Up Front

Roll the Presses

Volunteers resurrect community newspaper
Among the volunteers that put out The South County News are, back row, from left, Brian Decker, Steve Ellis, Wes Schmitt, Kim Marston and Fred Rainer; front row, from left, Bob Smith, Norm Hinga and Sue Moore.

Vicksburg and Schoolcraft have a newspaper again.

The area’s former newspaper — the Commercial Express, which served the southern communities of Kalamazoo County for 133 years — ceased publishing in 2012, five years after being purchased by its big brother to the north, the Kalamazoo Gazette.

It didn’t take long for area residents to realize that the loss of the newspaper left a gaping hole in their communities.

“I needed help to promote our jazz band event and became so frustrated because there was no way to get the word out,” says Kim Marston, a Vicksburg resident. “And I said, ‘We need a newspaper in this community.’”

Vicksburg Village President Bill Adams agreed. He had done a survey of residents and businesses, and the constant issue that came up was the community’s lack of a newspaper. As a result, Adams worked with Norm Hinga, a local resident and partner in the consulting firm Business Research & Development Group LLC, to put together a business plan outlining what it would take for the town to have a newspaper again.

What it would take, they realized, was a handful of very dedicated volunteers who would work weekly for virtually nothing in order to produce a monthly publication. Adams, undaunted, moved forward.

“Bill Adams sees having a newspaper as good for the community and for attracting business to the community,” says Wes Schmitt, vice president and treasurer of the newspaper’s board.

Adams’ first recruit was Sue Moore, who had a family background in newspapers and the professional experience to run a paper. The 75-year-old’s parents, Meredith and Bernice Clark, owned the Commercial Express from 1947 to 1972.

Moore said that one morning in 1972 her mother drove out to her home and asked, “You wouldn’t want to buy a newspaper, would you?” Moore had worked for the Commercial Express in a number of capacities since childhood. “I said ‘Hell, no,’ and they sold it the next day,” she recalls. Now Moore is back in the newspaper business as the editor and publisher of the start-up The South County News.

Unlike its predecessor, The South County News is run as a nonprofit, allowing the publication to save money on postage costs. And, unlike many newspapers, the work — writing, photography, ads sales, business management, distribution — is done by a small cadre of volunteers.

Many of those volunteers make up the newspaper’s board of trustees, which consists mostly of retired Vicksburg and Schoolcraft residents. The board includes Moore; Hinga; Bob Smith, a retired supervisor from Designware who heads up advertising sales; Wes Schmitt, a former accountant at Pfizer who is the organization’s treasurer; Kim Marston, the paper’s graphic designer; and Steve Ellis, a former advertising representative for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Two other volunteers, Brian Decker and Fred Rainer, round out the advertising sales staff, and various volunteer writers contribute articles and information.

The newspaper, which debuted in May, is mailed free to more than 7,500 homes in Vicksburg and Schoolcraft and available at more than 60 locations, from gas stations and convenience stories to restaurants, in the southern part of Kalamazoo County.

Upon the suggestion of Fred Jacobs, of J Ad Graphics in Hastings, which prints The South County News and nine other community newspapers, The South County News distributed donation envelopes in its editions for readers who wished to help fund the newspaper expenses. To date, more than 390 donors have contributed in excess of $14,000, according to Schmitt.

Moore says the donations come in with comments like “It’s so great to have a local paper again” and “Hoping for the success of this venture. It is so great to feel in touch with our area.”

With advertising sales and a low-cost workforce, the newspaper so far is staying in the black according to figures released at a recent board meeting.

“’The response we’ve gotten has been so positive,” Hinga says. “We all said we’d do this for three months, but this group really got it off the ground and we’ve made tremendous progress.”

The board meets each Wednesday morning at the Vicksburg Community Center to discuss various issues, from advertising sales to who will deliver papers to the distribution sites.

“We all get along really well, and we have fun,” Smith says. “We’re going to make this happen no matter what.”

Adams says having the paper for five months has already shown tangible results. “When we lost the newspaper, attendance at local events fell by 25 to 30 percent. Now, attendance at events is up and the newspaper is doing a good job covering local sports and activities,” he notes.

“Having a newspaper brings the community together,” he says.

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The South County News

“Having a newspaper brings the community together.”
— Bill Adams