By Harold C. Ford
This three-part series aims to explore, analyze and lament how many forces challenging the Fourth Estate are playing out in our own community – specifically in a close look at changes in The Flint Journal, now dwindled to a local staff of fewer than 10 people, and subsumed by M-Live Media Group and Advance Publications, its corporate owner. We contend that as the whole of journalism struggles, its troubles triggered by the rise of the Internet, the parallel collapse of the “print” business model has hit local journalism hardest, and that could be said to have a devastating and even insidious effect on participatory democracy. This is why we think it matters. Read Part One here.
In a June 23, 2013 full-page “Report to Readers,” MLive Media Group president Danny Gaydou proclaimed: “We have launched a comprehensive effort to improve the quality of our printed editions—more local news, better editorial curation to add context and depth to the content and design.”
Gaydou’s “Report” was an update on a multi-year reorganization effort by Advance Publications, owner of Booth Newspapers and MLive Media Group/The Flint Journal since 1976. In 2009, beginning with its Michigan properties, Advance reorganized its newspapers and their affiliate websites with a digital-first approach to publication.
Gaydou responded to questions and critics when he wrote: “Most (questions) centered on our commitment to journalism. Our critics concluded that we couldn’t possibly be committed to journalism because digital reporting wasn’t capable of providing the depth, accuracy and context that print journalism commands.”
Gaydou countered the critics: “The assertion couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re keeping our commitment to quality journalism…Most importantly, our growth is centered in solid, timely news coverage and excellent enterprise journalism…we’re better at delivering significant and meaty journalism.”
Commitment to “excellent journalism”: evidence shaky
It’s now been eight years since the commitment to a digital platform by MLive Media Group/The Flint Journal. It’s been four years since Gaydou’s “Report to Readers”. The commitment to “excellent journalism” is objectively hard to find.
- The print edition of The Flint Journal is diminished in content but significantly more expensive. An anonymous “source with close knowledge of the situation” told East Village Magazine (EVM), “The print part of it is like nonexistent…You don’t even think about print. It’s like it don’t even exist.”
- As for MLive’s digital platform, more and more stories are imported from other Michigan cities and non-journalistic “sponsor content” EVM’s anonymous source reported, “It’s (the MLive website) even more multimedia shows than it is stories. They (MLive) just kind of package it so it looks like a story but it’s really a multimedia slide show.”
Many components of yesteryear’s Flint Journal have withered or disappeared entirely. Ed Bradley, a 20-year veteran of The Flint Journal including many years as its entertainment editor, decried “the real lack of arts and entertainment coverage” as “heartbreaking.”
“It’s really a shame,” he told EVM. “Kind of what passes for (arts and entertainment) coverage at MLive these days is…vapid, mind-numbing types of stories about ‘pick the best sub sandwich in Michigan’, ‘where you can get the best craft beer’.”
A graphic analysis of the print editions of The Flint Journal in 2012 and 2017 and the May 9, 2017 MLive website reveals the following:
|Item||Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2012
The Flint Journal
|Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016
The Flint Journal
May 9, 2017; 9-9:30 a.m.
|Sections, pages||Four sections, 34 pages||Three sections, 24 pages||Three main stories: Flint mayor & EPA; Queen Latifah & water crisis; motorcycle rally|
|Front page||Three major stories + teaser||One major story + teasers|
|Flint, Genesee Co news stories||15 stories||11 stories||“Featured on MLive”; Three stories: Michigan’s most expensive county; :Vote for Best Dressed Proms”; MI governor’s mansion|
|Social-political columnists||Six: Heller; Bierek; Emery; Skubick; Cepeda; Zakaria||Two: Gerson; Petri|
|Marriage licenses||Listed||Not listed||Six sports stories: 1 local story on golden gloves|
|Business page||Full page: Mutual Funds; DJI; Nasdaq; Stocks||Nothing||Eight features stories: no Flint stories included|
|Letters to Editor||Four||None||14 Flint news stories: including “vote for tennis girls…” & “vote for best dressed proms”|
|Amusement pieces||Eight, including crossword||Nine||Nine Michigan news stories|
|TV listings||Listed||Absent||Three stories from other Michigan cities: prom story from Jackson News; Vegas murder story from Bay City Times; CREEM founder’s home from Saginaw News|
|Flint & Gen Co sports stories||Two||None|
|Sports columns||One: Bill Simonson||None|
|Environment||Full page including Earthweek||Nothing||“Jump to” prompts/links for News, Sports, Business, HS Sports, Entertainment, Living: only area stories at “Sports link” were: 25th story about New Lothrop baseball; 45th story urging “Vote for Flint area girl tennis player”; 100th story about a basketball game in May|
|Days of delivery||Four: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday||Four: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday|
|Price/cost||$3.23/week||$4.99/week, a 55% price increase since 2012|
“Let’s raise our glasses to a new direction for the next 40 years”
The scandalous Flint water crisis is the major local news story of this decade. It is likely the largest news story since, say, the classroom murder of Beecher first-grader Kayla Roland in 2000, or the abandonment of Flint by General Motors in the final decades of the last century, or the adoption of Flint’s open housing ordinance in 1968, or Flint’s 1966 election of the nation’s first black mayor in a city with a population over 200,000, or the Beecher tornado that took more than a hundred lives in 1953. Subscribers to The Flint Journal during those events were provided with blanket coverage by teams of journalists sent from a local newsroom bustling with energy and reportorial talent.
But the local journalistic landscape has changed dramatically for Flint’s hometown newspaper. The Journal’s newsroom has shrunk to less than ten writers who cover a metropolitan area of some 600,000 persons served by local units of government numbering in the dozens. And critics argue that, with the erosion of its newsroom, MLive/The Flint Journal fumbled the journalistic ball in both investigative journalism and editorial integrity in terms of the water crisis, the major local news story of this unfolding new century. Some evidence:
- “Flint Still Needs An Emergency Manager”; Flint Journal Editorial, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012: “The reality is we need the emergency manager’s sweeping powers and political immunity to make the drastic changes and tough decisions to secure the future of the community. There is a lot at stake here, and the emergency financial manager remains our best option.”
- “New Water Gives City New Power”; Flint Journal Editorial, Sunday, April 13, 2014: “Wisely, Flint ended the relationship with Detroit and accelerated a plan to treat Flint River Water until the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline is finished…Let’s raise our glasses to a new direction for the next 40 years.”
What happened to MLive/The Flint Journal’s Fourth Estate responsibilities during its transition to “digital reporting” and the nearly simultaneous poisoning of Flint’s population engineered by emergency managers imposed by the state? The serious work of exposing the crisis was done by others: Hurley Hospital’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha; Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards; the Environmental Protection Agency’s Miguel Del Toral; Flint citizen-activist LeeAnne Walters; and the Michigan ACLU’s Investigative Reporter Curt Guyette.
Flint’s major newspaper for the past 141 years is sadly missing from this honor roll of citizen soldiers. When budgets are gutted and journalistic staff is reduced to bare bones, when reporters are rewarded for electronic “views” or clicks rather than quality journalism, the Fourth Estate results can be disappointing. Good investigative journalism informs good editorial journalism.
“You’re right,” Jiquanda Johnson told EVM when asked if good reporting leads to good editorials. Johnson is a Flint area native with more than 16 years of multifaceted experience in journalism, including print, television, and digital media. She spent eight years at the Journal.
“Like hooking into the Flint River, what would the health impact be?” she mused. “As a journalist, that’s a question that should’ve been asked. That’s something where you get a third party and we (Flint Journal writers) used to get third parties, get other opinions. But now we go where what the city has to say, what the state has to say, and that’s the story. Where’s the health person that’s not working for the city, that’s not working for the state? What do they have to say about this? Where’s the research to see if this has ever been done in any other community and what happened to those communities?”
For 35-year Flint Journal veteran Ron Krueger, editorial integrity simply means “not looking the other way when stuff is happening.”
In a November 2013 column titled “We Should Have Done Better,” Marjory Raymer, formerly the community news director at The Flint Journal, candidly admitted to readers that the Journal “didn’t do good enough.”
“We did not inform the voters,” she wrote, about a winning Flint City Council candidate that served 19 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder. “We owed you more,” she concluded.
“You worried more about editorial integrity,” Krueger observed of his earlier years at the Journal.
Shifting landscape, changing dynamics
The tsunami-like effect of the internet is profoundly shifting the landscape and changing the dynamics of the Fourth Estate. Journalism will never be the same as we remember it from the 20th century. Craig’s List, Google, Amazon, and other online giants have sucked billions of dollars in advertising revenue from America’s newsrooms. Newspaper budgets have been slashed, journalists have been sent into retirement or other professions, and papers have shrunk in terms of size and frequency of publication. Print publications scurry to transition to digital platforms in a frenetic search for “views” or clicks. And the integrity of the news industry suffers.
Nowhere are these changes felt more dramatically than at the local level. Investigative journalist Julie Reynolds sketches a grim picture in the Oct. 16, 2017 issue of The Nation:
“The shrinking and disappearing of hometown newspapers has done incalculable damage to Americans’ knowledge of the world around them. Democratic self-governance presumes an informed public, but the hollowing out of America’s newspapers, in both their online and print versions, leaves citizens increasingly ignorant of vital public matters. It also undermines the press’s ability to hold elected officials and powerful interests to account.”
Plow horse in the Kentucky Derby
“The art of community journalism has been lost because (MLive/The Flint Journal) don’t have enough people to be out there in the community,” according to EVM’s anonymous “source with close knowledge of the situation.” “It’s not ten,” the source answered when asked about the number of reporters currently at MLive/The Flint Journal.
“We almost had more people than we needed for 25 years of the time I was there (at the Journal),” Krueger recollected.
“You can’t take a plow horse and run it in the Kentucky Derby,” judged 25-year Journal veteran Gene Mierzejewski of the depleted and less experienced staff.
Capturing the heart of the community
“I’m a person…like journalists used to be; you really get to know your community,” Johnson told EVM. “These days reporters have a tendency to stay in the newsroom…So I could get those types of stories because I’m from here; I have a history here; my parents are from here; my grandparents are from here.”
Curt Guyette, who helped break the Flint water crisis story, told EVM: “It used to be that newspapers were largely family-owned operations and that the people who owned papers lived in the communities that the newspapers were published in.”
Jan Worth-Nelson, editor of this publication, wrote in 2015 about the link between journalists and the community: “It matters to me that reporters who cover Flint locally live among us—or at least, like Teardown author Gordon Young, have a sense of the place. I want to know that they worry about their water, try to decide where to send their kids to school, try to find a grocery store, negotiate down bumpy brick Saginaw Street, wait in line for the pho at MaMang.”
“Capturing the heart of the community, that’s what…is kind of lost,” asserted EVM’s anonymous source.
Lack of diversity
Capturing the heartbeat of a diverse community such as that found in the greater Flint area might be empowered by a diverse stable of reporters. “It’s not diverse,” EVM’s anonymous source bluntly said of the staff at MLive/The Flint Journal. “How can you cover a city when you have to go into the north end? You’ve gotta have somebody who people can relate to, and know how to talk…So diversity is definitely an issue…I think that the people aren’t committed to being in the community and that reflects in their stories.”
The MLive Media Group website page titled “Our Team,” headed up by President Dan Gaydou, displays the photographic images of 18 of 19 persons on the “team.” Nine are men; nine are women; all appear to be European-American. The caption immediately beneath “Our Team” reads: “Our people is what sets us apart.”
Long-distance corporate decision-making:
Advance Publications is the 11th largest news organization in the nation according to a 2016 report by the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina titled “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts”. According to the report:
“The largest newspaper companies are larger than ever, and still growing. Big chains can achieve significant cost savings by merging production, sales and editorial functions of several newspapers, while also amassing an audience large enough to remain attractive to advertisers. At the end of 2004, the three largest companies owned 487 newspapers with a combined circulation of 9.8 million. Today, the three largest companies own about 900 papers that have a combined circulation of 12.7 million.”
Advance is a sprawling media empire owned by the descendants of S.I. Newhouse Sr., Donald Newhouse, and S.I. Newhouse Jr. It presides over 22 daily newspapers in eight states. In addition to The Flint Journal, Advance owns six other newspapers in Michigan including The Bay City Times, Jackson Citizen Patriot, Kalamazoo Gazette, Muskegon Chronicle, The Ann Arbor News, and The Saginaw News.
Advance also owns 53 weekly newspapers in seven states including 14 weeklies in the state of Michigan. Other properties include: eleven business journals and periodicals; 21 magazines; dozens of websites including those for Conde Nast’s nearly two dozen publications; six other related websites and companies including reddit.com, a 31 percent stake in Discovery Communications, and a 13 percent stake in Charter Communications.
Advance Publications is headquartered in Staten Island, New York City. Thus, the most important decisions affecting Flint’s hometown newspaper—such as slashing budgets, cutting staff, and committing to a digital platform—are likely made by anonymous corporate heads who live and work nearly 700 miles removed from the Vehicle City.
When asked what his biggest worry was about the changes in journalism, career newsman Krueger was brief and to the point: “Concentration of media. Overly concentrated ownership.”
Note: Multiple attempts were made by EVM to solicit the views of current staff and management at MLive/The Flint Journal with virtually no success. The November and December installments of this three-part series will focus on the quality of journalism, a look and the history and corporate structure of Advance Publications MLive/The Flint Journal, and speculation about the future of journalism.
EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.