My seven-year gig as general manager of The State News had ended — a parting of the ways — and now what? “Maybe I should start a newspaper,” I said facetiously to a friend on the phone. A light went on.
“That’s exactly what I should do,” I told him.
And I did.
That winter of 2000-‘01, I hired grad students from the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University for a market research study. They allowed that “perhaps” my idea for an alternative weekly in the Lansing market was feasible. That was enough for me.
The name came first. I half stole it from the Metro Pulse, the alternative weekly in Knoxville, Tenn. I’d been managing editor there of the daily newspaper owned by the media conglomerate E.W. Scripps Co. in the late 1980s. In 2007, Scripps bought the Metro Pulse — an odd arrangement, I thought, given that an alternative newspaper is an alternative to the mainstream newspaper. In 2014, as newspaper profits declined, Scripps closed the Metro Pulse. And, in the ever-shrinking world of mainstream newspapers, Scripps has since sold all its publications.
The name City Pulse was an instant hit, appealing to those who saw the potential for Lansing to be more sophisticated, a community of people with a culturally and politically progressive outlook that City Pulse could help unite into a shared vision. Those people, in ever growing numbers, remain our niche.
The motto “A newspaper for the rest of us” came next, and it drew mixed reviews. Some people thought it projected exclusion, but I stuck with it. I wanted people to know that City Pulse was a newspaper and all that implied to me as a career newspaperman: that it would be independent, that its coverage would have immediacy, and that we’d “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And perhaps most important, the still-powerful Lansing daily represented the Establishment, and I wanted to say clearly that we did not.
Before we’d even published our first issue, some folks saw another difference: City Pulse was labeled a gay newspaper because, I presume, I am gay. The president of the Lansing City Council, Lou Adado Jr., got caught up in a sexual harassment scandal with a staffer. Amid emails between them pertaining to, among other things, undies in her desk drawer, was an exchange that went something like this:
“She: ‘What is this newspaper starting in Old Town?”’
“He: ‘Oh, that’s a gay newspaper.”’
After we launched, a bar owner signed on as an early advertiser because he despised the State Journal. Then after a month or two, he pulled out. Years later, his son came on City Pulse’s radio show to promote a music series his dad’s bar was staging. I asked him if his father had stopped advertising because I am gay, and the son said yes. Soon after, the bar advertised with us again. Things change.
After settling on a name and a motto, we needed a look, and once again I turned to MSU. I’d gotten to know Randy Yeip in my State News days when he as an undergraduate wrote harshly homophobic views as a guest columnist one semester. I shared with him my disappointment in his beliefs. The next year, Randy dropped out of school. When he returned, he got in touch to let me know he was gay. We became passing friends.
Randy stayed on at the journalism school for a master’s degree in design, and when I decided to start City Pulse, I turned to him. Long distance from Florida, where he was in a summer program at the prestigious journalism think tank the Poynter Institute, he designed City Pulse. Much of what Randy did then survives today, and he has never gotten the credit he deserves. It didn’t surprise me that Randy went on to become the graphics editor of The Wall Street Journal.
The next big step before launching was lining up distribution points. I had very little money for marketing, but I thought that the paper would market itself if it could be found in enough locations. By the time we started, we’d lined up about half of the 525 locations we have today. Free publicity also played a role, such as a WKAR radio interview that Scott Pohl was kind enough to do, the weekly appearances that Tim Barron generously afforded me on his market-leading FM radio show year after year, and a TV piece by Dave Akerly when he took over as anchor at WLNS. I thank them and others for their support. I especially thank those businesses and organizations that were early distribution points. They took a chance on City Pulse based on nothing more than a prototype. Because of you, we heard early on from many people, “You’re everywhere.”
Being everywhere is part of the reason we are still here, but of course the content is the bigger reason. We know from our surveys why people pick us up — some for news, some the arts and many for unarguably the best events listings in the area. But there’s something more intangible, and it results from the sum of the people who have contributed their efforts over the years. Our writers know that City Pulse is a writer’s newspaper. They are given considerable latitude and space to express themselves, largely unfettered. Our cover artists know we let them take risks and have fun. Our ad salespeople know that we place honesty and service above all else.
These values helped us through a challenging time 18 months into our existence when Gannett, which owns the Lansing State Journal, started a competitor called Noise. It launched with billboards, including one placed around the corner from our office in Old Town, a clear shot across our bow. It had 48 pages and more when we often were still just 16. I lost sleep over Noise for a time. But our readers knew better. Noise had no soul; it reeked of plasticity. It was a faux alternative newspaper. After years of forced ad buys and an inflated page count, Gannett pulled the plug. We’ve never had a billboard, but we’re still here.
I could fill pages with the names of people to thank for their role in City Pulse, both directly and indirectly. Space doesn’t allow it, but I’d be remiss not to thank Larry Cosentino, who has had more bylines than anyone in our first 15 years. When I decided on a retrospective issue to mark this anniversary, I turned to Larry to shape it. He went through our bound volumes and found the stories and images you are about to see. Another stellar contributor to City Pulse is our recently retired design editor Jonathan Griffith, who suited up again to assemble this special issue. And thanks as well to Peter Berg and his crew at Special Collections at the MSU Library for helping us fill in some gaps resulting from a digital meltdown in our early years.
What follows are story excerpts and covers from the first 15 years.
I’ll shut up now and let you get to it.
Click here to read the articles included in City Pulse's 15th Anniversary issue.