed public is the iron core of a functioning democracy. And these days, we have to recognize and do something about all the rust on the iron.

Which is why I'm so pleased to report on the first successful year of an attempt to fill the information vacuum: Bridge Magazine, www.bridgemi.com, which publishes new editions twice a week.

On Sept. 6, the Internet magazine celebrated its first birthday, Bridge now has nearly 16,000 subscribers and more than 350,000 "unique visitors," the latter figure a way of measuring how many different people have taken a look at Bridge so far this year.

People are, indeed, using Bridge, extensively. Page views for Bridge and the Michigan Truth Squad (another project of the Center for Michigan) will exceed a million sometime this fall.

We started Bridge to provide people who care about their state with the kind of fact-based, thoughtful, detailed, probing explanatory journalism the newspapers used to do, but increasingly fail to provide any longer. Based on the extraordinary response we're earned from the marketplace, we seem to be filling a niche.

By "we," I mean Editor Derek Melot, staffers Ron French and Nancy Derringer, our current journalism fellow Taylor Trammell and the several dozen freelance writers, photographers and graphic artists who contribute their work to the publication. If you add in Center for Michigan President and former journalist John Bebow and myself, you've got hundreds of years' experience being brought to bear on public issues in Michigan.

But here's the important point, one that goes well beyond our chest thumping: We're growing, which is great. But there's a lot more we want to do. And that's where you, the reading public, come in.

If you think about it for a moment, what makes a news publication great is not some abstract notion about "excellence in journalism." It has to do with the relationship between the medium and its readers. I tried to get at that in the days when I published newspapers. I put on the wall of every newsroom in my company this question: "What does it mean to the reader?" The only way journalists can get a clear idea of what our stuff means to readers is for you to contact us, to react, to gripe, to praise, to suggest, to demand.

Some of the very best reporting we've done over the past year has come directly from news tips suggested by our readers. At the end of the day, what drives the direction and focus of our journalism comes from you, our readers.

The best part of what has happened with technology over the past few years, getting in touch with us, is easy as touching one key on your computer keyboard. What kind of stories do you want covered? What are we missing in our attempt to illuminate the many corners of our wonderful state?

Weigh in, please. The only way we can get better is to hear from you. Here's how to get in touch with us:

Senior Editor Derek Melot: dmelot@bridgemi.com; Senior Writer Ron French: rfrench@bridgemi.com; Staff Writer Nancy Derringer: nderringer@bridgemi.com; CFM President John Bebow: jbebow@thecenterformichigan.net.

A birthday is a nice marking point for a year past. But it also is the beginning of another year of the future. Help us make a better future "¦ for you, for Michigan.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan.net.

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