The fourth estate turns 40 in Troy

by ANDREW NEAL

Over 80,000 people call the city of Troy home, and even more work in its office buildings, hospitals, restaurants, retail shops, and of course, Somerset Mall. It’s the 10th largest city in Michigan.

For 40 years, the people of Troy have turned to The Troy-Somerset Gazette every week for the news in their community.

The paper was founded by a young General Motors employee who came north looking for the mall. But the story starts years before, when Claire Weber was attending the University of Michigan.

“I’ve always been somewhat of a news junkie,” she says. “When I went to Michigan, I worked a very plebeian job at The Michigan Daily, but it gave me a taste for it.”

She would go on to spend time in The South End newsroom at Wayne State University, where she attended after graduating from Michigan.

“I just liked the whole process. Of course, saying that, the process at that time was a lot different. It was a lot more hands-on.”

After college, Weber took a job at General Motors, begrudgingly.

Weber takes a chance on newspaper

“I was young and thought I had copped out by working for GM, which was a stupid thing to think, but at that time everybody my age in our very early 20s didn’t want to work for a big corporation. We all wanted to do something else. We didn’t know how good we had it. However a lot of us, myself included, did branch out.”

With a knack for newspapers, she found opportunity in a town 25 miles north of Detroit.

“I came to Troy looking for the mall. And just looking around, it reminded me a lot of an area that was underserved,” Weber says.

In the late 70s and early 80s, things looked a lot different in Troy. The Somerset Mall and Somerset Apartments were the only notable structures. Rochester Road was two lanes.

Seeing her chance to branch out, Weber cashed out her stock savings of about $5,000 and left her job at GM.

“I thought what the hell, I’ll try it, and if it doesn’t work, I’m young. I can find something else.”

In the beginning, like most entrepreneurs, Weber was doing it all on her own, quite literally out of her closet.

“I had darkroom experience, so I would develop film in my closet, take the film to Meteor – which was a film house on Stevenson Highway – I would take it to them in the morning and they would make me a proof sheet. I’d pick the photos I wanted and they would print me just those photos, so that’s how we got photos.”

She didn’t have a phone either, but she figured it out. “I met this manufacturer’s rep who let me use his office phone and pay his receptionist to answer my phone. So we didn’t have an office or anything for a couple of years, and I just sort of put it together that way.”

Kmett crowned editor, begins decades of local news coverage

Weber worked day and night in those early years, determined to see the newspaper succeed. It wasn’t easy. In those first years, she delivered the paper on Saturday, sold ads during the week, and wrote stories at night. In her spare time, she expanded the delivery route and attended city events.

While attending a planning meeting for Troy Daze, Claire met Cynthia Kmett, who was doing PR for the event.

“She came to the meeting and everyone just sort of looked at her blankly and said, ‘You’re with what?’ Because we didn’t know of the paper yet,” Kmett remembers.

After working together on Troy Daze, Kmett offered to write for the newspaper, and said she’d do it for minimal pay.

“She was hired,” Weber says. “I didn’t know what she could do, but she was hired.”

It was truly serendipitous. Kmett was newly-widowed and looking for something to do on the side to get more involved in the Troy community, a place she had only recently moved to. Weber was overworked and in desperate need to offload some aspects of the business to someone else. Kmett was outgoing and social, ready to shake hands at ribbon cuttings and corner the mayor for an interview. Weber was more into the process of making newspapers and running a small business. It just worked.

“Had it not been for her at that point – when I was literally doing everything – I don’t think I would have made it,” Weber says. “She wrote the stories and pointed me in the right direction of a lot of things,” she adds.

“She was relentless at finding places to deliver,” Kmett says, “and she spent a lot of time doing that.”

Now with a small staff of three, including a new graphic designer, Weber got a small office with a phone.

“I’ll never forget having this little office. It was two rooms and we couldn’t move around very much.”

Like most lucky breaks, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, with the skills necessary to capitalize. That’s where The Troy-Somerset Gazette found itself in the economic boom that would occur over the next 15 years in Troy.

“I’ll never forget when Uncle Eds came to town. They came to my crappy little office and they bought my first full-page ad,” says Weber. “And they didn’t by just one full-page ad. They bought six.”

“It was one of those things where I thought, ‘maybe this is a start,’ and it pretty much was.”

There was a time before those full-page ads when Weber thought she might have to get a second job, although she was determined to make the Gazette last.

“Prior to that, all the ads were small. I would go to the post office box and if there was a check there for $200 I would say, ‘Yes, we’re going to pay the rent!’ But there weren’t very many that were that much money.”

Cynthia Kmett remembers her time in the early days filled with covering business development and community events.

“My very first assignment was the Jaycee’s Halloween House. Claire got me a camera and sent me out to take a picture,” Kmett recalls. “My first story was Distinguished Citizen of the Year – Honey Marquardt.”

It was a time of rapid development in Troy, and Oakland County as a whole.

“We went to a lot of groundbreaking ceremonies, ribbon cuttings, road widenings,” says Kmett. “We watched it all go up.”

The Troy-Somerset Gazette’s philosophy was to give the business community news as it grew and to support the nonprofits. Its evolution into a community newspaper was seamless as residential grew.

The evolution of newspaper production

“It was a very different time for production,” recalls Gazette Editor Cynthia Kmett.

Every day, Kmett started her morning at the post office to pick up the day’s mail, which included packets of press releases, pictures, news tips, and more. She would then head to the day’s events – often groundbreaking ceremonies, ribbon cuttings, road widenings, etc.

Founder and Publisher Claire Weber lived in Detroit, south of 8 Mile just west of Woodward in Green Acres, when she started the Troy-Somerset Gazette in 1980. It was in that house where Kmett and Weber would assemble the newspaper.

“Before we had an office, we would do the paper on the dining room table,” recalls Weber. “We had to cut out and keyline the paper on a light table. For a time I rented equipment but we could only use it on the off-hours, from midnight to 8 a.m. And we did.”

Kmett and Weber would write their stories on a word processor. After setting the photos and stories in a layout, the pages were taken to a printer. From there they were snapped and plated for the press.

“We used to print our paper in New Baltimore,” Weber says. “So Cindy and I would go out there, and we’d work all day, and drive back. I remember they were having a ceremony for widening Rochester Road and it was on a Friday. So I drove Cindy out there, worked for a little bit, drove back, took pictures of the ceremony, and drove back out.”

“I did what I had to do. And what I had to do I could never do again,” Weber laughs. “I would never have the energy.”

As the digital age descended, the production process changed. And as the Gazette expanded its distribution and page count, more efficient methods had to be used. Offices were upgraded, computers were purchased, additional support staff was hired, and the paper could eventually be emailed to Huron Web Press, the Gazette’s longtime and current printer in Wyoming, Ontario.

Weber bought her first house in Troy five years into the paper, where she raised her son Chris. The Gazette staff continued to play an integral role in delivering the news of Troy every week.

When asked what helped make the paper a success, Weber knows that timing played a big role. “I didn’t have enough of a demographic feel to know how much it was going to change commercially. At that point, the mall was here, but I really didn’t know how dynamic it would be and it got dynamic really fast. So we were on the ground floor of some of these hotels moving in and attracting businesses and it started growing really quickly and I was really lucky.”

At that point, there was no other paper in town. “We had a spot there from 1980 to the late 90s early 00s where we were the only game in town and it was a great time. So I hired a salesperson.”

“I was so determined that it was going to work that I would’ve done anything,” Weber says.

The Troy-Somerset Gazette now operates out of an office at the corner of Crooks and South Blvd. Chris Cooke, Owner and CEO of Huron Web Press, stops in every Wednesday with his classic, “What’s new? What’s happening? Tell me everything.” So not everything has changed.

New publisher, Nicholson, continues Gazette legacy

In August 2015, Troy resident Mark Nicholson bought The Troy-Somerset from Claire Weber. Expanding on the success in Troy, the new publisher launched two more weekly newspapers in Rochester and northern Macomb and established Gazette Media Group.

“I remember reading the Troy-Somerset Gazette with my kids as they were growing up,” Nicholson says. “We used to pass the paper back and forth and read the police patrol column and other stories.”

Acknowledging the need to diversify in the digital age, Gazette Media Group produces a variety of experiential events including home shows, senior expos, bridal shows, and festivals through metro Detroit and nationwide.

“Local news is so vital to a prosperous community,” Nicholson says. “The fourth estate, as they say, keeps the government in check and its citizens informed. That is what we continue to deliver every week to the city and we are so grateful to the people of Troy for their support.”

As the media landscape evolves, keeping it local is key for outlets like the Gazette.

“The local aspect is still really important,” says Weber. “Younger generations are not as acclimated to paper news as my generation. I think think the local aspect, where people can disseminate their information locally, quicker will keep papers like the Troy Gazette alive and well.”

Looking back on the last 40 years, Weber remembers what drew her to the city in the first place. “What always impressed me about this community was that everybody pitched in. If there was something that needed to be done, if you couldn’t do it, you knew somebody who could do it.”

To this day, it’s not uncommon for people to stop City Editor Cynthia Kmett in the grocery store, or call her up on her landline (after she turns down the TV) to talk shop.

“I’ve tried to be fair, and also to not be taken over by people who are gossiping,” Kmett says.

So, where do we go from here? Kmett says the big fight in Troy is saturated land use. Developers are buying up the last available parcels and looking to build condos on land near old homes with big trees. Homes where people have lived for decades and never imagined someone would buy the land next to them, cut down the trees, and build tall residential structures. And since land values have surged since the early 80s, developers are looking to maximize their use of space more than ever.

“It’s expensive now, so you’re going to get a different level of housing,” Kmett observes.

Claire Weber agrees and speculates on the economic outlook of not only the city, but also the county and state.

“It’s going to be a lot harder for middle-class families to move in. Property values have skyrocketed, and there’s no place left to build. The downside of that – I’ll be curious to see what happens when the economy retracts. Because I’m not sure how we can support all this. But hey, they’ve done well so far.”

All in all, Weber wouldn’t change a single thing.

“I love the community. I’ve lived and worked in the community these 35 plus years and I’m so grateful I landed here. I can’t even imagine a better life.”