Capitol Reporter John Lindstrom Retires
The press corps covering the state capitol got smaller at the end of 2019 with the retirement of John Lindstrom. He's been the publisher of the Gongwer News Service, and he has covered Michigan politics for 42 years.
SCOTT POHL: I want you to start maybe by explaining what Gongwer is. What is the Gongwer News Service?
JOHN LINDSTROM: We are a daily newsletter that covers all aspects of Michigan state government and politics, and we have been doing that since 1961, since the start of the 1961 constitutional convention. Our home office in Columbus, Ohio has been doing it since 1906, so we have been in business in this state for nearly 60 years and certainly down in Columbus for almost 115 years. We provide the service to those folks who feel they need to absolutely have the information about what is going on in state government. That includes businesses, small governments, law firms, obviously lobbyists, anybody who needs the service and will cough up the bucks.
POHL: You've been covering the capital for 42 years. Were all 42 at Gongwer?
LINDSTROM: Not all 42. There was a period of time where I was at Crain’s Detroit Business. Government was not my main beat at Crain’s. It was something that I ended up doing a lot with, but for the most part, it was here in Lansing, in committee rooms and on the floor of the House and the Senate and the court chambers, plowing through the mountains of documents that are generated by what goes on and government.
POHL: You're the publisher, and people hear that word and they think that means not just the boss, but maybe the owner. Can you explain what publisher means in your case?
LINDSTROM: It is essentially the business manager. We are small, but we are a C corporation, so we're a stock-held corporation, and in my case, I oversaw operations in Michigan, so I was responsible for the marketing, for making sure that whatever logistics were involved were met, make sure things were supplied, hired staff as needed, dealt with benefits and things like that, along with reporting.
ON WRITING FICTION:
I wrote a novel, and I asked Cindy, my wife, who was a former AP reporter, to read it and critique it. She did so and she said I could make a lot of money if I sold it as a sleep aid. John Lindstrom
POHL: I want to ask you why you chose the career path you chose, of covering politics and government at the state level as opposed to any other arena that I think you could have or would have succeeded in.
LINDSTROM: To a certain degree, it was accidental. In some respects it was a lucky accident. My mother was a teacher and taught me to read when I was four years old, and so from a very, very early age, I was fascinated and in love with the idea of story and storytelling. One of my early chores as a kid was to go pick up the morning paper, The (Detroit) Free Press, and bring it in the house. Because I could read, I started seeing what the headlines were. I started seeing things about politics and government and got interested in that too.
My original business model for myself was to be a world famous novelist living in Paris. That hasn't worked out exactly as it was, but when I was here at Michigan State as a student, I worked at The State News, the daily student newspaper, and it was during Vietnam. In 1972, when Michigan State was still on terms, we were the only university still open when President Nixon ordered Haiphong mined, and there was a massive series of demonstrations. In the course of covering that I learned what tear gas smelled like, I felt the business end of a police stick, and at the end of it, I thought it was fun. Let's do it again! I got hooked.
Maybe early in my life I had hoped that I'd be in Washington or covering some foreign beat, but it worked out that I ended up covering state government and seeing history from that part of it, and it has been a fascinating area. I don't regret it at all.
THE JOURNALISM LIFE:
When you're a reporter, there ain't no better high than being on top of a big story, so that sort of got me hooked into being a journalist. In terms of government and politics, I was always fascinated with history and politics, and government is an essential part of history, as is everything else, and I just sort of gravitated that way. John Lindstrom
POHL: You started covering the state capital when William Milliken was governor. He passed away earlier this year at the age of 97. He was a Republican who was widely admired by people from both parties. Do you have a favorite William Milliken story?
LINDSTROM: One of the very first stories I had to cover when I came to Gongwer was in 1975. The state has adopted what was called the single business tax, a very complicated tax. All the business people hated it, so they were changing it. That was the first thing they threw me into, and if that isn't enough to make you want to throw yourself off the Capitol dome, I don't know what is.
The bill to amend the single business tax was sponsored by a man named Sen. Pat McCullough, a Democrat from Dearborn, and he was looking to run against Gov. Milliken in the 1978 election. After a long, involved process, the bill passed. The guy who was most responsible for shepherding the bill through, even though it was in the House, basically through both the House and the Senate, was a brilliant legislator from Detroit named George Montgomery. He knew everything there was to know about taxes. He was a gruff old guy, chain smoked Camels, had a raspy voice, could be mean spirited and arrogant, but by God, the man was funny and he knew he was a brilliant man.
At the bill signing ceremony, which was in the governor's office, the bills are presented to Gov. Milliken. Rep. Montgomery's on one side and Sen. McCullough is on the other side, and the governor goes through a rather elaborate little ceremony, signing the bill a little differently. Usually, he would just get the bill out and scribble his name and that was that, but he very carefully wrote his name down, and he very carefully kept the pen. He very carefully picked up the bill and he said “well, I think I'm going to give this first copy of the bill…” and here's Sen. McCullough. His name’s on the bill. He's all set. He's standing with his hands out, big smile, grinning, waiting to get the bill from the governor who's going to be his political rival. And Gov. Milliken says “I think I'm going to give the first copy of this bill to you, Rep. Montgomery.” He turns around and he hands the bill to Montgomery. Montgomery is shocked, and then he realizes what's going on. Montgomery and McCullough didn't get along very well either, and the governor is just sitting there having a long chat with Montgomery, and McCullough standing there. Finally, he puts his hands down like “well, what am I doing here?”.
POHL: I want to know if you think you'll be looking for ways to continue impacting coverage of Lansing.
LINDSTROM: Maybe, yes, to a certain degree. I see this as not punching a clock anymore. There are stories I would like to cover, the stories I've been thinking about working on that will take a long time to develop. The nature of what we do and how we cover things, it wasn't possible to simply turn around and say, okay, take two or three months and just go and work on the story. There's some stories I would like to do, and hopefully I can find a market for them. There's one project in particular that was affected by state government, and hopefully, I can pull that together, but that will take some time to develop.
One of the things I'm very worried about now, though, is the state of our industry and to a certain degree, how the public in general views journalism. One of the things I see myself trying to do is being something of an evangelist for journalism, to get people to understand the importance of journalism in both their personal lives and in public life, and hopefully have some effect in that regard.
POHL: I hope you'll forgive me in the way I phrased that question, because as a gentle act of teasing you, I used the word impacting as a verb.
LINDSTROM: Yes, I know. I said nothing about it, but please, for God sakes, never do that again. The only thing that could be impacted is your tooth!
POHL: Oxford comma, yes or no?
LINDSTROM: I'm a big believer in the Oxford comma.