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."



6 comments:

  1. Dort and LippincottMarch 27, 2024 at 7:29 PM

    If any place needs a newspaper, it's Flint. And UM-Flint is definitely undercovered by the skeleton crew at the Journal. Sad news, even if it's understandable.

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  2. As a former editor of M-Times from 2001-2003, I am so sad to see this news. I actually went looking for some content recently and couldn't find anything. We launched the website back when I was a student to help the paper make the shift to changing world of journalism. So sad to see that the paper couldn't be reinvented in a blog or some other format. I learned so much during my time as editor and made so many great friends during my time there. It is unfortunate faculty in Communication or English didn't champion the paper through one of their courses. It is important to have an outlet for students voices to be heard.

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    1. Vanessa, thanks for the comment. Not a fun story to write, to say the least. I've been wondering how it might be possible to track down the old archive on whatever platform was last in use. It would be good to have a legacy site up with the old stories.

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  3. This breaks my heart to read. I wrote for that newspaper for years as an undergrad & grad student. I had a column there, too. Some of my best memories are being in the newspaper office. I learned a lot of valuable lessons working there. It's so important for students to have a voice--especially in Flint. It saddens me to see the paper go.

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  4. This is sad news. It's interesting because I've also seen journalism, in general, take a dive as we all have, but what is happening is that every communications person/position is now just a journalist, among other things (marketer, advertiser, social media strategist, etc.). It's kind of like "communications" is the new blanket term for every position that does this type of work today, regardless of the industry. I work in communications and have for years. This is my exact experience. Lots of writing for the news, press releases, interviews, photo and video work, etc. I wonder why more communications individuals haven't jumped on board an opportunity like the student paper as it is the perfect outlet to get that interviewing, writing, editing, etc. practice that is needed in every communications role today.

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Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at www.teardownbook.com.