The son of a newspaper reporter and a printer, Mickey Ciokajlo has ink in his blood. The Jackson native, who graduated from Western Michigan University and has a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism, worked for a number of newspapers, including the Kalamazoo Gazette, before landing at the Chicago Tribune. In 2008, Ciokajlo returned to the Kalamazoo Gazette.
Three years later, the Kalamazoo Gazette and its parent company became “a digital media company,” putting an increased emphasis on daily digital reporting and printing a newspaper only three days a week. The man at the helm of this dramatic, daunting and daring shift was Ciokajlo.
How did you get to be where you are today?
I was working at the Gazette when the great recession hit, and it was a very challenging time for everybody. The newspaper industry had been experiencing changes and there were cutbacks every year. In the fall of 2011 the leaders of MLive media group conceived the idea of creating a media company from all the other Booth newspapers owned by the group in Michigan. I was brought into the fold and asked if I would be the leader for the Kalamazoo Gazette.
Was that a hard transition?
We had been getting the message that we needed to be more digital and do our news online, and we had been heading that direction.
For me it was not about the newspaper. It was about the journalism and serving the community through journalism regardless of the medium. It’s really thrilling for our staff to go out and shoot photos and videos, write stories and have them online right then and there. We’re back in the breaking-news game now. Newspapers had ceded that to radio and television years ago.
What can be challenging now is that it never stops — there are no longer once- or twice-a-day deadlines. The deadline is now. For us to be relevant, we have to be on the spot and give readers important and interesting stories that matter to them and their community, but in a way that is digestible digitally and makes sense digitally.
What was the biggest challenge?
Working through community expectations of who we are and what we do. People who read the Kalamazoo Gazette for years had come to expect the Gazette to do the same things. But we are not the same Gazette we were five years ago or 10 years ago. We are a public trust — people see us that way — but we need to change with the times and stay relevant both journalistically and digitally.
What do you like most about what you do?
I truly believe that journalism is a form of public service. My greatest satisfaction is doing stories that are interesting, relevant and important to the community. For example, Julie Mack and Rosemary Parker just did a fascinating series on vaccinations in Michigan — it was a statewide project that they wrote out of the Kalamazoo hub, and it ran on the front page of all eight of our newspapers. It was well written and captivating; it was good stuff.
What keeps you up at night?
Thinking about what stories we’re missing, what stories we should be doing. I don’t care if you have 100 reporters, there are always stories out there that you aren’t getting. I’m constantly thinking about ways to present stories digitally and use the latest digital tools to do meaningful journalism that makes for a great reader experience.
Do you consider MLive to be a trailblazer?
We absolutely are trailblazers. Around the country, newspapers are making this transition, but we switched three years ago so we went a little earlier than some.
Among newspaper companies, we are seen as one that’s pushing the envelope digitally. Of the Advance Digital Media Group properties, MLive went digital first. We were the trailblazer in our own company.
What’s an ideal day like for you?
I love come to work every single day. I have to love coming to work. The hours are too long in this business to not do it for the right reasons. This is much more than a job. It’s a passion. It’s a calling. I love doing journalism and I love this community — I moved here intentionally to raise my family here.
What do you do when you aren’t at work?
I have two lovely young kids — my daughter’s 9 and my son’s 7 — and we spend a lot of time together. That’s a reality, a good reality. One of the great things about their ages is that they like spending time with their parents.
I also play a little guitar, but I’m not very good. I was a drummer when I was kid, but I didn’t play for 20 years. Recently, though, I hooked up with some guys and play in a garage band.
What was the most influential moment in your life?
My decision to go to WMU, because it’s what got me to Kalamazoo. It’s where I got serious about journalism, and it’s where I met my wife. It wasn’t a great epiphany, but deciding to go to WMU was pretty huge in my life. All three of my older siblings went to WMU, so honestly, I went to Western because it was comfortable, but I am so glad I did. It was a great experience.
How is Ciokajlo pronounced anyway?
It’s cha-KYE-low. You won’t be the first one or the last one to get it wrong.