By George Foster
20 Years ago Bob Downes and I launched Northern Express with our total
life savings - about $2,000 each.
There was no business plan or backup plan. We estimated that our savings
would pay for two issues of printing our new-fangled paper. We felt that
we had no choice but to keep our operations and the publication as simple
What we did have was an idea well, sort of. We wanted to print several
thousand free newspapers and hope for enough advertising revenue to break
even. Despite (or maybe because of) our papers humble beginnings and low
aspirations, some people told us we wouldnt survive more than a year or
we were downright loony.
In May 1991 Northern Express had no sales staff, no reporters, no one
trained to design ads, and no dedicated office. Why should we concern
ourselves with such minor details?
Like other start-up ventures, Bob and I already had full-time day jobs and
worked well into each weekend and evenings in order to publish the paper.
After finishing production of each Express, we created a distribution
network on-the-fly, delivering tens of thousands of each issue ourselves.
Our personal relationships with our women fell apart. We worked long
hours, breaking even financially at best. Ah, those were the good old
Looking back, the formative years of Northern Express are a high point in
my life a great adventure. Yet, I can see why others were skeptical. In
the early years of Microsoft and Apple, their owners legendarily worked
out of garages before they hit the big time. We, of course were not as
well-heeled as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, even in their early years. Our
business operations were performed on Bobs kitchen table in that first
Flash forward to 2011 - Northern Express is now a weekly newspaper that
has expanded its coverage to 13 counties in Northern Michigan and up to
83,000 readers per issue. Last year set a record for our advertising sales
volume and overall revenues in 2011 are up even more. The company has
almost no debt.
Most importantly, we feel that the paper has come to be well-respected in
the community. Any goodwill we have gained over the years is from
improving our publication - not from being shrewd businessmen. In fact,
the Express may have flourished unwittingly because we have kept it
Obviously, our profitability isnt gigantic compared to the likes of
Apple. Their legendary founder Steve Jobs apparently had the same
epiphany, though, when he slashed their product lines down from 350 to 10
in 1998. It is no coincidence that Apple narrowly avoided bankruptcy in
the 1990s, yet recently passed Google as the most valuable brand in the
Apples phones, iPads and computers are the most innovative and stylish in
the industry. Since they manufacture relatively few items, they have time
to focus on improving what they do best. How does that lesson apply to
small businesses in northern Michigan? For us it means usually adding to
our staff or adjusting operations as the need and funding arises.
In Northern Express history, we have had many near-misses that almost
complicated our business to our detriment. For example, we have considered
launching several new publications or spending a fortune on an improved
website. Most ideas are vetoed because we feel we cant afford it or just
dont want to work that hard. Though we have accumulated a dedicated staff
over the years at the paper, we all value our time experiencing the
Northern Michigan lifestyle outside of work.
So, when Apples Steve Jobs stated that he is more proud of the ideas that
he has rejected than those implemented, we can relate to that. Thank you
for the validation, Steve. Northern Express is dedicated to being the best
weekly publication it can be - period. That doesnt mean we cant improve
just dont expect many frills or radical changes over the next 20 years.
And, if ever you are called a simpleton for your down-to-earth outlook,
consider it a compliment. It just might make you a candidate to start your
own thriving business.
By Rick Coates
My first article for the Northern Express was in January of 1993 when the
paper was still a bi-weekly. I wrote about the inception of the
Information Superhighway and the impact it would eventually have on
Northern Michigan. That article came full circle for me last week when I
conducted my interview with Gene Jenneman, director of the Dennos Muesum
(see article) via Skype as Jenneman was in South Korea at a conference.
I have enjoyed my journey here at the Northern Express and as the paper
celebrates 20 years of being part of the Northern Michigan community all
us here have been taking time to reflect on our journeys.
For me that journey began at the age of 13 while I was delivering the
Lansing State Journal. At that time I had visions of becoming the next Ty
Cobb, becoming a journalist was the furthest thing from my mind. But as
fate would have it my journalistic path started because each day I would
read the paper before delivering it. Well, walking door to door delivering
newspapers for a couple of hours a day allows the mind to wander.
One day I thought that it didnt make any sense that the entertainment
section came out on Saturday after all the weekend was half over and most
people had already made their plans for the weekend. So I had a brilliant
idea and called my district manager with visions of becoming State Journal
employee of the year and suggested that the entertainment section be moved
from Saturday to Thursday. I was quickly reminded where I fell in the
hierarchy and was told, look, you just worry about delivering the papers
on time and let the editors do their job.
I was so angry that later that night while at dinner with my grandparents
I told them of my grand plan to launch an entertainment newspaper. Of
course not being ones to shoot down my dreams they suggested that I might
first want to get some newspaper writing experience. The next day I called
the Lansing Star, a bi-weekly alternative paper, and inquired about
writing for the paper. The editor said sure come on down and lets talk.
I had just turned 14.
They were a little taken aback by my age but after I was insistent that I
wanted to write entertainment articles they gave me a chance. So for the
next year I lined up interviews with rock stars that were coming to the
area and wrote articles. Eventually I accomplished my goal when, along
with the business manager and ad manager of the Lansing Star, we launched
the Michigan State Variety, a weekly feature paper that came out on
Thursdays and focused on entertainment in the region.
The three of us did everything (no computers in those days) from sales to
layout to delivering and I even wrote articles under several pseudonyms in
each issue to give the appearance we had a large editorial staff. I would
go to school in the morning and work the paper for high school co-op work
credit in the afternoons. The paper made a splash with the entertainment
community in East Lansing and Lansing, and a year later, ironically, the
Lansing State Journal moved their entertainment section to Thursdays.
When the Express launched in 1991 I was knee deep in a restaurant
management career and found myself admiring the paper from afar. In 1992,
along with Bob Russell, I helped to found a citizens group to promote
public access to television, radio and the emerging Internet and online
technologies. That involvement prompted my first Express article and from
that point forward I contributed an occasional story before becoming a
regular contributor in 1999.
I am grateful for the many opportunities that the Express has provided for
me over the years. First and foremost the opportunity to meet and
interview many people who make Northern Michigan a great place to live
musically and culturally.
Finally I am both grateful and thankful for the team at the Northern
Express. The professionalism and vision created by George Foster and Bob
Downes is embraced by all of us at the Express.
While those of us with the bylines are often given the most credit for the
papers success it is actually the staff behind the scenes who deserve all
the accolades. I get several of my leads from Lynn Gerow who serves as the
papers air traffic controller, of course Lynn never falls asleep on the
job. My paycheck is a result of the hard work of Kathy Johnson, Jan
Staycer, Peg Muzzall and Randy Sills of our great sales team.
Certainly, Matt Malpass is one of our unsung heroes, as our primarily
delivery person he does an unbelievable job getting the Express out each
Erin Crowell has been a wonderful addition to the Express and has such a
handle on all the happenings in the area. She gives a lot of positive
input to my work and I am appreciative of all that she does as the primary
copy editor of my articles.
Finally a big part of the Express popularity comes in the design of the
paper. Led by Colleen Zanotti along with Kyra Cross who both help me find
photos for my stories and catch clarity issues with my articles. Kristen
Rivard as well, who helps when we have the big themed issues or when
Colleen and Kyra are on vacation. They successfully lay out and design
the paper each week and keep the production on schedule despite my
constant missed deadlines.
The Northern Express has been my longest place of employment. That is a
result of it being the best job I have ever had and that stems from
working with a team that is professional and respectful of one another. I
hope to still be here in 20 years.
Modern Rock: Capturing a Musical Revolution
By Kristi Kates
Its really been a blast writing the Modern Rock column and CD reviews for
Northern Express. Perhaps the most interesting part of it has been
watching the music business ebb and flow, especially over the past several
Not only have the indie pop and rock genres divided and multiplied into
far more eclectic subgenres than ever before -- an unexpected but welcome
musical mitosis thats brought us everything from Oasis, Audioslave, Zwan,
Madonna, Sugar Ray and Weezer (back when they were cool) to Beady Eye,
Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, Adele, OK Go, and Weezer (now that theyre
wheezing out) -- but the way music is being delivered has changed as well.
When I began writing Modern Rock, most artists were on record labels; if
not a major label, then an independent label being distributed by an
indie. If you werent on a label, you were pretty much considered a
nobody (no matter how terrific your music was - the business didnt
Today (thankfully!) being a recording artist has morphed into the DIY
creative career it should be, one that is not solely (if at all)
controlled by the whims or power struggles of labels, thanks to the
arrival of musician-empowering affordable home recording equipment and
In addition to the fun of crafting music, musicians including myself now
have far more control over everything from album art to music videos, as
well as the challenges of promotion and connecting with listeners via such
online venues as blogs, YouTube, StageIt, UStream, and Twitter. The focus
has shifted from endless hours spent sending out demos and listening to
pitches from A&R reps to recording your own songs and finding creative,
intelligent ways to promote them. These are probably my favorite advances
in the music biz since I started authoring the column.
Another favorite component for me is that now, 9 times out of 10, the new
music that I review arrives via email, in the form of a coded MP3 file.
This means two things - one, that I as a music writer get earlier access
to the music as well as its accompanying artwork (still an important
artistic component) via a graphics file. And two, that the environment
benefits from the elimination of all that plastic packaging. This is
becoming de rigueur for music fans as we expand our libraries far beyond
what any Case Logic CD wallet could ever hold.
We may not have flying rocket packs yet, but part of the future has
definitely arrived in how we acquire our entertainment - hear a song
online, on the radio, on your friends SmartPhone, and like it? Cool. Buy
it, download it, and its yours three and a half minutes later. Now that
truly defines modern rock.
An early break launched my writing career
By Danielle Horvath
Twenty years ago I took the first feature story I had ever written to the
Northern Express - a new newspaper that was starting in TC and looking
for local stories. I met publishers Bob and George in a small, cramped
office with stacks of papers everywhere. They talked excitedly about their
plans for an alternative-type publication that would focus on different
stories than the regular papers were covering. Since they were just
starting, they couldnt pay much, but that didnt matter to me, I was
eager to see my name in print and to be a part of the new alternative
newspaper in town. They ran that first piece as a cover story and I was
My career as a freelance writer began that summer, and it continues today.
Whether writing about midwives, musicians and artists or entrepreneurs or
environmentalists, I feel lucky to have been able to meet so many
interesting people over the years and tell their stories. I think its
important that we hear about people being successful, making a difference,
working for a cause it reaffirms our belief in the basic good of people,
and theres not a lot of that in the news these days.
Along the way, my experience at the Express gave me credibility and helped
me get freelance work with other area newspapers, publications and
businesses. It also helped me get a part time job doing public relations
and then teaching desktop publishing for a local school district. I
have since branched out into marketing, promotions and web copy, including
web site design and I am sure there is a book of interesting stories
waiting for me to compile in my retirement
It took me a few years to be able to introduce myself as a freelance
writer, but now it is part of my identity. I am contacted regularly by
individuals, businesses, and community groups for writing and public
relations work. I will be forever grateful that we met on that summer day
20 years ago and hope we go for another 20!