After 40+ years of leading Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine and MyNorth Media, founder Deb Fellows has retired. In Deb’s final editor’s note, she reflects on creating the magazine, thanks her mentors, colleagues and readers, and introduces MyNorth’s new executive editor, Cara McDonald.
I don’t know that I ever really thought I’d write a column announcing I was no longer the owner of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine and MyNorth Media. I fought for it with every bone in my body, envisioned times when it might have to close, but never quite picture it landing safely in someone else’s hands.
I’m truly happy to tell you that the company has been sold to Heritage Broadcasting, headed up by Pete Iacobelli, a person I’ve known for years and valued for his perspective on the region, the media business and more. I would only entrust both our people and products to a company that shares the same commitment to this place we all love, and one that wants to represent it with integrity and quality. Heritage, a family-owned company, has that commitment and is well-suited and excited to carry our mission forward.
I’m also excited to share that Traverse veteran Cara McDonald will be taking over the editor chair, starting with next month’s issue. Cara began her magazine career with us when she was in her 20s, honing her writing and editing skills over several years before taking top-level editorial positions at Indianapolis Monthly and 5280 in Denver. Now, she is coming home to Michigan with two sons in tow, bringing her significant talent and her heart back to a region she dearly loves. I was recently reminded that I gave Cara a pair of ruby shoes at her going away party so she’d one day find her way back. Welcome home, Cara.
Related Read: MyNorth Media Announces Sale to Heritage Broadcasting.
When I hired Michael Wnek to be COO a few years ago, and through a random series of events, I’ve gotten to focus these last couple of years on what I thought I’d be doing when I started the company; editing, crafting magazines, endlessly striving to capture the essence of this place. We work a year ahead in editorial and art, so I know what wonderful stories and photos are coming your way, created by a fantastic team. I’ve been on the front lines of launching next month’s Tastemakers awards, honoring six outstanding members of our food and drink community, an effort led by our culinary columnist, Stacey Brugeman. And I’ve gotten to build the new MyNorth.com, shaping a vision and personally filling the pages in a way that truly reflects our mission. I’ve long wanted a site that can be a true companion to our print products. I believe, now, we have one.
Photo by Deb Fellows
I’m finding it a sweet twist of fate that the last column I write is one that features our new March focus—Made in Northern Michigan: A celebration of our region’s resilient and creative entrepreneurs. (Our annual Food & Drink issue has moved to April.) I never wanted to be in business—it was a half-decade before I admitted to myself that I was an entrepreneur, and another before I wore the mantle with pride. I’m pleased this issue celebrates our region of dreamers, people who follow their passions and have the courage to “hang a sign” and start. That is who we have always been. And this issue salutes that courage and spirit in all its forms.
Related Read: Rural Route, a Column by Founder Deb Fellows.
I did not intend to go into business when I started at 24 and I chose a hard one; people told me for decades that the magazine couldn’t make it. But when you are in small business, so intimately responsible for people’s lives, you can’t fail. I started in 1981, during a recession, unbeknownst to me, which should tell you something. We survived and rose above everything that followed: from 9/11 to the Great Recession, through snow in May and rain in January, through Covid-19 to now soaring paper prices that have caused our costs to rise to new levels. I’ve made many, many mistakes. But I’m proud that in the face of such challenges, I fostered an environment of independence for creative, ambitious people, paid salaries in the mid to higher national industry range, offered—and paid the lion’s share of—healthcare from the early ‘90s, had a cafeteria plan, matched 401K contributions until the Great Recession—all on revenue that comes from advertising rates our small businesses could afford. That was my very personal mission, and, as a result, I got to see employees go from single to married, have kids, buy houses, pursue dreams and even become grandparents.
MyNorth has an incredibly bright future ahead with Heritage because of mission and people, a shared refrain you will read over and over in this month’s issue.
The company exists thanks to the smart, creative, dedicated staff members who have chosen to work every day with me, picking up the company’s mission as their own and putting their own indelible, critical stamps on each product. At no time, ever, did the staff not rise to meet each challenge and each opportunity. Why? They love this region, love the unending challenge of capturing it in words and photos, and they believe deeply that what we produce brings joy to people, helps them to heal, celebrate, reunite and more. The staff at MyNorth has always understood how fragile the things we all cherish about this region are, and how it is our mission to give voice to the people who do the work of preserving our land, keeping our water clean, supporting those in need and maintaining the vitality of our amazing small towns. In 2008, when I told the staff I didn’t know what lay ahead, but we wouldn’t just be a magazine publishing company anymore, that team helped create four more magazines (two of which are in this issue of Traverse), MyNorth.com, ShopMyNorth and MyNorthTickets. We literally created our way out—together.
Without our advertisers, a group of dreamers themselves, we wouldn’t have gotten past the first issue, much less be looking at a shining future. I am so grateful to the small businesses who put their trust in us to share their message with our audience. Each ad in our products represents someone’s dream. We get to know them face-to-face and learn not only about their goals, but also their love of this region. Talk to Realtor Wally Kidd for five minutes, to whom we owe such gratitude, and you will feel his passion for Walloon Lake, passed down through generations. We are honored to connect our small businesses with our audience who passionately wants to support them. And we never forget, it is those dreamers who keep our small towns intact and vital, and our creative, entrepreneurial spirit alive. “Shop Local” isn’t a slogan to us. It is our mission.
And then, our audience. And what an audience. Our readers in print and online are kindred spirits. As I always say, you don’t join our audience unless you truly want to connect with the best of who we are as a region, and so many of our readers participate in supporting and protecting that. If you live in Northern Michigan, I hope we give you a reason to let the laundry wait and take a few hours to follow our lead on a great hike and finding a good lunch after. For people who can’t be here all the time, I hope we transport you each month and fill your head and heart with all that you love about Up North until you can come back. I’ve gotten so many letters over the years from readers: One reading simply, “Thank you. I need to know places like Northern Michi- gan still exist,” and I think we all know what he meant. So many of you, near and far, have written to me that you, too, have marveled at the winter stars, opened the cottage, found morels, built bonfires, plunged into Lake Michigan, raised your kids and loved and lost against the backdrop that is this place of our hearts. Thank you for allowing us to share our passion with you—and for sharing yours back.
There are people without whom I would not have survived and thrived. Wayne O’Connell, my wise, dear friend and valued print rep, was the first person to take me seriously. Wayne had my back through thick and thin, bought me lunches when I had no money, and went to bat for me over and over. Mark Vittert has shared his publishing and business instincts with me in his ever-humble way for 40 years, always over breakfast and wrapped in his love of this region, joy in family and implacable integrity. Carol Cameron walked through the door when our oldest, Ben, was 11 months old and my husband, Neal, was in Grand Rapids, and she never left us through three more kids and three more dogs. The magazine would not have made it if I had not been able to go back to work full-time in 2008, knowing that Carol, my dear friend and “life partner,” was there.
Related Read: Video: Deb Fellows Celebrates 10 Years of M22.
Jeff Smith started with me as a freelancer, helped the magazine take shape as managing editor over the first four years and returned from Minneapolis to work another couple of amazing decades as editor. On the morning Jeff returned, I heard his voice from the stairway and sat down and cried because I knew all was well; Jeff knew this mission in his bones and he was back. And without Kurt Luedtke, I would have quit in 1985 when four of the five people I’d started with all moved on to new adventures. He was just finishing his Oscar-winning “Out of Africa” at his home in Glen Arbor: He certainly didn’t need to talk to me. Kurt was the smartest mind I’ve ever known, as quick with praise as a knockback. I’m a striver, always trying to do the very best work we can, always trying to do better for people. Kurt didn’t see that as exhausting—and I can be truly exhausting for many—he loved it. He made the challenging times bearable, teared up over the moments I shone and loved stories of my kids. I don’t know that I would have stuck it out without him, and he is forever in my heart and soul.
And, especially, thank you to my husband, Neal, and our kids, who are always, unflaggingly, my beacon. Boy, have I been lucky. Some of you have been readers since it was only me and my dog, Sara, wandering the hills and valleys together. Many of you have been with me since I met Neal, my ocean boy, whose joy in building our lives in this freshwater paradise has made every day better. Some of you have seen our four towheads grow in this column: traveling to Russia to bring Olivia home; first solo fishing expeditions; laughing through winter games of Clue; trips for the mail down our dirt road with all its adventures along the way; and on and on. And now you’ve seen our oldest married. Neal and the kids have been very patient as I’ve shared snapshots of our lives lived in this space. I’m sure, at times, it has seemed idyllic, and so often it was. I didn’t write about the arguments, the whining, the teenage missteps—life anywhere is not perfect. But I’ve always felt that when you raise, or expose, kids to celebrating the woods, the water, a sense of community, you give them something to call upon when life goes wrong. As so many of us know, Northern Michigan offers a way back. This region has given me such joy with the people I love and such poignant moments. That’s what I wanted to share. For you, for them, for me.
People have often said to me, “The magazine is your baby.” There is truth in that. It was sheer wonder when it was born, wobbly through the early years as it got its feet under it, then struggling and soaring as the world kept asking it to grow, change, adapt. I have agonized over missteps, miscalculations, miscommunications. But I have known moments of brilliance, meaning, joy and heart-soaring pride. And now, like empty nesters watching in wonder at the lives of our grown children, I will be, only, its greatest cheerleader.
There have been times I’ve worried about the future of our region. Downtowns across the state were boarded up in the face of malls and big boxes. Our local leaders, retailers, restaurants and movie theaters never gave up, gifting us the vital spaces we enjoy today. It seemed housing was popping up on every ridge in the North and farmland was disappearing. Smart solutions were found that have seen farms stay in families, young farmers starting up and vineyards breathe a new life into our critical agricultural economy. It has been an honor to know and write about the creative and passionate people working tirelessly on our region’s behalf.
Now, my contributions will be to family, friends and as a volunteer. I will walk the woods and climb my favorite hills more often, marvel at the sunrise and linger in the sunset. I’ll do it all in peace, having fought the good fight for people, product and place, and now, seeing the mission in new hands. And I’ll do it all with immeasurable gratitude, for this quest, and all of you, forever locked in my heart.
Deb Fellows is the Founder and previous Editor-In-Chief of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s magazine. We wish her all the happiness in her retirement and you can now reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.