Featured Faces: Robert Martin
Photo and Interview by Gina Myers
June 26, 2009, Review Magazine Office
Original publication date July 17, 2009
Near-lifelong Saginaw resident, Robert Martin has been editing and publishing The Review, a bi-weekly free paper covering news, culture, and community in the Tri-Cities, for thirty years. Although the Arthur Hill graduate attended law school, he found his calling in journalism and began reporting for WRDD, a sister station of WHNN. When the station closed, he was offered a job in Minnesota but decided the Minnesota winters wouldn't suit him. With Vern Pococke, he launced The Review in 1979. After the first year, Pococke sold his stake to Jeff Scott, who stayed with the paper until 1986. Since then, Martin has been the sole editor and publisher.
Gina Myers: Why did you begin publishing The Review?
Robert Martin: Several reasons, but probably the biggest one was back then, unlike today, there really wasn't anything. The daily papers weren't really covering entertainment, and there was no such thing as a calendar of events, so it was really hard to find out what was going on. I have always been interested in arts, but I've also been deeply interested in politics and government. And there was a lot going on at that time, but there really wasn't any in-depth coverage. So my idea was to start—I guess you could call it a niche publication—but something that would cover the arts and do that justice and also get into investigative pieces and also do interviews with community leaders, movers and shakers, stuff like that. And put a Tri-City spin on it. Now there is all this talk about regionalism, but back when I started it in '79 – '80, each of the Tri-Cities had a distinct identity, and they wouldn't really cooperate together that much. It was really hard to tie them together, and I thought that was nuts with the way Bay Road was expanding and we were really becoming more interconnected. I thought it would behoove us to establish a publication that covered the whole Tri-Cities.
GM: Over the past thirty years, has your mission for the paper or your vision changed at all?
RM: The fundamental ideas are still there—that is kind of like a mission statement or whatever you want to call it. But as with anything, you need to evolve with the times. You need to keep it fresh.
I've always been a writer, and one of the difficulties for me as a writer was just keeping at it. I mean, you have to be disciplined to keep at it. I thought this would be a good way to keep me at it—to have deadlines for myself to accomplish things. In that sense, it has been great. But you really need to come up with new things constantly, and that is really a challenge. Artists, painters, they have a different schematic they can work with. They have a painting and can work months at it, and when it's done, it's done. But when you have a deadline looming, you don't want to compromise your quality, but by the same token, you don't have the time to do enough re-writing or spend the time doing things you might. So there is a compromise there. Matthew Arnold said, "Journalism is literature in a hurry." I think that’s pretty much it.
GM: As far as the scope of coverage—politics, government, and art—do you still see the publication filing that niche in the area?
RM: Yeah, I do. One thing I have noticed, which is a little disquieting to me, back when I came of age, when I was going to college, it was the height of the Watergate scandal and coming off of the whole youth movement, the politics of the late '60s – early '70s, there was a very definite commitment and awareness in people to really be active and political and keep track of what was going on in society. One of the things that was kind of disturbing to me through the whole '80s and the Reagan years with the whole "me decade" was how self-absorbed people got and how apathetic they became. And how do you address that? I still ask myself that.
I was involved with the charter revision commission and it went down pretty bad, which disturbed me somewhat, but what disturbed me more was that only 15 percent of the people even turned out to vote. I guess that's a trend that really bothers me. But I am encouraged by what I am seeing from a lot of young people today.
In terms of journalism, back then, papers and magazines were striving to uncover things, and as we have this shift towards online and blended media, and the consolidation of media, there aren't a lot of publications that are willing to take on the risk of really delving into politics in fear of alienating advertisers. Consequently, you have this gap where it is a lot of promotions. And it disturbs me that you don't see any serious news coverage like you used to.
GM: Like investigative reporting?
RM: Yes, exactly. It is a challenge for media outlets because it is costly. It takes time to do it and the reporters are expensive and everybody's time is expensive. For example, TV stations will get stories that are already canned just sent to them, so they basically are just a propaganda machine.
GM: Yeah, it seems with the new media technology, I seem to hear news stories broken on places like twitter and Facebook.
RM: That is what is kind of amazing. It has opened this whole opportunity for people. Anybody can be a blogger, anybody can be a publisher. In a way, The Review is just like a big blog before the internet. If you want to get something going, it is easy to do, and that is very encouraging.
GM: Where do you see the future of The Review?
RM: Well, we're working on that all the time. I don't think print will ever disappear one day. There is all this talk about how the written word is dead—I don't believe that. To one extent, older readers that are using papers and magazines, they still like those. I mean, going to the beach, they don't want to take an iPhone or whatever. They still want something to hold onto. But yeah, on the other hand, the big challenge is that you have all these universal platforms all over the place, and information is just so readily available, how do you stand out? How do you really get heard? I mean yeah, you have this liberating force that everyone can be a writer and everyone can offer their opinions, but then again you still come to the same issues: assessing the story, how true is the story? That's why there are whole sites devoted to dispelling urban myths. But that's just one part of it. Other than that, nationally, I think what's interesting is that people talk about the demise of print and the daily papers. If you look at the daily papers, they spend a lot of time covering national news through the AP wire and that's the stuff you can get online. It's the local content that is difficult to come by. So, in terms of that, we're going to maintain that.
We're evolving, constantly changing the website, bringing in more things. We just launched a new restaurant site called To Dine For that basically has menus and reviews of local restaurants. My webmaster has also launched another venture called the Hit List, which is going to have an urban hip-hop type of focus.
The biggest question is one that all media faces: how do you make money on the internet? I mean, it's like you can sell papers and you can sell advertising, and when you get into online advertising, if you don't get enough hits then you can't get big national accounts. It is affecting everyone—I mean, radio is real down right now, too. We're in just a real transitional period, and I guess the first person to figure out how to make it all work will do well.
GM: What has been the most rewarding aspect of running an independent paper?
RM: There is never a dull moment. Each day is different. I will never forget the first thing I covered. I was twenty-two years old and Ted Kennedy was running for president and he was speaking out at Eisenhower and I got my first press pass and I was hanging out with national media—I was just a local publisher hanging out with these worldwide journalists. I guess that is really what has been rewarding for me. Over the years I have been able to interview a number of really amazing artists, writers, politicians. Through the Matrix series in Midland, I have been able to spend one-on-one time with a lot of people: Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer. I have been able to interview entertainers. I remember the first concert I got a press pass for was The Police and The Go-Gos. No one had heard of the Go-Gos at the time, and I was able to interview Jane Wiedlin backstage, and it was great.
That's what makes it worthwhile, if you take pride in what you do and you always try to improve what you do and how you do it. I have always been influenced by the new journalism, not so much the straight reporters, but people who try to really get a certain tone or perspective to a story, Tom Wolfe, etc.
GM: Do you have a favorite interview or interviews from all the years?
RM: Favorites? Yeah, that would be hard to say; there have been so many. Actually, one of the most interesting ones I did wasn't with a famous person. It was with this guy named Ralph Salerno, and he spoke at the Temple Theater for a lecture series they were doing. Basically, he was a huge mobster—I mean, an international mafia guy, the type of stuff that Puzzo had based his character in The Godfather on. I mean, this guy was the real deal. He had been sprung from prison, and he had gotten through all the hoops because he became an informant for the government. It was fascinating because he had these perspectives on the roles of criminal forces, the police, government, and society. He just really had a lot of insights on how they all sort of operate in the same ways at a certain level. So that was pretty interesting.
But favorites? Yeah, there are a lot. I was able to interview The Temptations when they came to town once. That was really pretty special because of Motown and of course a couple of them have died now. Another really great interview was with Jane Goodall, who did all that pioneering research on apes and how they communicate. Those are some of the high points, I'd say.
GM: One thing that I think The Review is known locally for is its coverage of local musicians, and you have the annual Review Music Awards to spotlight our local talent. How long have you been doing the awards?
RM: Twenty-four years now. The first one we did was at the Fordney, before it burned. The whole thing with the awards is just to create energy around how vital the music scene here is. That's always been amazing to me. People can talk bad about Saginaw or the Tri-Cities all they want, but to this day there has been more vitality and more originality that comes out of this scene. I don't know why, if it's in the water or what. Even if you go downstate or to bigger cities, per capita there is probably more happening with bands and originality and talent in this area than you'll find in a lot of major cities. There are a lot of theories as to why that is. I think in a way part of it has to do with it being our unique blend of cultures, our diversity, and there's the Motown legacy, the factory worker background. I don't know.
Ted Roethke intimated once that it is really hard to be a hero in your own back yard because people judge you harsher and there are higher hurdles to get over, but if you get over them, it makes you a better artist, and I think that is a part of it too. Some national acts have been quoted as saying Michigan artists and Michigan in particular can be a really hard market to crack; it can be really demanding. I mean, the audiences just won't clap over anything. But if you can win over a Michigan audience, then you are doing it right, and I think there is something to that too.
With the awards, what I love about that is it really is a great way not only to honor local talent but to bring together different genres of music in one room, exposing the public to more than just one type of music, showcasing also the collaborative things we have done over the years.
GM: What sort of changes have you seen in Saginaw since you started publishing The Review?
RM: The biggest is the downsizing. I mean seriously, I have probably witnessed a 30 percent decrease in population in Saginaw County. You could kind of see the seeds of it happening back then, the whole situation with GM pulling out. It was like they built the town and established it and set a lot of standards and gave people a good living for a long time. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to earn a good living, and in turn that really was beneficial in that it gave Saginaw a lot of things a normal city this size wouldn't have. I mean, how many cities would have a zoo, and a rose garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, and so on. The downside of that as they pull out and leave is there are a lot of infrastructure issues. Consequently, you have to rely on a lot of benefactors and independent funding to keep that stuff viable, and it is a challenge. I think that is probably the biggest thing.
Apart from that, the expansion of Bay Road is interesting. When I was like 15 or 16 years old, I could go out Bay Road and there would be 1 or 2 places out there, and the rest was all farm fields. Now it is almost like it could go back to farm fields, and I’m not sure that would necessarily be a bad thing, but it would help the urban centers. I think that is another trend you are going to see. As gas prices spike, as things get more expensive, I think to a degree that is going to help the inner cities and the urban centers. Whether it is Bay City, Saginaw, or Midland, people aren't going to be able to afford to commute like they used to. There are some theories that if gas ever hits 6 - 7 dollars a gallon, places like the Sawmill are going to be where the new tenements are, and it's the inner cities that are going to re-gentrify and revive because it's the cultural hubs where people want to be.
I have always been in Old Town and I love it because it is like the soul of the city to a large degree. And it's always been this way. It's always had bookstores—where the Stable is, this guy Frank Walsh had a bookstore—three stories, nothing but used books. And there've always been artists and shops. That's what I like. And the fact that that has come back to a large extent is really encouraging. But yeah, the big issue we all have to face is this is not going to be a GM town anymore, and what is going to replace it? I don't know the answer to that. I don't think medical can do it alone. It's not like an assembly line where you are cranking out so many cars in a day.
GM: I have been interested in what's been happening with Flint—how they have come to the conclusion that the city has grown too large and they may possibly redefine the city limits…
RM: I think they have a really good idea down there that they have been circulating. I mean that is a similar issue that we have in Saginaw, especially on the East Side. There are all these abandoned properties and rather than just having these dangerous homes, I think that they are trying something down there to let the neighbor buy the lot for $100 or something and turn it into a garden, or whatever. I think it would be better than just having an empty lot or a vacant building on it. But yeah, you look at Detroit, and that is just phenomenal. At one time it had a population greater than Chicago, and you go down there now and there are huge, vast blocks of abandoned buildings.
GM: I have read a number of articles lately about artists from Europe buying whole neighborhoods in Detroit, getting houses for around $100, and setting up artist communities…
RM: A friend of mine was in the Netherlands and he saw this one community that went through a similar thing. It was an industrial area ghost town in the 1980s, and he was back there recently and he said in the past 10 – 15 years it was like a Silicon Valley sort of thing. It's nice and green and manicured, with condo homes, and people want to live there because it is close to the water. It's changed, and I guess that is doable. Kind of a weird thing I never understood is you go to Quebec and some of these other cities, and it is their riverways where they want to have their restaurants. They want to have their living centers by the water, but here we turned them into industrial transportation routes, we put rail tracks, we put all this stuff. Why can’t you develop the waterfront in Saginaw? Because you have all these railroad tracks and these old warehouses.
GM: It seems that is one thing Bay City was able to do successfully, as far as developing the waterfront and even preserving the historic buildings.
RM: They were. And yeah, it is horrible in Saginaw. I don't know what the answer to that is. I guess first off, you have to care—I'm not saying there aren't people here who care; there are. But owners can do whatever they want with their properties. With this building [Hamilton Square], there is stuff in here that you could never replicate—the doors, the curved windows. It's too bad. There used to be the Saginaw Auditorium ... all these great, great places.
GM: Yeah, my parents always tell me about places they used to go to, and I ask them where are these places? And they always say—
RM: It’s torn down.
© Gina Myers, 2009