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After mass layoffs, Grand Rapids navigates a new media landscape

Holly Bechiri, Rapidian Managing Editor

After a recent round of MLive layoffs and a terrible 2015 for journalism job losses, news reporting as a profession remains in a state of flux — both in Grand Rapids and in the wider culture. Rapid Growth Media interviewed several local figures who work with and think about media to examine different ideas about how changes in the journalism landscape have impacted coverage, and how the community can create a healthier media environment going forward.
This article is the first in a three-part series from Rapid Growth Media on journalism and media in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Part one will focus on different perspectives on contemporary journalism and how business changes have impacted the practice; part two will examine how organizations in the community interact with the press amid staffing changes; and part three will deal with diversity and the representation of different groups in the new media landscape.

When MLive Media Group announced its most recent restructuring in January, the staff cuts came with a leaden sense of the inevitable: The company eliminated 29 “content positions” as part of a broad restructuring effort. In an official announcement on the MLive website, MLive Vice President of Content John Hiner wrote that the change in business strategy would include plans for “a new team that will focus on statewide investigative, political and data-driven journalism,” as well as added video and social media content.

The January cuts from MLive came five years after the massive round of layoffs that occurred when MLive Media Group spun off from its parent company, Booth Newspaper. About 550 of 1,200 Booth employees were laid off in those cuts, although the company said that some were eligible to reapply for their old jobs. A few months later, in February 2012, MLive announced that the Grand Rapids Press would reduce home delivery to three days, including Sundays.

In cutting journalism jobs and newspaper circulation, MLive is far from an anomaly: In a July 2015 census, the American Society of News Editors found that full-time newsroom jobs at daily newspapers dropped 10.4 percent in the previous year, down to about 32,900 jobs. That’s down from a peak of 56,900 positions in 1990.

The hemorrhaging of traditional print jobs has left many wondering what imprint — or lack thereof — these changes leaves on the city and the region. In other words: What isn’t being covered in the wake of mass layoffs? And how does that impact residents? Meanwhile, are newer, digital publications filling the gap left by massive changes in traditional media — or does there need to be a shift altogether in how we’re viewing the role of media in Grand Rapids?

As a multimedia journalism instructor and faculty advisor at Grand Valley State University, former Chicago-area broadcast journalist Len O’Kelly has thought a lot about these questions in recent years. He says the journalism directive to do “more with less” in terms of staffing and resources has already reached its logical limit — and then some.

Len O'Kelly“We don’t have a full staff anymore,” O’Kelly says. “I mean, we’re consuming content like animals, so you’d think this would be a great time for something like an MLive or chain of radio stations, to be fully staffed and cranking out all this content. But we’re finding that’s not the case.”

MLive did not respond to a request from Rapid Growth Media for comment or update regarding a newsroom staff count or which exact positions were cut in the January layoffs. Additionally, Rapid Growth Media reached out through a colleague to a former MLive statewide editor, a Grand Rapids resident, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

Part of the problem, O’Kelly says, is that newspapers and other media outlets in the digital age have done such a poor job at establishing good journalism as content that needs to be paid for. Industry “paywall” models came too late, he says, after consumers already had the expectation that digital news content would come at no charge.

“When you’re giving out your content for free and decide all of a sudden people have to pay for it, how hooked are people and will they really pay for it?” he says. “Everyone’s got a preference as to what publications they read, and cost has a lot to do with it. The traditional answer to why people would read a certain paper would have been, ‘I trust them more, they’re more credible.’ Those aren’t the answers now. What you hear people say now is ‘It’s fast and it’s free.’”

Last September, the New Yorker detailed how the international newspaper The Financial Times was able to increase its paid circulation to its highest historical numbers ever in 2015, even as other papers struggled badly. By embracing paid digital distribution early on and setting up a “metered paywall” that let users read a limited number of posts for free each month before they had to purchase a subscription, the F.T. pioneered a business model that was adopted with some success by other major publications, including the New York Times.

The F.T. has now switched to a newer subscription model, which would offer low-cost “trial subscriptions” as a way to get consumers in the habit of reading their paper before implementing the full-cost subscription.

Still, the publications that have had success with a paywall model are few and far between, especially outside of major markets. O’Kelly says he sees consumer apathy toward quality journalism as an epidemic-level problem — even among his own students.

“I asked each of my classes this fall, ‘How many of you want to get paid when you graduate to generate content?’” O’Kelly says. “Of course all the hands went up. Then I asked, ‘How many of you pay for the content you receive right now?’ Almost no hands went up. I said, ‘Does anybody see the problem here?’”

When asked what stories or areas he had witnessed being under-covered due to changes in the media, O’Kelly says that the problem is not so much with stories being under-covered as not being uncovered in the first place thanks to the lack of experience in newsrooms.

“Anyone who gets paid well is a candidate to get thrown off the boat at a budget meeting — and I’ve seen that; I’ve been in these budget meetings at news organizations,” he says. “Never mind if that’s the most valuable employee we’ve got.”

“If all you’re doing is getting rid of veterans and telling the two-year employee to train the one-year person, we’ve got problems,” he adds. “There’s no institutional knowledge of a market there, and our media now is much more transient than our community. That’s a serious problem.”

Of course, some outlets and media companies have managed to avoid cuts and even establish new publications in the post-Great Recession journalism landscape — including Rapid Growth Media and its Detroit-based parent company, Issue Media Group (IMG). Founded in 2005 by co-CEOs Paul Schutt and Brian Boyle, Issue Media Group now includes more than 20 publications in seven states. Rapid Growth Media itself began publishing in 2006 and employs a publisher, a managing editor and two other editors, as well a roster of freelance contributors.

While new digital publications haven’t experienced layoffs, they do face different battles when attempting to navigate how exactly to run a profitable news business in this day and age. It’s not a secret, for example, that Rapid Growth — which draws funding from a number of area sponsors, as displayed prominently on the Rapid Growth Media homepage — has drawn criticism for acting as a so-called “cheerleader” publication for local business in the past. Former RGM managing editor Juliet Bennett Rylah wrote a feature that addressed this label directly in 2011.

As part of its business model, Issue Media Group has brought in revenue from “speaker series” and other types of community events, and allows for financial sponsorship of its stories through its underwriting programs, both of which contribute to stories at Rapid Growth Media and other IMG publications. However, underwriters do not dictate content or editorial direction at Rapid Growth Media or any other IMG websites, according to Schutt. In an e-mail to Rapid Growth Media, Issue Media Group co-founder Schutt said that Rapid Growth's editorial intent is to focus on "growth, investment, and the people creating change."

While NPR has long used a similar underwriting model for its coverage, the idea of such funding is less established in print/digital journalism. As stated in its underwriting policy, Issue Media Group allows underwriters to foster issue areas, but never to approve or review stories, and will “opt to disclose any relationships with underwriters that could be perceived as complicating our journalistic mission.”

In terms of disclosure, Issue Media Group publication homepages clearly display the logos of sponsors at the bottom of the page. IMG publications also include disclosures at the end of specific stories or series that have been underwritten (see here for an example).

Local community organizer, media commentator, and media literacy educator Jeff Smith — who maintains the media watchdog website Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID — says he doesn’t believe that new media entrants or other local publications are doing enough to delve into the daunting challenges facing some communities. Smith says that a focus on problem-solvers and innovations won’t work if the articles don’t delve into the institutional factors that brought about a given crisis or problem in the first place.

“You can’t talk about a solution to the water crisis in Flint without talking about institutionalized racism,” Smith says. “Because if you don’t talk about these things, the solutions you come up with are just going to be Band-Aids. They’re going to be totally faulty and ineffective.”

Although Smith, who also runs the Grand Rapids People’s History Project, notes that he doesn’t refer to his work at GRIID as journalism, he says he has been writing about the media and teaching what he refers to as “media literacy” — that is, reading news coverage with a critical eye and an interest in broader social movements and historical contexts — since the late 1980s as an outgrowth of his progressive activism.

Through GRIID, he has published a number of online media courses and digital handbooks, as well as numerous investigative pieces on local nonprofits and political campaign donations, among other topics. He also teaches a series of social justice workshops called “Change U” at Grand Valley State University.

Smith says he doesn’t see local media asking some of the difficult questions.

“In Grand Rapids you have this dynamic of — every week it seems like we win some new award,” he adds. “There’s all this euphoria about it, but at the same time we have almost 30 percent of the population living in poverty, and it’s disproportionately communities of color. And we don’t see people asking ‘Why?’”

“How is that possible with so much development, [there are] all these accolades and this kind of thing?” he continues. “There’s so little [media] attention given to that, and it’s astounding to me.”

While Rapid Growth Media does publish a large number of stories about entrepreneurship, business news, and community development, it’s also worth noting that Rapid Growth authors have published numerous stories in the past year that address deep-rooted problems in the community, including the impact of systemic racism on infant mortality, the scarcity of affordable housing in Grand Rapids, and community conversations around police body cameras and other policing practices.

Smith says that while he’s observed blind spots and biases in the local media for years as part of his watchdog work, he’s only seen gaps in coverage get worse since journalists began getting laid off en masse in the mid-2000s. As an example, he points to media coverage (or lack thereof) of the local bus drivers’ union and their recent labor dispute with The Rapid.

“I made the point that the bus drivers’ union had a day of action a couple weeks ago,” Smith says. “They occupied a meeting [at The Rapid] and didn’t leave for an hour until the cops came. Not one media person was there. And I also made the point that on the same day, MLive ran a story letting everyone know that it was National Chocolate Cake Day.”

A self-stated “anti-capitalist,” Smith also says that the current dearth of quality investigative stories is a direct result of a media system that’s dictated by profits rather than community needs.

“Look, I get it,” Smith says. “I’m empathetic to what journalist are going through. I think ultimately that it’s hard to find funding sources if systems of power find what you do in any way as threatening. And I’m not suggesting that people just do it for free, just out of passion, although I think that’s possible.”

“To me, that’s always an indicator though,” he adds. “If what we’re doing in media doesn’t at all threaten or challenge power then what are we doing?”

Rapid Growth Media isn’t the only newer digital publication in Grand Rapids: There’s also the Grand Rapids Community Media Center’s The Rapidian, which publishes stories of “citizen journalism” by unpaid volunteer writers.

Although The Rapidian’s outgoing managing editor Holly Bechiri — who announced that she was leaving her position between Rapid Growth’s interview and the publication of this article — says that the publication, which is funded through the nonprofit Community Media Center, was inspired in part by the “no-barriers” social media journalism that took place during the Arab Spring, The Rapidian differs from that definition of “citizen journalism” by requiring its writers to undergo training with an editorial mentor in order to adhere to more traditional journalistic standards.

Bechiri says that The Rapidian does not maintain an editorial calendar in the manner of a traditional publication, except for its “Place Matters” series, and that she is regularly unaware of what stories will appear until they come across her desk shortly before publication.

She says that the publication generally has as many as 60 to 80 active citizen journalists at any one time — meaning writers that have published a story within the last six months—although she says many of them are one-time contributors who publish around one particular issue or event of interest.

“It is definitely directed by citizen journalists,” she says. “We explain it as, we’re an open and welcoming platform to all voices. We will get your story published as long as it follows two guidelines: it has to be about the Grand Rapids community — so GR and suburbs that are touching GR — and two, it has to follow journalism ethics and standards.”

With unpaid “citizens journalists” adhering to traditional practices, though, do the people behind The Rapidian ever worry that they’re devaluing work from professional reporters? Bechiri says that she has received negative reaction to The Rapidian’s model of using primarily unpaid writers, but likens working for the publication to any other kind of volunteer work.

She also says that she’s never heard any specific feedback from professional journalists that The Rapidian is “taking work” from professional writers, and she doesn’t believe that a story being covered in The Rapidian would prevent any of the more traditional publications from paying a writer to work the same story.

“You believe something is important, so you want to invest your time because you want to do that for free, and it’s a nonprofit that can’t afford to pay you,” she says. “Do I think that’s the best way we could do it? If we had the funding to pay people I would do it in a heartbeat. In the meantime, though, it’s a volunteer position the same as any other.”

Like Rapid Growth, The Rapidian also accepts sponsorship for its stories, and Bechiri says she’s had to have challenging conversations with sponsors regarding editorial control. She says that it’s incumbent on publications that accept sponsorship to maintain especially strict ethical standards in setting the rules and expectations for underwriters.

“Sponsorship [for The Rapidian] means you support this free speech platform and agree not to direct what we decide to publish or not to publish,” she says. “They have no say on that, which sometimes takes them by surprise.”

The Rapidian publishes a full list of its sponsors on the web here.

Like GVSU’s O’Kelly, Bechiri says she sees consumer apathy as perhaps the biggest enemy that quality journalism faces today. She says that she doesn’t view The Rapidian’s model as a replacement for professional staffers who can undertake middle-of-the-night breaking news reporting or labor-intensive and time-consuming investigative work, but doesn’t know where such work will come from if consumers won’t fund it with purchasing power.

“I know a lot of people complain about journalism, but no one wants to pay for it,” she says. “So I don’t know what to tell you. You cannot expect high level, long-form investigative journalism all the time when you don’t want to pay for the paper. I mean that’s how that happened: the whole community was investing in local media and so they were able to do those necessary services for the community.”

Interestingly, O’Kelly and Jeff Smith both mention changes in pre-college education as one possible remedy for the struggles of modern journalists. Smith sees education in media literacy as important, noting that most students graduate high school without ever receiving any kind of training on how to interact with and critically evaluate the news. O’Kelly, meanwhile, sounds a similar note in critiquing the fall of civics education in schools.

“There’s a lack of interest in hard news, and I think that’s partly because we’ve stopped talking about it from the earliest stages of education,” O’Kelly says. “There’s no more civics class, for instance, and you see the effects of that. I had to explain to my class the other day how property taxes work and why school board elections matter.”

“I don’t know if that’s the fix,” he continues, “but maybe if we can get some of that back in the curriculum then maybe we can go back to people saying: ‘Hey, wait a minute, I’m not getting what I need to be an informed citizen.’”

Steven Thomas Kent is a freelance features writer at Rapid Growth Media. He also contributes to the Los Angeles-based news site ATTN: and previously edited the Grand Rapids-based food quarterly Roadbelly. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steventkent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird @AdamBirdPhoto
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