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How we got started: 20 years behind the masthead

Robert Downes - May 31st, 2011
How We Got Started: 20 Years Before the Masthead
       Simply put, Northern Express Weekly got started with an idea by my friend and co-publisher George Foster in the fall of 1990:  “What would you think of starting a newspaper about sports and fitness?” he asked one day as we were out running.
   Well, hell yes, why not?  In one of those lucky coincidences, we had a synchronicity of talents and experience: George was a certified public accountant, while I had been a reporter and editor in Detroit-area newspapers and a writer for  hospital public relations.  We were deep into the running, triathlon and XC-skiing boom of the ‘80s, and also habitues of the local nightlife scene.
   Both of us had grown  bored with our respective careers as well as the racing scene, so the idea of launching a newspaper was mesmerizing.  That’s what launching a new business is like: it’s a fever that consumes your every waking moment.  Soon, that fever was generating ideas for our new paper.
   We decided that the publication would need a larger scope to succeed; for starters, the region lacked an alternative newspaper similar to Detroit’s Metro Times, devoted to the arts, local issues, nightlife and the “underside” of the community.
   But, since Northern Michigan lacked the gritty urbanism and nightlife that supported the alternative press in cities such as Detroit or Chicago, we decided to model our baby on the alternative newsweeklies of the California coast, where the human potential movement, fitness and holistic health were mainstays -- the same as in a booming subculture in Northern Michigan.
   We evolved the idea for a paper which would mirror Northern Michigan’s laid-back style while looking “beyond the horizon” of this provincial paradise of ours to explore the larger world.  We put out an 8-page prototype to show potential advertisers in April, 1991, and the first issue of 10,000 copies of Northern Express rolled off the presses on May 3, 1991.

   In 1991, Northern Michigan was locked in the worst recession in decades and was also considered to be one of the most conservative regions in the state.  Downtown Traverse City was on the ropes, threatened by a new mall and the big box stores of corporate America.  It wasn’t exactly fertile ground for a free newspaper modeled after the alternative press of the California coast.
   Yet we never had any doubt that the Express would succeed, if only for the fact that there was a hunger here for a more progressive outlook in the local media.  It was an idea whose time had come.
   After kicking around a list of 50 names (“Adventure North” being the foremost), the name Northern Express magically appeared.  The name conjured the idea of a train, progress and speed along with the mystique of the North.  We knew it couldn’t miss.
   Tossing $2,000 each into a pot and purchasing a Mac Plus popgun of a computer, we had enough money to publish two issues of the Express before it dropped dead in its tracks.  Although the first 20-page issue had just seven paid ads (for which we were extremely grateful), succeeding issues took off like a rocket.  We had six or seven pages of ads by the third issue, and enough confidence to go from a monthly to a paper that came out every two weeks.
   But it was a “rocket” which managed to pay only for the printing and distribution of the paper.  It wasn’t until five years later that we publishers received a paycheck for our efforts, and even then they were infrequent at best.  
   Not wanting to borrow any money (most newsweeklies borrowed anywhere from $350,000 - $750,000 for start-ups at the time), George and I worked full-time at our other jobs until our ship came in.  That meant several years of working 14, 16, and even 18-hour days.
   It was tough.  A common scenario was to work until 3 a.m. on a deadline Sunday with Led Zeppelin, Nirvana and local folkie Victor McManemy (“Here Come the Tridents”) blasting at jet engine volume in the  kitchen/headquarters of my home on Mission Peninsula; then drive the layout sheets 80 miles to the printer in Gaylord, sometimes in a white-out snowstorm; then home by 6:30 a.m. for 90 minutes of sleep prior to working an 8-hour day; and then spending much of the night delivering the paper to 300 sites.  That exact scenario happened more times than I can count.
  Another unpleasant reality was that George and I had to take second mortgages out on our respective homes each year for quite some time in order to meet the payroll during the “off” season.  That’s a scary side of being in business that most employees are blissfully unaware of -- the risk of not just going broke, but also going deep in debt and losing your home to boot.

   By its third year, the now-weekly Express began distribution in Charlevoix, Harbor Springs and Petoskey, expanding from a 5-county base around the Grand Traverse area. But that gave rise to the problem of creating a paper that would be of interest across the entire region.  It‘s no secret that people living in small towns don‘t much care to hear about the doings of other folks living 20 miles down the road.
   Solution? We focused on  stories of regional interest or on lifestyle issues that could ‘go anywhere‘ to grow the paper to its 13-county coverage today.  We operate under the notion that Northern Michigan (always capitalized as a proper noun) is a “rural metropolis” that is united from Manistee to the Straits by the tourist industry.
   It has only been in the past five years or so that the Express has truly come into its own, however.  We finally came up with the resources to hire an investigative reporter, a position in which Anne Stanton performed spectacularly before moving on to her own independent projects.  Taking up that challenge is new-hire Pat Sullivan, who brings 10 years‘ experience in police beat and environmental reporting to the job.
   Five years ago, we moved to new digs in the Grand Traverse Commons, hoping to spiff up our operation.  It‘s been a welcome upgrade from the scroungey place we occupied on 8th Street when our 10th anniversary issue rolled around.
   We hired our first full-time feature writer last year with the addition of Erin Crowell, whose bright prose and witty observations are something I enjoy reading each week as editor. We‘ve also upgraded our fashion coverage with the talents of writer Kristy Kurjan.  We created the Northern Seen -- one of our most popular features -- along with the Tastemakers and Bottoms Up columns by Rick Coates.  Rick, by the way, is our ‘secret weapon‘ here at the Express -- he comes up with the most amazing leads and contacts in the celebrity world that go far beyond what anyone in the region‘s media could ever hope to access. Bookending our entertainment coverage is Kristi Kates, an authentic music pro in her own right who is as familiar with the rock world of New York as she is her hometown of Harbor Springs.  Most recently, the political commentary of new columnist Steve Tuttle has drawn a huge thumbs-up from readers.
   Well, I could go on and on, and that‘s exactly what we‘ve done in this issue, which is “All About Us.“  Self-indulgent?  Yeah, but our 20th birthday only comes around once, and in the following issue you‘ll get to know all about the Express family and the people who bring you the paper free of charge while enjoying every minute of it. Thanks for reading!

   Elements of this article ran in the 10th anniversary issue of the Express.
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