“The governor grabbed both of us by the arm and said, ‘Tell me what I don’t know.'”
That’s John Bebow, president of the Center for Michigan, recalling an encounter he and center founder Phil Power had with governor Rick Snyder. “And that’s what Bridge is setting out to do,” adds Bebow.
Past governors might not have looked to a nonprofit online magazine for insight into their own state. But that was before the print media cut back. “When I got into the newspaper business, years ago, there were two or three busloads of reporters in Lansing,” recalls Power, seventy-four. “And now I would guess there are less than ten [individuals].”
Power’s HomeTown Communications Network owned “little tiny local papers, beneath contempt of the dukes and suzerains of our industry,” he says. And he got out in time. “I could see disaster looming as we passed the millennium,” he recalls, so he and his wife, Kathy, sold the company to Gannett in 2005 for a price Crain’s Detroit Business estimated at $170 million. He shrugs off their perfect timing as “the triumph of luck over brains.”
Power didn’t have far to look for his next project: he says he’d long been dismayed at the partisanship in Lansing. So he started talking with a bunch of his old friends–former congressman “Joe Schwarz and [ex-governor] Bill Milliken and [Ann Arbor attorney] Paul Dimond–the usual suspects. They said, ‘The time has come for somebody to start something that attacks the sick political culture in this state.'”
The Powers committed $1 million a year for fifteen years to launch the “non-partisan and centrist” Center for Michigan, and are raising another $15 million from Michigan companies and foundations. Starting with Bebow, a former Ann Arbor News reporter and editor-in-chief of mlive.com, they’ve since snapped up staff from the shrinking media business, including Derek Melot from the Lansing State Journal and veteran Detroit News investigative reporter Ron French. As the November 6 election approached, the “truth squad” at bridgemi.com was working overtime blowing the whistle on dishonest political ads. A Pete Hoekstra TV spot calling Debbie Stabenow the “worst senator ever” and a Mattie Maroun mailer that claimed a new bridge to Canada would take money from the schools both earned “flagrant fouls.”
“We’re not trying to win Pulitzer Prizes,” says Bebow. “We’re not trying to be well known in the world of nonprofit news sites …
“What we care about is informing Michigan citizens and providing the kind of depth that our team of writers used to do for newspapers.”
This article has been edited since it appeared in the November, 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. John Bebow’s title at MLive.com has been corrected.