The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal all agree: the decision to draw drinking water for Flint, Michigan, from its river was an epic failure of government. Where they placed the blame varied widely: Flint’s mayor and the city council; the governor’s office and Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law; the Michigan Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services; the federal Environmental Protection Agency regional headquarters in Chicago; or the EPA itself.
As Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker,
The headwaters of Flint’s crisis are not located in the realm of technical errors; rather, there are harder questions about governance and accountability in some of America’s most vulnerable places. Who controls policy and why? How does the public check those who govern in its name?
Somewhere near those headwaters are the offices of The Flint Journal, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Advance Publications Inc., which also owns Condé Nast Publications, which publishes The New Yorker and twenty other magazines, including Vanity Fair, Vogue, W, and Wired.
The Journal’s transformation into a four-day-a-week adjunct to a regional website, as part of Advance’s retreat from the newspaper business, is an important part of the story.
Advance got its name when Samuel I. Newhouse bought the Staten Island Advance in 1922. Newhouse went on acquiring newspapers whenever he could, assembling a chain that included such well-respected dailies as the Newark Star-Ledger, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Portland Oregonian. He bought the Condé Nast magazine group in 1959, by legend on the advice of his wife, and, in 1976, added eight prosperous Michigan dailies when Advance bought the Booth chain, headquartered in Grand Rapids.
Newhouse died in 1979; and his sons, Samuel I. “SI” Jr. (b. 1927) and Donald (b. 1930), took over. The magazines lost money for a time in the 1980s and ’90s, but the newspapers’ earnings more than made up for it. The brothers bought Random House from RCA Corp. in 1980 and sold the firm in 1998 to the German publisher Berttelsmann SE & Co. Meanwhile, Donald was gradually moving Advance into cable television. If Charter Communications’ $67 billion bid for Time Warner and Bright House Networks is permitted, Advance, which started Bright House, stands to become one of the largest shareholders in the nation’s second-largest cable company, after Comcast. Forbes in 2014 ranked Advance forty-fourth largest among privately-owned companies in the US.
Much changed with the advent of search advertising in 2002, as the traditional semi-monopoly of newspapers on mind-share and many sorts of advertising was shattered. Even before that, Steven Newhouse, A third-generation family leader had turned enthusiastic about the prospects for digital news. After that, Advance began cutting back on the frequency of print editions of its newspapers and consolidated many of their operations in centralized digital hubs – first in New Orleans, then New Jersey, Michigan, and Oregon. In 2009, Advance closed the Ann Arbor, Michigan, News and replaced it with a website, AnnArbor.com, only to resume printing two days a week, in 2013, while folding the Arbor website into a a large site, MLive,com, covering most major cities in southern Michigan, including Flint. Alan Mutter, an influential columnist as “Newsosauer,” described the Advance strategy as “milking” their newspapers, as opposed to Warren Buffett’s custom of “farming” and Rupert Murdoch’s practice of “feeding” them.
How did the Flint paper do on the story? One metric (from Advance-affiliated Reddit) notes that veteran reporter Ron Fonger contributed 250 stories on the water crisis; MLive lists 500 stories written by Journal reporters since the crisis began, and offers a timeline of how the story emerged. I couldn’t find a story explaining why all the surrounding townships in Genesee County had elected to continue to buy their water from Detroit until a new pipeline from Lake Huron could be completed, and only the Flint emergency manager decided to go it alone, without the backing of the city council. Only when Genesee County officials finally blew the whistle in October last year, warning citizen of the city not to drink the water, did the local crisis turn into a state-wide scandal, and then a national one. Certainly the MLive effort was nothing like the all-out coverage of Hurricane Katrina for which the Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. But that was before Advance applied the “digital first” treatment to the New Orleans paper. Since then, key staffers have defected and the Baton Rouge Advocate has moved ahead of its rival in circulation to become Louisiana’s largest newspaper. (The cities are 80 miles apart along the Mississippi River.)
After James Warren, of the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school, published How the Media Blew Flint; John Hiner, vice president of content at Michigan’s MLive Media Group, who previously was executive editor of the Flint Journal, sent a rejoinder (Local Media Didn’t Whiff on Flint Coverage. Warren quoted David Poulson of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, who gave good marks to the Journal’s Fonger,
I daresay a well-placed FOIA (Freedom of Information Act request) several months ago regarding the Flint situation may have earned some mainstream news publication a Pulitzer nomination. Or perhaps aggressive coverage of local government under the state-appointed financial manager would have caught the issue earlier, or even prevented it from happening. And a well-trained reporter covering local health or the environment and deeply versed in those issues may have really watch-dogged the transition from one water source to another and asked questions about required testing. Or an aggressive news organization may have even invested in independent water testing once questions arose and brought attention, testing and treatment much earlier than when it happened. That didn’t happen because, well, they don’t exist.
What’s the alternative to Newhouse’s “milking” model? The company could indicate a willingness to sell local newspapers wherever there are willing buyers. A citizens group in New Orleans tried that, but as Warrant Buffett dryly noted at the time, “They do not have a history of selling anything.” Of course it makes a world of difference how it is done. A couple of years ago the New York Times Co. sold The Boston Globe for a pittance to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, its former business partner. Henry made headlines recently by firing the newspaper’s home delivery contractor without having a capable alternative vendor in place. You probably won’t read the backstory to that one, either, in the Times.
I have a feeling this watchdog function of the press will regenerate itself, over another twenty years or so, with non-profits, free-lancers, bloggers, and broadcast journalists taking up the slack. In the Flint case, it was water-quality engineer Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor and MacArthur Foundation fellow, who produced the critical tests for lead as a consultant to community activists; Jake Blumgart, a Philadelphia free-lancer, contributed an especially constructive piece for Slate . MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow played a big part in bringing the story to national attention. And last week the Michigan Press Association gave its Journalist of the Year Award to Curt Guyette, long-time reporter for Detroit’s Metro Times. an alternative weekly, who covered the Flint story online for the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It would be instructive to compare Guyette’s enterprising coverage with the admirable Fonger’s 250 stories from the hamster wheel.
Meanwhile, pay a little closer attention to the behavior of the press lords. It was not just government that failed Flint.