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Wednesday, August 21,2013

Dis-Mayes

Longtime State Journal columnist John Schneider reacts to the departure of his successor, Mark Mayes, and the end of greater Lansing’s daily column

by Andy Balaskovitz
When former Lansing State Journal columnist John Schneider left the paper after 24 years in April 2012, his editor and publisher were “totally committed,” he said he was told, to carrying on the daily dose of human interest his column provided. To the point “where they made sure they had someone already in place when I left,” Schneider said last week.

That’s why he uses words like “baffled,” “surprised” and “a shame” when asked to respond to news that the Journal eliminated his former job — and laid off his successor, Mark Mayes — on Aug. 9. Schneider can’t help feeling that the decision came from higher up the corporate ladder of Gannett, which publishes the State Journal and 81 other papers nationwide, including USA Today, the Detroit Free Press and the Battle Creek Enquirer.

“Whoever made this decision really didn’t have a full appreciation for how much” impact the column had and what “this kind of journalism done through this column means to the community,” Schneider said. “The column had a real reputation for being able to solve problems for people. Not necessarily great-big-picture problems like crime and poverty, but it was really a way for someone without much of a voice to get a voice.

“I think people are going to miss it. The community will be diminished by its passing.”

The news came a week after the Journal eliminated the position of executive editor Mickey Hirten, who had held that job since 2001. His duties are being carried out by managing editor Stephanie Angel. Mayes was one of five layoffs on Aug. 9, according to multiple sources, which also included Publisher Brian Priester’s secretary, Trish Ray; copy editor Jacci Triplett; and two staffers in the business and marketing departments. The layoffs are the latest round in cost-cutting moves, with more rumored for the end of the month. 

Schneider said he and Mayes had a “long talk” a few days after he was let go. “He’s dismayed by this,” Schneider said. “He felt he was just sort of settling into the column. He felt his ongoing dialog with readers was improving and that he was starting to get a good feel for the job. He had no inkling it was coming until (the day) he was informed.”

City Pulse contacted Mayes to comment on this story. This was his email response:

“I would like to thank the State Journal readers for quickly accepting and trusting me as their daily news columnist. It was my honor, privilege and pleasure to carry on a tradition at the LSJ and provide a voice for those who otherwise would not have been heard. I regret that I couldn’t find a way to help more people in my time as columnist, and I will greatly miss the opportunity to serve on behalf of all those who read, called and wrote during the last 16 months.”

LSJ Publisher Brian Priester could not be reached for comment.

Mayes was a reporter at the State Journal from 1995 to 2001 before becoming the public information officer and marketing supervisor for the Lansing School District. He had been a reporter at the Battle Creek Enquirer from 1989 to 1995. His first column after coming back to the Journal appeared April 16, 2012.

Since the Journal announced large price increases in May 2012, circulation has dropped 16 percent. At the same time, it began charging for unlimited online content — a so-called paywall — for customers without a print subscription. 

The paper defended the paywall to readers, saying that its unique content would be worth paying for. Eliminating its daily columnist seems to fly in the face of that argument: It was arguably the most unique content the LSJ gives greater Lansing. To Schneider, that’s ironic.

“The mantra all along has been: The best chance of survival for papers like the Journal is to give people unique content, something they can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “This column, I thought, was a great example of that sort of thing. It’s confusing to me. It seems contrary to what they’ve been saying.”

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