Tough Times: The Death of a Student Newspaper in Flint

By Gordon Young

The Michigan Times, the student newspaper at UM-Flint, is officially “sunsetting.” That’s the sort of euphemism a good editor would slash and replace with something more clearcut. It’s a nice way of saying the publication that has been covering the downtown campus since 1959 is all but dead.

The Times hasn’t published a print edition this year. Its website and online archive have disappeared. All of its social media feeds are dormant. Confusingly, another publication calling itself The Michigan Times that covers “all types of local news for the cities of Flint and Detroit” has purchased the paper’s domain name and is publishing online, but it’s not connected to UM-Flint. It’s as if the paper’s very identity has been stolen. 

College papers are not immune to the brutal economic conditions that have killed publications across the country as advertisers and readers disappeared. The United States has lost nearly 2,900 newspapers and 43,000 journalists since 2005, according to a recent report from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

But while there have certainly been budget cuts over the years at the Times, lack of funding isn’t the biggest problem. It’s lack of interest.

“Ever since I took over, I’ve been bailing water out of a sinking ship that never left the dock,” said Eric Hinds, the current and, it appears, last editor-in-chief. “There just didn’t seem to be any way to find people to work at the paper.”

Just a decade ago, more than a dozen staffers and freelancers put out the paper, according to then-editor Alex Benda. But the staff dwindled to a few students before the COVID-19 shutdown during the 2020-2021 academic year and continued to shrink when in-person classes resumed.

Hinds, who lives in Flint’s Mott Park neighborhood, is headed to law school in Rhode Island in the fall. His only reporter is transferring next year. Despite intense recruiting efforts, no viable candidates have emerged to replace them, let alone expand the staff.

“You have to have a passion for journalism,” Hinds said. “In the current climate, you get a lot of hate. It’s a difficult job. And if you don’t really want to do it, you’re going to be bad at it. I guess no one wants to deal with that.”

The not-so-slow demise of the paper corresponds with the elimination of most journalism courses at UM-Flint.

In 2009, the university added an ambitious journalism program, with a major, a minor, and several new classes. “The program was proposed in response to student requests,” according to a university press release announcing the expansion. “For years, students in the media studies track of the communication degree program have asked for more journalism courses.

Tony Dearing, then-editor of The Flint Journal, was enthusiastic at the time. “It is important that we cultivate and train the next generation of journalists, and I strongly believe that a journalism program at UM-Flint would help meet that need,” he stated in the press release.

The timing could not have been worse. UM-Flint was embracing journalism education just as newspaper revenues were falling off a cliff. It wasn’t long before nearly the entire curriculum was scrapped at the university, a victim of budget cuts and low enrollment. It’s hard to attract students to a dying industry. And without journalism students, it’s tough to keep a student paper up and running, especially at a commuter school in an economically depressed city where many students work to pay for school and need a good job after graduation.

The paper is still considered a “sponsored student organization,” meaning it’s eligible for funding from student activity fees, but it will soon lose that status. If students want to relaunch the publication in the future, it will have to be a volunteer-only organization responsible for its own fundraising.

“From the university’s perspective, providing a robust student life experience is essential to help augment classroom teaching with practical skills,” Julie Snyder, associate vice chancellor and dean of students, stated in an email. “The newspaper being sunsetted means that there is one less avenue for students to be actively engaged in our community, an outlet for their budding talents and a practical co-curricular learning opportunity. However, as the students are not currently interested in taking advantage of that avenue, they have used their collective voice.”

First-year student Grace Walker — the only other staff member besides Hinds — is transferring to Central Michigan University next year. The 19-year-old Flint resident plans to major in journalism and hopes to join CMU’s student paper, a scrappy, vibrant outlet that’s been around for more than a century.

In the meantime, she’s working on a final project for a class that chronicles the demise of local news coverage in the Flint area, a topic she knows all too well. She’s not sure where it will be published, if at all.

“I’ve always been interested in journalism and politics,” she said, “so it’s been really hard and disheartening to get involved with something when it’s shutting down, when it’s going away.”

Gordon Young is a San Francisco-based journalist who grew up in Flint. He is the author of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, a book about the past, present, and future of Vehicle City. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Flint Expatriates, on March 27, 2024.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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