It has been a tough decade for journalists. Faced with declining revenues, news outlets have cut staff and expenses, resulting in newsrooms with fewer reporters with fewer resources at their disposal.
But while the conventional news industry has struggled, a few local reporters working independent of traditional outlets have proven bright spots in an otherwise bleak media landscape. Metromode spoke with three of metro Detroit's most influential independent journalists about why they do what they do and how they do it.
The Flint water crisis, the biggest news story in Michigan so far this year, came to light in part thanks to a local journalist working in an unprecedented capacity.
In 2013, Curt Guyette was fired by the Metro Times, the alternative weekly where he had worked for 18 years as a reporter and editor, for revealing information to a fellow journalist about the sale of the publication
. He wasn't out of work long, however, before finding a new gig as an investigative reporter. While the work was nothing new, the employer, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan
, was unusual. No other ACLU chapter has a reporter on staff, but the decision to hire Guyette paid major, if sobering, dividends when he became one of the key voices in exposing the city of Flint's water crisis.
Curt Guyette, investigative reporter with the ACLU of Michigan
Last summer, Guyette leaked a draft Environmental Protection Agency memo revealing
that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's water testing practices in Flint were designed to minimize lead findings. In the fall, he went door to door in Flint distributing lead testing kits, which were analyzed by Virginia Tech researchers to show lead levels much higher than city or state officials had claimed
Guyette says that personal involvement in the story just felt like an "extension of things I'd always done," and that he and the ACLU were dedicated to maintaining objectivity. "The best-case scenario would have been for us to have participated in this and the results to have confirmed what the city and state were saying," he says.
However, working for an advocacy organization as a journalist can be tricky, Guyette says. When he recently appeared on a radio show, a caller asked why the public shouldn't cast a "skeptical eye" on the potential institutional agenda of his reporting. "That's perfectly understandable," Guyette says. "Given that, it makes it all the more important to make sure that you're right and that the work that you produce is able to stand up against all kinds of scrutiny, because it's going to be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny."
Guyette says his work has been validated by the follow-up reporting of other parties across the state and the country. He says he's now transitioning out of the "all Flint, all the time" segment of his career and into some new investigations for the ACLU. And after over 25 years in investigative journalism, he welcomes new challenges. "Having the time and resources to focus exclusively on big-issue things in a way that I was really never able to do before…is incredible," he says. "I tell people that I can't call this a dream job because I didn't ever envision anything like this at all."
Last year, Steve Neavling's series of investigative stories on the Detroit Fire Department uncovered widespread mismanagement and led to the resignation of fire commissioner Edsel Jenkins
. And that series was just a portion of Neavling's output. He estimates he puts 80 hours a week into his independent news website, the Motor City Muckraker
That hard work even turned a profit in 2015 – a whopping $8.02.
"It's a work of passion," Neavling says.
Steve Neavling, investigative reporter and founder of the Motor City Muckraker
Like Guyette, Neavling pursued other avenues in reporting after being cut loose by one of Detroit's journalistic institutions. The Detroit Free Press fired Neavling from his reporter job in 2012 after then-Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh complained about Neavling's decision to print a dismissive remark Pugh had made to him during a break from a council meeting. Neavling started the Muckraker two months later as a way to continue reporting until he found a new job. But he says he was thrilled with the new freedom he had found.
"I can't emphasize enough how liberating it is to be able to write about what I find important by living in Detroit, versus editors from the suburbs telling me what they think are the most important issues in Detroit," he says.
Neavling has been fascinated by the power of journalists to expose corruption and mismanagement since he took a job at a rural weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania, his home state, after he graduated college with a philosophy degree. He moved to Michigan in 2001 and has spent the past 10 years in Detroit. He and Muckraker publisher Abigail Shah now live in a 500-square-foot apartment in what Neavling describes as "a relatively dangerous part of the Cass Corridor." In addition to their work on Muckraker, Shah works three jobs and Neavling works part-time writing for a law enforcement news website. Neavling's currently planning a crowdfunding campaign to hire a business manager to develop strategies for monetizing the site. He's also exploring grant funding opportunities.
Neavling says he doesn't see a bright future for the mainstream local media. He cites the way the Flint water crisis came to light as the latest example of traditional outlets serving as "mouthpieces" to elected officials rather than watchdogs. But he says independent journalists have the advantage of aggressive reporting and a dogged commitment to their work. He believes that a collaborative mindset can help them succeed where a competitive mentality has caused traditional local outlets to falter.
"People don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm just going to read MLive,' or 'I'm just going to read the Free Press,'" says Neavling. "People are relying more on social media to get that smorgasbord of stories, and then they decide from there what they're going to click on. It's a struggle, but it's an interesting time."
Mark Maynard considers himself a blogger and not a journalist – probably, he says, because he manages his website, MarkMaynard.com
, from his bed.
"When I think of a journalist, I think of 'All the President's Men,'" Maynard says. "You're in a room and your editor is yelling. I just think if I'm in my underwear sitting in bed, it's not real. It's something different."
Mark Maynard, independent blogger and radio host
Nonetheless, the Ypsilanti resident has broken multiple stories that have grabbed regional and national attention since starting his website in 2002. Most recently he uncovered yet another facet of the Flint water crisis, breaking the story that governor Rick Snyder blacked out the windows at an Ann Arbor restaurant to hold a secret birthday party for his wife
. The Ann Arbor News subsequently picked up the story
. Maynard notes that that publication didn't credit him with breaking the story, although national outlets like Gawker did
An email tipster originally alerted Maynard to the Snyder story, and one of his readers tracked down a photo of the elaborate cake Snyder purchased for the party on Instagram. Maynard says the story "illustrates the role of bloggers," "teeing up" the story for others to investigate further, but he also says it's a shame that it falls to bloggers to do such reporting.
"You need to have the credibility that comes with being a professional journalist," Maynard says. "I'm not going to scare the shit out of you like you should be scared. If the New York Times called me at work and said, 'I saw what you put out. I have a question about this,' I'm going to take it really super seriously. If a blogger calls up, I'm probably just going to think, 'You're insane,' because most bloggers are. I'm not going to treat it like it should be treated."
Nonetheless, the rigor Maynard applies to his work can only be described as professional. He puts four hours a night into his blog and also hosts a weekly radio show, "The Saturday Six Pack
," on AM 1700
in Ypsilanti. In the latter forum, topics range from Ypsilanti's music scene to a recent series of long-form interviews with participants in the Flint water crisis (including Guyette). Maynard says he can't imagine either project becoming financially viable enough to make them his full-time job, but his commitment to both is wholehearted.
"I don't know why I do it," he says. "I can only say it's mental illness – OCD and this unusual need, this compulsion, to at least perceive myself as being helpful. I have this underlying fear of not doing the most with my life that I could and feeling that I need to do something. I need to help make things better. It's mental illness. I can't stop."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
Photos by Doug Coombe.