At the end of last year, Tom and Charla Hamilton left their advertising jobs at the Sun Times News. By mid- February, the husband-and-wife team had launched a twelve-page weekly, the Chelsea Guardian, delivered free to Chelsea residents and businesses.
The Hamiltons are printing 5,900 copies of their “hyper-local” paper, which will cover city government, school board meetings, and arts and entertainment, and have a “huge focus on high school sports,” Tom Hamilton says. “Anybody who gets a newspaper and gets a picture of their child or grandchild, they still want to be able to cut those things out–to have those things for their family.”
He should know. Before the Sun Times, he worked in advertising for Heritage newspapers from 2012 to 2014, which included the Chelsea Standard, the last print newspaper devoted solely to Chelsea. “The pay wasn’t really great,” Hamilton says. “So I said in order to make this work, you need to hire Charla too. They hired her on the spot.” But when Heritage’s new owner, Digital First Media, combined six local papers to form Washtenaw Now, he left for the Sun Times. In 2015, Washtenaw Now folded, and that same year Charla joined the Sun Times to work for him, after a brief stint in pharmaceutical sales.
“One of the great lessons I learned from the Sun Times [is that] these community newspapers are actually doing very well,” explains Hamilton. “It’s the larger, more regional ones–the Detroit News and Free Press–that are struggling … they have all this legacy debt … Our overhead is so skinny, and you have to keep it that way, because you can’t afford not to.”
Hamilton says they left the Sun Times because it was “moving to a more regional view … and we wanted to bring it back to Chelsea.” The quick turnaround on the Chelsea Guardian was possible, he says, because “I had a relationship with the post office and other places in town so I knew how it operated.” They also “tapped into our former life,” he adds–two of their freelance writers, Dave Merchant and Don Richter, wrote for the Chelsea Standard.
Hamilton says they have no hard feelings for their former employer. But Sun Times publisher Bob Nester and managing editor Wendy Wood wouldn’t say the same.
Wood emails that they determined, “based on performance, [that] providing TCH Advertising (Tom and Charla Hamilton) with access to our financial data and decision making, along with a salary for the position of Director of Sales and Marketing was no longer a sound business decision.”
Nester emails that Tom Hamilton “used his position as a trusted employee to acquire information regarding our business model and client base to launch a competing print product in the Chelsea community.”
The Sun Times delivers 24,000 copies weekly to residents of Chelsea, Dexter, Saline, Manchester, and Ann Arbor, and distributes another 500 free copies at local businesses. “We have covered news and sports in the Chelsea area for nearly a decade and are incredibly thankful to be the publication of record for the community,” Nester writes. “Our commitment to our readership and supporting advertisers is stronger than ever.”
DLisa Allmendinger, who’s heading into her sixth year publishing her online daily, the Chelsea Update, believes “there are so many stories going on in Chelsea that there’s plenty of room for everyone. The city is better served by multiple news sources.”
Allmendinger says she isn’t worried about losing ad dollars to the Chelsea Guardian because each news source, including the Sun Times, has a “different business plan and philosophy.” The online model, she says, works for her as a “one-woman show” and allows her the flexibility to travel. Thesalinepost.com and welovedexter.com continue to offer local online coverage as well. But for the Hamiltons, Tom says “print is our bread and butter.” They don’t even have a website yet, though they plan to update the newspaper’s Facebook page with breaking news.
Tom, forty-five, and Charla, thirty-four, met in Pikeville, Kentucky–a city about as big as Chelsea–where Charla grew up, and where Tom’s parents live. Charla’s parents share a driveway with Tom’s parents, and after Tom visited one Thanksgiving, Charla left a note on his windshield telling him to drive safely and asking him to visit her the next time he was in town. They’ve been married for ten years, and owned a sports bar in Kentucky until the Heritage job lured Tom back to Michigan, his home state.
“We make a good team … we’ve been working together so many years,” says Charla. “I’m very organized, and I do a good job of keeping him calm. We balance each other out. I’m more quiet and reserved. He’s more outgoing.”
They commute from their home in Allen Park, spending many of their days in Chelsea’s coffee shops and businesses and frequently staying overnight at the Comfort Inn. Charla, who reviewed Purple Rose Theatre shows for the Sun Times, says their newspaper will give her the opportunity to do more writing–and says she looks forward to having “more control over the editorial process.”