Reporting from Flint, Mich.
by Eric Chiu
Emergency responders at the site of a tornado strike.
In the early 1960s, my dad’s family left Hong Kong for Flint, Mich. Like most immigrant families, they quickly established roots in Genesee County where my dad and his brothers and sisters grew up in the city’s neighborhoods.
Most of my dad’s family still lives in Flint, and much of my relationship to the city was filtered through them. Along with weekly family meals at my grandparents’ house on the city’s east side, my siblings and I spent ample time in the backrooms of nearly every Cantonese restaurant around town, including our own — my family’s first Chinese restaurant was blocks away from Genesee Towers, the tallest building in downtown Flint.
Although we had friends and family in the auto industry, I only had a passing understanding of Flint’s shift from exporting cars to producing entries in slideshows like “26 Most Godforsaken Cities” (hey, Forbes) when I was younger. You pick up references to past events along the way, but as a kid, it’s inevitably history without context. Still, the increasing number of closed businesses or the boarded-up homes in my grandparents’ old neighborhood became harder to miss.
Eventually, I left for college and stumbled into something resembling a journalism career. Like many Millennials, I’ve spent the last few years hopping between internships, but moments of occasional glamour were possible: My articles got linked at places like the New York Times, I worked in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and for a month, I was briefly employed as a staff writer at a magazine and was paid actual money.
After becoming an underemployed college graduate last summer, this was inevitably course corrected: I couldn’t find a job, and before long, I was back in Michigan. Near the end of December, an offer arrived in my inbox: a five-month reporting contract at the Flint Journal, the daily newspaper in Flint, Mich.
As with any hometown paper, you develop a relationship with yours over time. My family has been Journal subscribers for years and my ties to the Journal weren’t just as a reader: if it wasn’t for an early career day presentation from a Journal arts reporter, I’m sure I’d have ended up elsewhere. Among our social circles, news would always spread quickly whenever someone made it into the local section or, in grimmer situations, the obituaries. For readers in Genesee County and elsewhere, the Journal was the paper of record — nothing short of an institution.
Like its sister publications in Michigan, Ohio, New Orleans, Alabama, Oregon, Syracuse, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the Journal underwent guttings in the mid-2000s that didn’t go unnoticed by readers. On assignments, I’d run into people who used to work for the Journal or griped about how thin the paper had gotten in recent years. The Journal’s legacy was also persistent in a literal sense: the old Journal building doubled as a staff parking lot for the new office.
But, there’s an obvious question: When most twentysomethings are fleeing the Midwest en masse, why head to Flint?
From my unpaid internships, I picked up enough to not make an ass of myself in a newsroom, but the instability of permatemping eventually catches up with you. Before the Journal offer came, it had nearly been a year since my last byline and the only steady work I’d found was doing printer maintenance at my old college.
But at the Journal? I’d return to the only field I’d ever been halfway respectable in and have a fresh start. In Flint, I could leave behind all the baggage from those past jobs and rebuild those misfired career ambitions into something that could pay a living wage. Hindsight reminded me to temper my excitement, but in the weeks before my first day, the job’s potential was impossible to ignore.
Think about the last police story you read.
The article likely hewed to the following structure: open with the age and gender of the victim, maybe the name if the victim’s been ID’d. After that, play-by-play of the incident and an update on the victim’s status. If it’s more than a short news update, add a quote or two from a family member or responding officer to stretch out the story’s length.
Not to say that the cops beat is unimportant (if they aren’t going to highlight those stories, who is?), but for all of those homicides, infanticides, rapes, robberies, arsons and larcenies, there’s inevitably some distance between the reader and subjects. There’s no way that these things could happen near you, of course. They’re just stories, after all.
A few weeks into the contract, I went to my first homicide. The scene was in a quiet residential neighborhood on Flint’s north side, filled with aging homes and roads covered in dirt-flecked snow. From the north and south, police had taped off most of the block and small crowds milled at each end. Near a police cruiser, a bundle of tattered balloons limply dangled from a rusting fence.
The victim was a 19-year-old male who was found that afternoon on the ground outside of a house. Behind the tape and police vehicles, officers worked in the yard of the home, partially shielded by a wall of yellow barricades. Earlier, a full-time reporter had walked me through what to expect at an active scene, but he had to leave for another story and tasked me with a follow-up post.
I was taking notes near a street corner when a woman stopped nearby. She glanced towards the police tape and gave me a look-over.
“You a detective?” she asked.
I shook my head.
She pulled out her iPhone, took a picture of the homicide scene and walked away.
Near the south end of the street, a man in the crowd told me that he and most of the group were the suspected victim’s family. The crowd was a mix of kids, aunts, uncles and grandparents; throughout the afternoon, a procession of family members cycled in and out of the street corner. They’d indirectly heard about the shooting, the man said, but like everyone else, the family had to stay behind the tape.
The reporting legwork repeated itself until another support vehicle arrived at the scene. An officer guided the van inside while others moved cars and equipment around to make room for the extra help.
But amidst the bustle, a crowd member spotted something behind the yellow barricade.
He let out a choked gasp and collapsed to his knees in shock with a howling, guttural sob. Crowd members moved to comfort him, while others hastily spread along the road to confirm his findings. No one knew for sure what the man had seen — maybe it was a glimpse of a sneaker or jacket behind the barricade. But for hours, the family had tensely waited behind the police tape. Now, without warning, the belief that their nephew or cousin or son couldn’t possibly be the dead body behind that curtain had collapsed without remorse.
Bystanders crowded along the south end of the street and angrily shouted at the officers, who continued to work on the scene. I ran back to my car to grab an extra pen, but from my driver’s seat, I heard an argument start from the street corner. The shouting soon turned into screaming.
Several yards away, a brawl had broken out near the police tape — a group of crowd members were kicking and stomping someone who’d been thrown to the ground. In seconds, the entire street corner exploded into a panic. A pack of officers rushed past the tape into the crowd to stop the fight as sobbing family members fled in every direction. Within moments, multiple state police cars rushed into the intersection for backup.
With fighting and shouting in every direction, it was impossible to even know which way to turn. But as quickly as the fracas started, it was soon under control. Officers broke up the people in the fight and began putting them into cruisers while another officer shouted for remaining bystanders to leave.
At a distance, I’ve been taking notes and locked into place with this overwhelming sense of nausea. The gravity of the afternoon put the gap between any initial sense of preparation and reality into stark contrast. It wasn’t simply just being a rookie reporter, either — what are you supposed to say to someone who’s yards away from their dead kid? Sorry for your loss? What right did I have to be there, with my tape recorder and notepad in a grieving family’s face, and consider myself as anything besides another kid fresh out of school who’s hopelessly out of his element?
This wouldn’t be the last time that those qualms would pop up, but at that moment, I still had a story to do. I finished up the remaining reporting and returned to the newsroom.
A few days pass. New assignments take priority, though the homicide is still in the back of my mind. On a whim, I search the victim’s name in the paper’s archives.
The following four stories appear: the first is about his time as a runaway foster child; the second identifies him as the victim; the third is about a candlelight vigil held by his family; the fourth is a one paragraph mention of him as the city’s latest shooting victim.
After the first few months at the Journal, I relayed my experiences to a friend who’d worked news in the area before, and at the time, he compared the process behind the daily local news cycle to sausage-making. I agreed, though I’d now add a qualifier.
Rather, it’s not sausage-making so much as it’s finding a piglet, personally raising that piglet into a grown pig, being forced to sell the pig to a butcher, and watching as the butcher slaughters the pig and produces a pile of freshly made sausage links. A certain lack of glamour is implied in the process.
For the uninitiated, the hierarchy at your newspaper is like most workplaces: the editors are the bosses while beat reporters and lackeys like me filled out the roster. Along with the other reporting temp, my beat amounted to “whatever the staff reporters couldn’t cover,” but it did have its advantages: Our reporting wasn’t tied to a town or subject, which kept things interesting.
Along with items about events like local fundraisers and highway accidents that helped fill the continually gaping pit that is the content schedule for a daily website, there were the local news items that ranged from interesting to ludicrous. One of my favorite stories involved a teen dancing troupe performing a choreographed dance number on ice — in full costume! — based on the 1992 Disney film Newsies.
Occasionally, some stories would slip onto the print version’s front page. To walk you through the editorial decision-making, those stories in order: stuffed wolverine exhibit comes to mall, local Air Force Major participates in inauguration, people buy flowers for Mother’s Day and a mock plane crash drill at the local airport. (Though, honestly, the shots from a photo intern on that last story did most of the heavy lifting, since how often do you get to see a plane burst into flames?)
With the contract’s end date, I spent my weekends on job applications and by March, early responses began trickling in. For once, they were encouraging: One of the first said that I’d made it past the initial round of applications at a glossy Washington, D.C. news magazine. It was an improvement over a previous entry, which came and went without so much as a form rejection letter.
Even if I knew better than to get too confident, the responses also doubled as the first bit of good news in weeks. After working at the pace I learned from my first student daily (if you missed a deadline, you’d best hang yourself in back and save your editor the trouble) some exhaustion had set in.
It was never negligent, but the burnout manifested itself with the occasional Mad Libs lede (“[DATELINE] — The [LOCATION] was packed with [NOUN] for the [EVENT] at [LOCATION]”) or finding think-pieces with titles like “What the Hell Are You Doing With Your Life?!”
Still, I slowly adjusted to the Journal’s workload, even if most of the learning happened accidentally. In practice, the Journal’s temp program was closer to a paid internship: We were all college-aged, had past internships and were (typically) cycled out on five-month intervals. As with any proper sorta-internship, the educational parts existed in the same way that someone learns how to swim by being shoved from an oceanside cliff: you figure it out, hopefully.
Coming into the job, there were never any expectations that it’d be an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. gig. In practice, the Journal had a way of making those beliefs concrete, whether it was filing stories on a smartphone during dinner, or seeing staffers call family members when a late news story broke. You always had to remove ego from the process.
During the contract’s final week, I was working the solo night shift in the newsroom. Like most nights, the editors had me follow a few items, including a handful of storm weather warnings. As the evening progressed, conditions rapidly worsened — reports of funnel clouds and downed wires filled the county dispatch’s online logs.
Within minutes, the editors made the call to have all available reporters head out for coverage throughout the entire county. The decision turned out to be justified: four tornados would hit the county that night, causing around $2.5 million in damages.
My assignment was to meet up with another reporter in Goodrich, a rural town that was hit by one of the tornados. Being thrown into unfamiliar stories on a moment’s notice was old hat, but the nighttime drive to Goodrich underlined the scope of the damage. Along the highway and through country backroads, there was nothing but endless stretches of desolate, pitch-black farmland in the storm’s wake.
Eventually, I arrived in Goodrich and drove into town. The worst of the storm had already passed through — families were walking along the road to survey the damage — but the county now had to handle the tornado’s aftermath. Cast against cloudy grey skies, the only source of light for miles was the familiar red and blue glare from a cluster of emergency vehicles that had blocked off the entire street.
I pulled over near a darkened fire station and set off on foot. The area was largely residential — suburban homes on one side, acres of farmland on the other. Near the blockade, a father and his two sons watched the emergency officials at work. Their family lived nearby and witnessed the storm’s damage from a distance; the father described how he saw clouds of sparks spray from downed power lines outside of his house. His family only lost power, but elsewhere, others weren’t as lucky. From our spot near the blockade, the father grimly pointed to what remained of a neighbor’s house farther down the road. That family had survived by taking shelter in their basement, but the tornado leveled their house down to the foundations.
Breaking news like a natural disaster posed special challenges. There wasn’t a deadline in an hour or two — it was and would continue to be “right now” until the end of the night. And this emphasized the similarities between being an intern and attempting to pull off a long con: You’re likely woefully out of place, but if you keep on faking it, no one will hopefully notice.
Certainly, the combination of adrenaline and existential dread that accompanied the start of those past articles about farmers markets, burning planes or traffic jams were reliably present. But for once, I could ignore the white noise and focus on the story: I knocked out my reporting and filed my copy from a parking lot down the road.
By this point, I’d been at work for around 12 hours (the low end compared to others around the county) and 2 a.m. was as good of a time as any to grab dinner. In the aisles of the grocery store one town over, the night shift employees glanced in my direction with surprise — who the hell’s going shopping right now?
As I left the store, there was this deafening crack from above. In seconds, a torrential downpour began. The rain was relentlessly Biblical in scope, flying in horizontal sheets and showing few signs of stopping. Exhausted, I sank onto the curb and dug into my dinner.
Sitting alone in that empty parking lot with nothing besides the pattering of the rain and the low hum of the store’s fluorescent sign, the solitude was calming. In the quiet, there was respite from daily stresses and uncertainties and unpredictability, the same things that made the job both romantic and crushing.
Being back in Flint, there was always the dissonance of returning to places I’d grown up at as an Official News Reporter and having that nostalgia circle back into itself. One of the Chinese restaurants where I grew up in was now the place where I covered an apartment fire. Returning to my old high school and music school for stories was as traumatizing as it sounds.
There was also the news I’d skirted around during those last few weeks. After countless applications, I’d end the contract in the same place as before: without a job. The usual despondency towards unemployment was certainly there, but for the first time, there was some necessary distance.
Even though I’d left Flint before, some lingering affection still remained. I’d grown up in the city’s restaurants, libraries and businesses — on some level, I wanted to be honest towards that history. I got to see this sprawling cross section of Flint and the surrounding counties, filled with those quiet moments that’d never fit into a 300-word story: There was the soldier not much older than me putting on a brave face for her family before starting her deployment to Afghanistan. There was the father recounting the domestic abuse his daughter suffered at the hands of her alleged killer or the people who’d come out events in downtown Flint, simply because they cared enough to not flee into the surrounding suburbs instead.
Here’s a story of my dad’s: As a student at Michigan State University in East Lansing, he also worked at a Chinese restaurant back in Flint. Every week, he’d make the same 50-mile drive from East Lansing back to Flint, put in his hours and head back in time for Monday classes. For the rest of his family, their background was similar. His parents and siblings all spent ample time in Flint’s Chinese restaurant community. The work was far from glamorous — the kitchens shared that familiar funk of white rice bags and used cooking oil — but the work paid the bills. It was hard labor, but at the very least, it was an honest living.
It’d be easy to frame my time back in Flint in that familiar narrative: ruin porn, talk about crime and toss in a self-aggrandizing mention of “working at the most dangerous city” before heading towards the exits.
But during those five months, I’d been welcomed into homes and lives in the bleakest and richest of places. I know that Flint doesn’t owe me anything and that I only got — at best — a better snapshot of the city I’d grown up around. For a place like Flint, though, that’s more than enough.
In the end, was the contract worthwhile? “Media people moaning about media industry” is a sub genre that’s been stripped past the bone and into the marrow, but for smaller publications, let’s use this aside to examine how those problems get amplified. Though the local news industry isn’t without faults, audiences certainly wouldn’t be better off without those outlets. If the Journal’s reporting on Flint’s arsons or cultural figures or residents didn’t exist, the message is clear: those stories and communities don’t matter.
And broadly speaking, those same outlets also double as a decent microcosm for the usual How We (Don’t) Find Jobs Today narrative: unpaid internships go hand in hand with layoffs, cutbacks and few actual jobs. But what do those issues mean in practice?
It means reading about a paper’s layoffs and getting a call from their recruiters days later. You get used to forgetting how many college newspaper co-workers have left the field and working at outlets where two staff departures means losing more than a tenth of your newsroom.
Not to say that it’s all doom and gloom: the fact that important, substantive reporting can still exist, in spite of those financial/structural limitations, still makes me a true believer in the field — journalism today isn’t and can’t simply be padding between slideshows or ad inserts for the local grocery store. But what happens when you’re one of the only ones left?
It’s been five months since my last day at the Journal.
Between the other interns and me, we sent ourselves off in appropriately (read: boozy) fashion and they’ve since headed off to metaphorical and literal greener pastures. Every once in a while, there’s an occasional pang whenever I spot a copy of the Journal — like Henry Hill at the end of “Goodfellas,” I’m just another schnook who’s reading the stories instead of writing them. But despite all of the headaches and neuroses, I’m at peace with those five months in Flint.
There is one story I wish I could have stuck around for, though.
Genesee Towers is a 19-story office building that was originally built in the late 1960s in downtown Flint. As the city’s tallest building, it’s been a central part of Flint’s skyline for years. When my family drove into the city for dinners at my grandparents, we’d always see the Towers and its distinctive gap from miles away.
Eventually, tenants left the Towers and the building slipped into abandonment. Every day, I’d walk past Genesee Towers and its dilapidated exterior on my way to work, though it’d be from a distance; the sidewalks around the building have been closed for years to protect residents from the risk of “5,500-pound concrete panels” falling from the building.
After years of legal wrangling, Genesee Towers is expected to be demolished by the end of the year. Organizers are planning out what’ll happen next.