Retired newsman takes on interesting stories with popular blog

Brian Cabell, a 68-year-old journalist turned blogger, is redefining the online news world in Marquette County. Here's a look at how he got started and how he keeps moving forward.
Sitting in his living room, a cup of coffee steaming on an end table nearby, his fingers hovering over the keyboard as he decides how to start the next "Word on the Street" post, Marquette blogger Brian Cabell has grown a passion project into a money-making endeavor without really even trying.
 
"I had no intention of making any money," Cabell says. "It was just something to do because it was interesting and fun."
 
The 68-year-old blogger (though he says "68 is the new 48, you know that, right?")  has a basic idea what the numbers are for his website. Published anywhere from once to three times a week, about 25,000 people visit the site monthly, with 1,000 signed up to receive updates via email. The site also has a good social media presence, with Cabell acknowledging most people consume "Word on the Street" through Facebook.
 
But clicks, likes, unique visitors, they mean little to Cabell. He's got a guy for that, bringing on Justin Carlson to run the business side of the website a number of months ago.
 
After getting some unsolicited interest from local businesses about advertising on the site, Cabell says Carlson put out some feelers and got 25 responses.
 
"So, we have some ads now and we get Google ads," Cabell says. "It's a money-making venture. No one's getting rich, but it's good. It gives you a little pocket money."
 
For Cabell, the true magic isn't in the money. It's in the words.
 
A self-described cliche, an old-time hippie who settled down, Cabell has a diverse background rooted in the restless nature of a traveler. He's from California, hitch-hiked across the country a few times in his twenties, worked on a civil rights campaign in Mississippi in the summer of '66, lived in Haight/Ashbury in '71, worked in Europe at a grocery store, traveled all over South America and spent 14 years as a correspondent for CNN based out of Atlanta.
 
After wearying of a life spent living out of a suitcase, Cabell began looking for a job in journalism that didn't require so much travel. In a choice between public radio in Minnesota and a regional television news organization in the Upper Peninsula, Cabell chose the latter, settling in at WLUC-TV6.
 
"I was looking for a new path. fed up with putting on the suits and ties and flying in planes and sleeping in hotels," Cabell says. "I was also in the process of getting divorced. Me and my dog, we got in the car and drove 1,000 miles north and settled here."
 
Upon first arriving to the area it was the scenery -- the hills and trees, the rivers and the big lake -- that captivated Cabell, but it was the Hiawatha Music Festival, which took place during his first U.P. weekend, that made the decision to stay here an easy one.
 
So Cabell worked at TV6, running a small blog and using his decades of experience in the business to teach up-and-coming journalists for seven years before officially retiring.
 
Well, sort of.
 
"I didn't want to just retire and go kayaking and bicycling and traveling and reading," Cabell says. "I try to keep up on the news, whether it be local or national or international. I thought, 'Why not stay in it?' So I started the blog."
 
Thus, two years ago, "Word on the Street" was born.
 
Cabell says deciding what to write about is pretty simple: If he's interested, he'll look into it. A strong background in news also gives him a good idea what the public may be interested in as well, he says. And the blog format he's choosing to work in gives him a greater freedom to write about stories that local media may not be able to crack.
 
It also gives him a freedom to print the stories Cabell says the local media doesn't want to go anywhere near.
 
"There's certain subjects you don't touch in Marquette," Cabell says. "You don't criticize (U.P. Health System). You don't criticize (Northern Michigan University). You don't criticize the mines. You can criticize the new mine … Lundin, for environmental reasons, but generally you lay off of Cliffs (Natural Resources) because we are dependent on those three institutions economically, and the media are too, whereas it doesn't matter to me at all.
 
"Sometimes those are the best stories, the ones that question the big, powerful economic institutions, the businesses. Those are the ones that, frankly, get the greatest response."
 
Using anonymous sources, Cabell is able to help people unwilling to speak publicly for fear of being fired to share their stories, like the one told by nurses from U.P. Health System - Marquette in a Sept. 15 blog post that garnered a slew of comments about local medical care. Included in that post are the musings of Cabell, who wonders on the page about the nurses' situation, a format that simply isn't allowed in mainstream media but is nonetheless effective in getting the point across.
 
"Word on the Street" isn't just focused on big-ticket issues like health care, the Smartzone established in the City of Marquette or Partridge Creek Farm in Ishpeming, though those are some of Cabell's favorite recent topics.
 
Still a newsman, Cabell also lets us know about the inner workings of local news, telling the public about new faces in their TV broadcasts or how local newspapers are dealing with a shifting business model from print to web. He focuses on local businesses, mostly restaurants and bars, keeping the public up to date on any coming changes. Why? Because he likes going out to eat, and so does pretty much everybody else.
 
"What draws the most interest, aside from the obvious stories like the hospital, is restaurants -- restaurants and bars," Cabell says. "You get a new restaurant or a bar that's opening in town or closing or switching, people love that stuff and I have to admit I do too because we go to these places and we want to see what's happening there … There's a universal interest to those."
 
All of these topics and more are what draw thousands of people to "Word on the Street" every month. In a Marquette news blog market that has emerged only recently, Cabell seems to have found the recipe that works best.
 
The first ingredient is knowing what people are interested in.
 
"Too often with the mainstream media, they don't know what is interesting," Cabell says. "They know what's the obvious stuff. They know what they've always covered but they miss, sometimes, what people are genuinely interested in."
 
The second ingredient is writing in a way that's easy for people to consume.
 
"This is not 100 percent serious, stern, authority-driven news," Cabell says. "This is someone's observation, hopefully fact-based, about what's happening around town … I'm frequently sitting at home in my underwear in front of a computer with a cup of coffee thinking, 'Okay, what am I going to write next?'"
 
For all the recent news around Marquette County through his eyes, readers can check out Cabell's blog online here.
Signup for Email Alerts