“Where are the journalists?” Part Three: As pixels replace paper, journalism still aims to hold powerful to account

Former Flint Journal building used in its heyday and still bearing its name, is now home to the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. What is left of the Journal operation occupies a storefront in the Rowe Building on Saginaw Street. (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

This three-part series, concluding with this installment, 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.   In this final installment, framing his research in a national and historical context, Harold Ford examines what is at stake as purveyors of local journalism attempt to speak truth to power, and what new models are emerging as a free press attempts to hold the powerful to account.   Read Part One here.  Read Part Two here.

  By Harold C. Ford

After working for the Guardian for two decades, I feel I know instinctively why it exists. Most of our journalists and readers do, tooit has something to do with holding power to account…” Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner.

Early-1800s Manchester

On Aug. 16, 1819 John Edward Taylor, a 28-year-old journalist, attended a massive demonstration for voter rights in Manchester, England. British militia stormed though the peaceful assemblage with sabers flailing, resulting in the deaths of seven men and four women and hundreds others wounded. Taylor stepped in for an arrested journalist to report on the atrocity. He told the stories of the powerless and held the powerful to account.

Taylor started his own newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, in 1821 with the modest financial support of other progressives. According to current Guardian editor-in-chief Katherine Viner, it was “devoted to enlightenment values, liberty, reform, and justice.” At times, the paper’s progressive stance was often so controversial that it lost advertisers and sales. “Clearly this was a paper that could not be bought,” judged historian David Ayerst.

By most accounts, The Guardian remains true to its founding principles to this day.

Early-1900s Flint

At the turn-of-the-century Flint became known as “The Vehicle City.”  The city’s three largest horse-drawn carriage makers—Durant-Dort, Flint Wagon Works, and W.A. Paterson—were producing more than 100,000 carriages, buggies, and carts annually. Durant-Dort made Billy Durant a millionaire by age 40. But by 1900 the horseless carriage had come to America to stay. The days for the horse-drawn carriage business in America were numbered.

The Buick Motor Company, originally located in Detroit, was moved to Flint by the end of 1903. Stockholders turned over controlling interest in the fledgeling auto company to Durant by the end of 1904.

By his own account, Durant promptly raised $500,000 in 48 hours to stabilize and grow his auto company. Money was raised from four Flint banks and other industrialists such as Dallas Dort, Arthur Bishop, James Wilson, W.C. Springer, George Wilson, J.H. Crawford, W.C. Orrell, W.A. Atwood, and William W. Crapo.

Durant orchestrated construction of the world’s largest auto factory—14 acres under one roof—on the near north side of Flint. He lured Charles Stewart Mott and his Weston-Mott Co. to Flint to provide axles for the Buicks. Several other companies were acquired by 1908 including the W.F. Stewart Co., Champion Ignition (to become A.C. Spark Plug), and Olds Motor Works.

On Sept. 16, 1908, articles of incorporation for General Motors Company were filed in New Jersey. In the first two years of GM’s existence, Durant purchased all of, or a substantial interest in, 32 companies. Sales volume of the company skyrocketed to $49.4 million by 1910.

Flint’s factories attracted laborers and their families. “Flint became the fastest growing city in America,” according to Billy Durant author Lawrence R. Gustin. Industrial expansion and rapid population growth also forced enormous social problems upon Flint: inadequate housing, rodent control, health care, education, sewage disposal, fire prevention, police protection, mass transit needs, and water supply. So it was that fabulous wealth and human misery converged in Flint in the early-1900s.

Flint elects a Socialist mayor

The Flint mayoral election of April 3, 1911 was a three-way contest described by the Flint Daily Journal (now MLive/The Flint Journal) as “the greatest battle of ballots that the city has ever known.” Flint business leaders were shocked as Socialist candidate John Menton beat the Democrat candidate, William Wildanger, and the Republican candidate, Edwin Atwood.

The Socialist victory was resounding. In addition to Menton, the socialists elected three aldermen (councilpersons), two county supervisors, one justice of the peace, the city assessor, one member of the board of education, and one constable.

The Socialists proposed to stamp out disease, clean up streets, improve parks, prevent fires, close blind pigs, create an office of electrical inspectors, improve garbage collection, provide for inspection of milk, and numerous other reforms. Pro-worker initiatives included an eight-hour workday, labor union meeting places, night schools for workers, better wages, improved safety in the factories, and mass transit to move workers to and from jobs.

Menton’s nomination of George Artis, an African-American, to become police commissioner—likely the first of its kind in the country—was rejected by the city council. Menton advocated for the discontinuance of clubs in the hands of day patrolmen. He railed against war and slavery of any kind. He appointed a 25-member commission that included representatives from all crafts and professions to advise him on municipal matters.

Journal joins industrialists, bankers, major parties to throw out Menton

On Thursday, June 15, 1911, only 73 days after the election of Menton, ownership of The Flint Daily Journal passed to a new corporation known as The Flint Journal Co. Ralph H. Booth succeeded Howard Fitzgerald who had directed The Journal for nine years.

In a farewell editorial, Fitzgerald wrote, “It has been our ambition first to serve the news with absolute impartiality and with thoughtful consideration of the general welfare and happiness of the people of the community.”

Objective coverage of Flint politics was at an end as the Journal immediately launched a shameless crusade to throw the socialists out of power. The very next day, June 16, 1911, an anti-socialist letter-to-the-editor was prominently featured at the top of page 2 with a headline screaming in all caps: “CRITICIZES THE SOCIALISTS/SAYS THEY ARE NOT GIVING WARD REPRESENTATION.”

The yellow journalism continued throughout 1911, into the mayoral election of 1912, and beyond with screaming headlines above editorials and news articles alike. A few samples:


And prior to the 1912 mayoral election, local Democrats and Republicans buried their differences and organized the Independent Citizens Party. The new party promptly nominated millionaire Mott to run for mayor.


The results of that 1912 mayoral election on April Fools Day were profound:

  • Mott defeated Menton signaling the demise of the socialists as a viable political force in Flint. Democrats and Republicans have dominated local government ever since.
  • General Motors would remain Flint’s largest employer until present day. In 1955, GM employed 82,200 Flint-area workers. But today it employs less than 8,000.
  • The Flint Journal, acquired by New York-based Advance Publications in 1976, would remain the only daily newspaper in Flint until 2009 when it transitioned to a digital-first platform and four-day delivery of a diminished print edition. The Journal and seven other metropolitan newspapers in Michigan remain part of the Advance corporate structure.

(Editor’s note: Harold C. Ford’s full report of the 1912 Flint mayoral election, “The Year of Living Dangerously”, Michigan Voice, September 1983, is available online here at eastvillagemagazine.org.)

A tale of two cities

Manchester’s Guardian and Flint’s Journal poignantly demonstrate the power of the press in reporting on power. “We need a media that covers power, not covers for power,” wrote Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “We need a media that is the fourth estate, not for the state.”

Pulitzer Prize journalist Glenn Greenwald could have channeled the Journals performance in Flint’s 1912 mayoral election when he wrote: “Nobody needed the US Constitution to guarantee press freedom so that journalists could befriend, amplify and glorify political leaders; the guarantee was necessary so that journalists could do the opposite.”

Malcolm X once admonished, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Paper to pixels

In 1999, A&E (Arts & Entertainment) released their list for the top 100 most influential people of the past 1000 years. Johann Gutenberg, who ignited mass media with development of movable type for printing in 1439, topped the list. “It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses,” A&E reporters wrote.   Basically, he invented printing and mass communication.

After nearly 600 years of the Gutenberg era, mass media is entering a brave, new world dominated by the internet and its ability to transmit millions of information-laden pixels (picture elements) to millions of screens around the world in fractions of a second. The print model of the Fourth Estate is under siege as is the business model that has sustained it. Gathering and reporting news and information will never be quite the same.

The Guardian’s Viner mused about this transition in a recent essay:

“The transition from print to digital did not initially change the basic business model for many news organizations – that is, selling advertisements to fund the journalism delivered to readers. For a time, it seemed that the potentially vast scale of an online audience might compensate for the decline in print readers and advertisers. But this business model is currently collapsing, as Facebook and Google swallow digital advertising; as a result, the digital journalism produced by many news organizations has become less and less meaningful.”

Empty Flint Journal rack at Olympic Diner — next to an equally empty rack of the Oakland Press (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson).

Most current models of digital reporting are largely unsatisfying to consumers. “Readers are overwhelmed: bewildered by the quantity of ‘news’ they see every day, nagged by intrusive pop-up ads, confused by what is real and what is fake, and confronted with an experience that is neither useful nor enjoyable,” concluded Viner.

New thoughts, models, initiatives, hope

Viner advocated for “hopeful ideas, fresh alternatives, belief that the way things are isn’t the way things need to be. We cannot merely criticize the status quo; we must also explore the new ideas that might displace it. We must build hope.”

Break em up: Jonathan Taplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, advocates that we break up the virtual modern monopolies that suck up billions of dollars in advertising revenue and undermine the industry of journalism. He told NPR’s “Here and Now,”  “Ultimately, it may be that we have to break them up.” However, Taplin’s not optimistic that this would happen anytime soon: “The anti-trust divisions have been asleep since Reagan and I’m not sure under Trump they’re going to wake up.”

Paywalls: Ed Bradley, 20-year veteran at The Flint Journal, told East Village Magazine (EVM) that some publications are putting their content behind pay-to-read paywalls. They include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Nation magazine, and others. “The problem is,” according to Bradley, “that once the cat is out of the bag in terms of offering…all of your internet access for free, people are going to expect it for free, and if you retreat behind a paywall it’s likely not going to work.”

“What’s going on in the news business is a lot like what’s happening with music,” 42-year journalism vet Paul Steiger told Time Magazine. Free distribution of content over the internet has created “a total collapse of the business model.”

Reader contributions: On Aug. 5, 2017, residents in Saline, Michigan learned they were losing their local newspaper. Tran Longmoor was exhausted working seven-day weeks to produce The Saline Post, an online-only publication. He informed his readers that he didn’t generate sufficient revenue to continue the Post. Word spread and checks started coming in. Longmoor changed his mind and decided to continue publication. “Advertising, in the long run, isn’t going to fund journalism,” Longmoor told Bridge Magazine. “It’s going to have to be readers of journalism, like it was in the old days when people subscribed to newspapers.”

Readership-first: “I keep telling people in my business, the way that you grow is that you start with readership,” said Bruce McIntyre, Oakland Press publisher from 1977 to 1995. McIntyre told Birmingham-based Downtown Publications, “You start basically with the editorial side. You have to create a readership vehicle, and from that you sell circulation, and from that circulation you sell advertising…You can’t get around it. You have to start with a product that people want to read, because if they don’t, forget the rest of it.”

ACLU journalist Curt Guyette addressing the Society for Environmental Journalists in Flint last year (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson).

Advocacy journalism: Increasingly, advocacy organizations are putting more of their resources into print and electronic publications. Curt Guyette, investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan, was the first person hired in that capacity by any ACLU state affiliate or branch. Guyette was named Journalist of the Year by the Michigan Press Association for his work in exposing Flint’s water crisis.

Though the ACLU strives to remain apolitical, most advocacy organizations and their publications are clearly positioned somewhere along the left-to-right political spectrum. Right-leaning Breitbart News and left-leaning Daily Kos are examples. The challenge for intelligent readers is to sort through the politics in search of objectivity and truth.

The Guardians Viner illustrated this challenge for readers: “The Richmond Standard, a website in California’s Bay Area, describes itself as a ‘community-driven daily news source’. If you see one of its headlines in your news feed, you couldn’t possibly know that it is owned by the multinational oil giant Chevron—which, according to the Financial Times, also owns ‘the Richmond refinery that in August 2012 caught fire, spewing plumes of black smoke over the city and sending more than 15,000 residents to hospitals for medical help.’”

Nonprofit support: With increasing frequency, nonprofits are filling some of the void created by diminishment of the traditional press. Bridge Magazine, Michigan Press Association’s Newspaper of the Year two years running, was launched in 2011 by the nonprofit Center for Michigan which is funded by dozens of foundations, civic organizations, and hundreds of individuals. In its short history, Bridge Magazine has garnered nearly a hundred state and national journalism awards.

John Bebow, president and CEO of the Center for Michigan told EVM: “At Bridge we’re betting that future journalistic models look an awful lot like Bridge…in-depth, nonprofit, public service journalism rather than for-profit journalism that is, at times, in conflict with, or diminished by, the profit motive and the need for corporate-owned media enterprises to serve the owners and shareholders as much, or more, as they serve readers and local communities.”

(Editor’s note: In full disclosure, EVM is funded, in part, by a grant from the C.S. Mott Foundation.)

Citizen journalism/alternative publications: For more than a century, the journalistic landscape in Flint and other communities has been populated with alternative publications largely produced by citizen journalists for little or no pay. (This writer fancies himself such an alternative journalist.) The first alternative publication in Flint may have been the Socialist-Labor publication, Flint Flashes, launched in 1910. It was renamed Flint Weekly Review in 1913.

Yesteryear’s local alt-publications included the East Flint Beacon and West Flint Telegram; they merged into the Flint Independent in 1932 and became the Flint Independent Advertiser the next year. The Flint News-Advertiser published from 1933 through 1957.

In the early-1970s, Freedom Reader, funded by Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner, focused on the anti-Vietnam War movement and Michigan’s rock & roll scene. Michael Moore’s Free To Be morphed into The Flint Voice and Michigan Voice in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, Uncommon Sense, a nonprofit print publication started by Flint native Matt Zacks, flourished for a few years in the early 2000’s.  Broadside, run by Melody and Bob Mabbitt, operated as a tabloid from 2008 to 2014.

The current cottage industry of local alt-publications are, in part, filling space vacated by the diminishment of The Flint Journal. They include: The Hub; FlintSide; Flint Beat; The Courier; My City; and Flint Our Community Our Voice.

This monthly publication, East Village Magazine, a 501-C-3 nonprofit which obviously also maintains an online presence here at eastvillagemagazine.org, boasts a run of 41 years. Jan Worth-Nelson, EVM’s editor since 2015, has endeavored to steer the magazine toward more meaningful journalism. “EVM’s idea has been that a community needs ‘citizen journalists’—folks whose lives are affected by what they write,” she said. “And I want us to do workouts like crazy with the First Amendment. I want us to be fierce, unswayed and irritable about political malarkey, and idealists about the redeeming potential of community life.”

Blogosphere: Blogs (a truncation of the term weblog) are discussion or informational websites published on the World Wide Web. The massive amounts of information transmitted via blogs is staggering. Just one blogging enterprise, Tumblr, boasted 379.8 million blogs and 155.3 billion posts as of Nov. 25, 2017. More than 550 million visits are made to Tumblr blog sites monthly. And Tumblr is not even the most popular blogging service.

The reliability and accountability of professional journalists is being replaced by an ocean of often anonymous bloggers with uncertain credentials and unproven track records. Despite the decline of newspapers, the vast majority of reporters and editors are products of journalism schools and have often devoted years and decades to their craft. One would be hard pressed to find anyone more knowledgable about Flint’s water crisis, for example, than Journal staffer Ron Fonger.

“I can appreciate Ron Fonger for digging, asking questions, and trying to figure out, ‘What’s going on here?’” said Jiquanda Johnson, his former colleague at the Journal. “He’s old school, and he’ll have stacks of papers…and he’ll go through them. You can look in his locker and it’s paper after paper; he’s at the copier printing stuff out because he has the patience to do that. That’s not really how journalists are made anymore…they don’t make them like Ron.”

Collaboratives: Nationally, ProPublica describes itself as “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force.” It boasts a team of more than 50 reporters and editors dedicated to investigative journalism. Its list of partner organizations numbers about 100 and includes the BBC, Yahoo!News, USA Today, 60 Minutes, Slate, Politico, PBS Frontline, The Washington Post, NPR, and The Detroit News.

More locally, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative describes itself as “a partnership of five media outlets reporting on the city’s future after bankruptcy with stories that have never been told before…” Members of the Cooperative include Detroit Public TV, Michigan Radio, WDET, New Michigan Media, Bridge Magazine, and Chalkbeat Detroit, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers. Flint’s many media entities might be well served to examine the Cooperative’s model.

Reporting on power

In his 2004 book The Vanishing Newspaper, author Philip Meyer predicts that the final copy of the final newspaper will appear on somebody’s doorstep one day in 2043. If that’s so, then to whom will fall the responsibility of reporting on the powerful? It’s arguably the most important function of a free press. How shall the future Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernsteins serve their nation?

EVMs Worth-Nelson worries that “…there aren’t many guys now, at least in the category of real journalism as I think of it: the fearless kind that tell truths powerful people might not want to hear—and do it with beautifully crafted writing I crave and try to propagate….Our sins are sins of omission, not commission; we never have enough people, resources, time to tell all the stories journalists need to tell.”

Writing in the Oct. 16, 2017 issue of The Nation, writer Julie Nelson reflected on Worth-Nelson’s concern:

“Ultimately, it may be a mix of altruistic investors, nonprofits, involved local owners, and citizen demand that keeps…news alive. Whether that news is printed on paper or pushed to smartphone isn’t nearly as important as society’s willingness to invest in the act of reporting itself—an act central to our founders’ vision of democracy.”

Harold Ford

EVM Contributing Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at hcford1185@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note:   Multiple overtures were made by EVM to solicit the views of current staff and management at MLive/The Flint Journal for this series.  Gary Ridley, “news leader” (apparently what might have once have been called editor) of MLive/The Flint Journal at the Flint office, forwarded our requests to Clark Hughes, interim regional manager of the Flint Journal, Saginaw News and the Bay City Times; he forwarded our requests to John Hiner, MLive vice president of content.   On Sept. 26, we received this response from Hiner:  “Thanks for your interest in the changes at The Flint Journal over the years. After reviewing the questions, I think it’s best to let our journalism speak for itself.”

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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