Thursday, May 16, 2024

Local News is Dying When We Need It Most // By Grace Walker

One of the empty Michigan Times newspaper racks that are still scattered throughout

the University of Michigan-Flint campus.  (Photo by Michigan Times Editor-in-Chief Eric Hinds)

As a journalism major, I’m always asked the inevitable questions. “Why journalism? Isn’t that a dying field? Will you ever get a job?” Sometimes I find it difficult to come up with good answers. Headlines are constantly trumpeting the demise of journalism. We’re told about the latest newspapers that went under, the growing number of journalists being laid off, and the dire threats social media poses to the profession as we become more reliant on our devices. 
In my community, I’ve seen the demise of local news close up. The well-known daily paper, the Flint Journal, has all but vanished. And now I am left with the unenviable title of last staff writer for the Michigan Times, the UM-Flint student newspaper closing after 68 years of publishing. 

Despite these challenges, local news coverage is now more important than ever. In a city known for its well-documented problems, local journalists are essential to illustrate these issues and explore solutions. Without this coverage, residents remain uninformed and uninterested, which kills democracy. My hope is that local news coverage survives in a different form. My question is, how? 
Many local journalists have been outspoken about their frustrations since the death of the Flint Journal. One such journalist, Scott Atkinson, was willing to share his experiences in the field.
After graduating from Michigan State University, Atkinson started at the Flint Journal in 2008 where he believed he would have a stable job for years to come. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. After a while, Atkinson left to pursue his graduate degree at the University of Michigan - Flint. Upon his return in 2013, the Flint Journal started seeing significant changes. The issue was that fewer and fewer people were looking at newspapers.
“If you took away social media, the newspaper is all you had,” Scott Atkinson stated. “People would flock to get a newspaper for not only the news but also the ads.”
In its prime, the Journal’s editions were packed with news and advertisements, sometimes hitting up to 100 pages. All of this came crashing down as the Internet gained popularity. Why pay for a newspaper when you can access free news on the Internet at home?                 
The Flint Journal announced in 2009 that it would reduce its print editions, and conducted massive layoffs to reduce its operating budget. The company that once saw newsrooms filled with journalists, editors, and other staff rushing to find their next story quickly became a ghost town.
During this time, the owners of the Flint Journal decided to combine it with the Grand Rapids Press, the Ann Arbor News and other regional papers under the banner of MLive, a heavily based internet media group that, according to its website, “provides innovative ways to inform, connect and empower Michigan.” This new arrangement resulted in even less Flint coverage.
This sort of consolidation is widespread. "The largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers in the US," writes Penelope Muse Abernathy the formerly Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. "These large chains own two-thirds of all dailies."
Some of these chains include Gatehouse and AIM, two of the top five largest newspaper chains in the nation. This corporate focus only hurts the industry. Many regional newspapers now lack in-depth reporting, offer low salaries for their journalists, and provide fewer benefits. These changes created what Jason Kosnoski, who teaches political science UM-Flint, calls “a shell of an institution.”
Why does this matter? Journalism is vital for our democracy. It helps hold the government, corporations, and anyone else in power accountable for their actions. When this is missing, we lose a part of our democracy. We lose the right to know what’s going on in our community.      
“People no longer know what their city does, or why certain things are being done,” Atkinson said. 
The death of local news has helped usher in apathy in our community. Atkinson observed that local government meetings once packed with concerned citizens are now often empty. 
Kosnoski added that without good local journalism, people become confused, and angry, leading to distrust of institutions and governments. 
“Decline of local news is part of the decline of community,” he said.
This is apparent in Flint. No one seems to know or care why certain businesses are being shut down. Residents remain distrustful of their water after a decade of the ongoing water crisis. Without a robust, aggressive news source, the community lacks a trustworthy advocate that holds individuals accountable for their actions. 
Given this reality, what's the future of journalism? 
“Local news is shrinking,” Atkinson said after admitting that he isn’t highly optimistic that local news will survive. 
Others believe that local news isn’t dying, but changing. In an interview with WNEM news anchors Meg Mcleod and David Custer, both expressed optimism that local news has a future in our society.
“While I don’t think local news will become obsolete, I do believe some mediums for providing local news will,” Mcleod said. “You no longer have to wait for the 6 p.m. news or for the paper to be delivered in order to get the latest headlines. Nowadays, confirmed information can instantly be sent via a push alert or posted on social media by journalists in TV, newspaper or radio.” 
Many local news outlets now use multiple media types to continue attracting their audience. In the past, news outlets typically focused on one type of media. Now, outlets like WNEM TV5 not only broadcast daily news coverage on TV but also on itswebsite and social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. As the future looks to be more technology and internet-focused, we can expect to see less physical news and more of an online presence.
WNEM works hard to ensure that its content on different platforms tailors to those specific audiences. 
“We realize most people always have more than one screen in front of them, whether it’s a TV, cell phone, computer, or tablet,” Custer said. “We make a conscious effort to be aware of the latest apps or social media trends and figure out ways to reach the audience using them. We haven’t always been successful and often realize the person who sits down to watch the news on TV isn’t the same person scrolling through TikTok to get information.”  
In their efforts to maintain their audience, WNEM puts importance on the “little stories” of a community.
“The little stories have the biggest impact because they mirror all of us,” Custer reported, “When we can relate to an issue or topic it pulls on our inherent sense of community.”
Despite these challenges, local news coverage is now more important than ever. In a city known for its well-documented problems, local journalists are essential to illustrating issues and exploring solutions. Without this coverage, residents remain uninformed and uninterested, which kills democracy. My hope is that local news coverage survives in a different form. My question is, how?

Grace Walker is an aspiring journalist from Flint who graduated from Grand Blanc High School. She is currently a freshman at UM-Flint and the last writer for Michigan Times. She plans to transfer to Central Michigan University to pursue a Journalism degree with a minor in Political Science.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Digital Divide: The Michigan Times is a local news site. Or is it? By Gordon Young


UM-Flint is without a student newspaper for the first time in more than sixty years. (Photo by Gordon Young)

Technically, the Michigan Times still exists, but it’s probably not what you think it is.
When the University of Michigan – Flint student newspaper let its domain name lapse last year, it was a clear sign that the Michigan Times was in trouble. The publication that covered the downtown campus for more than 60 years is now officially “sunsetting” and will shut down completely at the end of the academic year, a victim of declining student interest and, some argue, university budget cuts.

The domain “” was quickly purchased by another entity, and a new publication with the same name soon appeared online pledging to cover “all types of local news for the cities of Flint and Detroit in Michigan.” It resembles a slickly produced version of the old student newspaper site, albeit one that is heavy on regional and state news.

It still claims a strong connection to the university and describes the staff as a “team of young people, consisting of University of Michigan-Flint grads.” Another page identifies them as “former University of Michigan-Flint students” who “are committed to helping current students and being the place where their problems will be heard.

But with almost no campus coverage, readers might be left wondering: what exactly is this thing?

Friday, March 29, 2024

Flint Books: Phil's Siren Song by Tim Lane


Who doesn't love a great Flint novel? Tim Lane's latest book, Phil's Siren Song, is available now. Here's an excerpt:

I drive Stuart home in his father’s beat up Chevy Caprice, taking the desolate route between the Flint River and Buick City plants while Karen follows us in her puny Chevette. The play in the steering wheel of this vehicle is wicked; the brake pedal almost goes completely to the floor.

         “Where are we goin’?” There are duffel bags of oily tools on the floor of the back seat where he has wedged himself. “Take me to Karen’s.”

         “I’m afraid we’re taking you home.”

         “No!” He is shouting under the front passenger seat.

         “Probably for the best.”

         “Let’s get some beer.”

         “It’s past two.”


         “Stores don’t sell past two.”

         “Since when?”

         “Like, since always.”

         “Well, fuck me,” he says, softening. “I knew that.”

         He passes out until the Caprice thunders over the train tracks at Leith and Dort, the car’s rough action jolting him back to life. The white orbs of Karen’s headlights violently bob behind us.

         “Phil, if the blacks live on the North and South End. And the Mexicans live on the East Side. And the whites live wherever the hell they want, East Side, West Side, doesn’t matter—”

         I pop a cassette into the tape deck and turn it up while he struggles to un-wedge himself and repeat his assertions about the blacks, the Mexicans and the whites.

         “Then where do the Ojibwe live? Answer me that. Where do the Indians live?”

         His street is lined with young silver maples and telephone poles mounted with streetlights.

         Karen pulls up to the house and observes my lame attempts to assist m’lord from the safety of her car.

         Signaling desperately with my hands, I plead the obvious. “For God’s sake, help me!”

         When the rusted Caprice’s back door slips from its hinge, the grating of rusted door parts makes me wince.

         “C’mon, man, ya gotta help me here.”

         “I can’t open my eyes.”

         “Oh, fer Christ’s sake.”

         “Come on, goon boy, get your ass out of the car. It’s time to go night night.”

         “Karen, you shut up.”

         His charming little sister meets the three of us at the side door.

         “Hi, I believe this is your brother.” I am trying to seem as nonthreatening as possible in the yellow light leaking into the night from the bulb above the side door. “We’ll just throw him on his bed, if that’s okay.”

         “Uh, I’m not related to that butt wipe.” She is not intimidated. “Why don’t you just throw him in the back yard?”

         Before escorting Stuart home, the deserted view of downtown from the Genesee Merchants Building had been memorable, but had left me a little sad. I had taken the fire escape to the roof out of habit more than anything else, a yearning for the times we had partied up there, when downtown had still felt dangerous.

         The scene below had looked the same as it used to—the empty parking lots and side streets, the vacant store fronts, a few cars crawling north and south on Saginaw—but something had changed, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

         “Karen,” Stuart sputters, tripping on the stairs. “Don’t sleep with him. Show some fuckin’ restraint.”

         Stuart’s sister’s bare feet lightly slap the floor. She is wearing an over-sized John Stamos t-shirt.

         In the poor light, John Stamos’ face looks insane, more like Jack Nicholson’s looming in the splintered bathroom door of The Shining.

         “There!” She is not concerned with waking anybody, and by anybody I mean the entire East Side.

         “Oh, boy, here we go,” Karen mutters.

         A bedroom door swings open and Stu’s husky father teeters into the hallway half asleep, in his underwear, until our stomachs touch. His belly reacts like a waterbed.

         “Ahem, why hello, Mr. Page.” Confidence is everything.

         He pauses to scratch an armpit and adjust his privates as a sleepy, disembodied female voice calls out behind him. “Glenn, what is it? What’s going on?”

         Stuart’s sister explodes. “Dad, go back to bed! Get in there! Mom, never mind!”

         Now, I am smiling to beat all hell. I am actually very well acquainted with Stuart’s dear mother.

         Margot and I are coworkers.

         When I am not going to my creative writing class, selling drugs at El Oasis or helping my housemate, Joe, run punk shows, I’m usually at Windmill Place, managing Ruggero’s, a pizza counter where the two of us eke out lame paychecks. But now is not exactly the time for exchanging pleasantries. I chuckle at the thought of calling out to her, though, as she lies in bed in a negligee sheer from years of washing and tumbling dry.

         Stuart’s family is as working class as it gets, and no one can say that Margot doesn’t work her ass off. I can hear her saying, “I ain’t got the energy to even think about sexy lingerie.”

         It’s a shame.

         Her tired, heavy voice takes shape in the darkness. “Glenn, who’s there? What’s going on?”

         Glenn wakes up: “Goddammit! What the hell’s this?” It is every man for himself, now.

         “Stu’s drunk!”


         “Drunk, Dad. Drunk. He can’t even open his goddamn eyes.”

         “Hey!” he barks. It is clear she is not allowed to swear.

         “Go back to bed, Dad!”

         Glenn retreats. Dresser drawers being ransacked can be heard, the mechanisms of plastic wheels on the metal runners of accordion-style closest doors in need of lubrication, and now I am thinking, “Oh, fuck. Guns.”

         Stuart’s sister loses it. “Throw ‘im on the goddamn bed, Jesus Christ, what’re ya waiting for?”

         It’s a fair question.

         But I can’t help asking, “So, are we about to get shot here?”

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Tough Times: The Death of a Student Newspaper in Flint, Michigan by Gordon Young

The former offices of The Michigan Times. (Photo by Santiago Ochoa/The Michigan Times)

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 it dwindled to a few students before the Covid 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. "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 eliminated, a victim of budget cuts and lack of interest. 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."

A revised version of this story also appear in East Village Magazine.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Shoring Up Our Bankruptcy


"I'm just telling you. She says today's problems can't be solved by today's people, we just keep shoring up our bankruptcy with the only tools we know. Making up more and more complicated stories about how we haven't failed."

— Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered

Monday, November 20, 2023

Inescapable Landscapes


Flint Expatriates
1515 Illinois Avenue, Flint, Michigan.

"We can’t help ourselves. We are shaped by the landscapes we are born to as inescapably as any other earthly creature born to any other ecosystem."

Margaret Renkl in the New York Times

Flint Expat Classics: Ode to the Ghetto Palm (Ailanthus Altissima)

Originally published on Friday, June 19, 2009

I mentioned the ghetto palm in my story on
house hunting in Flint, and it seems some readers are not familiar with the charms of this invasive species, also known as the Tree-of-Heaven. I'll let the Plant Conservation Alliance, which describes the tree on its "Alien Plant Working Group Least Wanted" list, sing its praises:

"Tree-of-heaven is a prolific seed producer, grows rapidly, and can overrun native vegetation. Once established, it can quickly take over a site and form an impenetrable thicket. Ailanthus trees also produces toxins that prevent the establishment of other plant species. The root system is aggressive enough to cause damage to sewers and foundations."
It also has a nice stank about it and is very difficult to eradicate.

"You have to cut them down and keep cutting them down for three years to get rid of them," exclaimed Tim Monahan, the president of the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association, over coffee yesterday. Needless to say, he's not a big fan.

But I can't be too hard on the much-maligned trees. After all, I've got a ghetto palm forest in my temporary backyard. I'm trying to blend in and not provoke these aggressive predators, especially after learning
"each leaflet has one to several glandular teeth near the base.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Goodstock 2023 in Flint


Slow Sipper by Mort Maizlish

I was active in the NAACP Youth Council in Flint 1959-61. Flint neighborhoods were still viciously segregated, with the main stem, Saginaw St, through the north side of town as the impregnable line between black and white housing. Most restaurants by then were grudgingly taking anybody’s money, but the Help Wanted signs mysteriously disappeared whenever a person of the “None Have Ever Applied” category asked about a job.

We did a drive-in at a drive-in on N. Saginaw Street that catered to both sides of the street but restricted the hiring of carhops to the melanin deficient. We drove in, two to a car and one car at a time, as spaces opened, until we filled the place. We each ordered a small Coke, placed it on the dashboard, and waited.

After an hour or so, the owner noticed a lack of turnover and the profound silence of the cash register, and came out to look around. He screamed, hollered and threatened, especially when he located the adult leader, Edgar B Holt, but couldn’t do anything until we finished our orders. Mr Holt calmly explained that he had a delicate stomach and had to sip his Coke very slowly, and suggested that they might chat about the hiring policy as an aid to his digestion.

We left after 2 or 3 hours, and made our point. I did feel personally cheated, though. My car was the only one with two lightly complected people in it, and I was one of the first to drive in. The guy harangued everyone in the lot except me and my cohort. He glanced at us once but never could make the connection. Here we were, eager to be part of his problem, and he just ignored us!

Friday, July 14, 2023

Don't Miss Porch Fest in Flint's Carriage Town Neighborhood