by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Forgive me. This is not about sports. I promised myself nearly two years ago that if this moment ever arrived and this crazy JOA was approved, I would write this column.

It was a Tuesday. I went down to a coffee shop and sat with Dave Lawrence, who, as most of you know, is publisher of the Free Press. He said he had a favor to ask.

He said he knew there was a lot of uncertainty over this JOA, that a lot of people were considering bailing out for safer ground. After all, the Free Press was being scored as “the failing newspaper,” a label we could not deny, because we had gone on record as being just that, even though the Detroit News was “failing,” too — unless you don’t count losing millions of dollars a year as failing.

What was the favor? “I’ll understand if you want to leave, also,” Lawrence said, “but if you do, would you please at least let me know before you make your final decision, just so we can talk it over?”

I didn’t say anything, mostly because I was flabbergasted at the request. I had never considered going. I did not want to go. But as I paused, Lawrence went on about this newspaper and what it meant to him and how awful it was that it might close down if the JOA was not approved.

And I was surprised that he seemed to be choking up. He was almost crying.

“I’ll promise you this,” he said. “If we lose this JOA, I will do everything I can to make sure every person here is taken care of, so help me.”

I don’t usually write about the people with whom I work. And Lawrence is, in the big picture, my boss, so he certainly doesn’t need me to toot his horn. But while many of you are happy this morning to have a Free Press, I’m not sure people realize what a remarkable struggle has just ended for the people who work here, and, in particular, the man who guides this newspaper.

And you should know. Approval meant survival

Understand that under a JOA, the job of publisher is diminished. Dave Lawrence is a smart man. He knew this. He was being asked to work toward a decision that could eventually make his current job less important, maybe obsolete. How would you react to that? Would you say: “Why bother?”

Here is how Lawrence reacted: By spending every waking moment pushing toward JOA approval, because approval meant survival, and survival meant life
— good, solid, breathing life for a newspaper he loved. And that, for the moment, was more important than himself.

I know this sounds corny to accountants or lawyers. But sometimes in this newspaper business — in the good moments — anyhow, you still find that sort of dedication.

And because of his encouragement, which spread, a lot of people stayed on. Let’s be honest. This thing has been a killer. You never knew when you might be at a ball game or a courtroom and you’d come back to the office to find the JOA had been denied and you would probably be looking for work.

Logic would have said “bail out.” Some did. Many did not. In our sports department, one or two took better jobs, jobs they would have taken anyhow — and the rest of us stayed on. For 2 1/2 years. Why? Who knows? Maybe, you figure, because we were frightened, or hedging our bets. I think there was another reason: We believed in this newspaper. And I think we sort of like each other.

That counts for something. It really does. A salute to the publisher

And today, thank goodness, we have a future together. We have a newspaper. It is not a pure moment of celebration; some people will still be out of work because of the JOA (although far fewer than the alternative) and you shouldn’t be popping champagne when that happens.

Still, Monday, when the news came, the workers gathered in our third-floor newsroom and shook hands and sighed and smiled as if a great weight had been lifted. Someone flicked on a television and we watched as the story was reported before our eyes.

“Hey, where’s Dave?” someone yelled.

Where was he? Where was the publisher? At the moment when he most deserved to be with his staff, he was downstairs, in a big room, answering endless questions from outside reporters.

I wandered down to listen. A reporter asked: “What about you, Mr. Lawrence? What happens to you now that this has been approved?”

He paused. I knew what he would say. “First we make sure every person who may lose his job is taken care of. Then I’ll talk about myself.”

I am lucky. I have no wife, no kids, I would have survived OK even if the Free Press went out of business. But I salute the people here who had harder decisions, who had mouths to feed, and who still stayed on, because there is something unique about this place and they wanted to keep it.

And I salute the man who helped keep that spirit breathing. I don’t know what eventually will happen to Dave Lawrence, whether he’ll remain here or conquer new mountains. He’ll probably be mad at me for even writing this in the first place.

I just thought you should know about some of the hearts and bones that were twisted in with all the jibberish that finally came to an end Monday afternoon. And particularly the efforts of the publisher — even if he is my boss. I have never seen more remarkable dedication from a working man to the place where he works.

I hope I never forget it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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