Detroit Reporters Hit the Bankruptcy Beat

Motor City’s troubles are well-known, but it’s also a heckuva news town

Why This Matters

A Native Son’s Take on Motown

Charlie LeDuff, reporter at WJBK Detroit, returned to his print roots with the book “Detroit: An American Autopsy”. The result is an unflinching look at the deep ills that plague LeDuff’s hometown. It’s also a look at a resilient people whose stories otherwise would go untold.

LeDuff is a ballsy investigative reporter and master storyteller. Both gifts are on display in scenes such as his visit to the shack where a homeless man found frozen in an elevator shaft had lived, where a copy of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” sat next to a pair of reading glasses.

Having worked in New York and Los Angeles, LeDuff says Detroit is “Candyland” for reporters. There are bizarre stories seemingly around every corner, and residents, as well as civil servants, seek out the media to shine lights in the shadows.

“Detroit” is a wholly compelling memoir as well, detailing the author’s family’s struggles. It concludes with LeDuff facing his darkest of demons— visiting the spot where his sister, a sometime prostitute, died, and finding hope from an unlikely source.

The reporter says he comes from a “drive-through” neighborhood in a “flyover” part of the country. “But we matter,” he says of his motivation for writing the book. “I want this place to work for my daughter.”—MM | @BCMikeMalone

It is a unique challenge for the Detroit TV newsrooms—tackle
a historic story that essentially comes down to paperwork, courthouses and lawyers, and inject a human
element into the thorny, highly
divisive issue. That’s what local
TV in DMA No. 11 is doing
every day as reporters follow the
city’s unprecedented bankruptcy
filing, as well as ferreting out—
and playing up—the positive
developments in the famously troubled market.
“Clearly this is a very, very big story,”
says Marla Drutz, VP and general manager
at WDIV. “But there are faces and people to
the story; it’s not just court filings.”

 Why This Matters
Detroit TV reporters are  among the first in the nation to cover a major  city's bankruptcy, but they  may not be the last.

The Chapter 9 filing has been a massive
story—nationwide and certainly in Detroit—
since it broke July 18. Post-Newsweek’s
WDIV went directly to its 4 p.m. news that
day, which did a 7.6 household rating/18
share—around 10% more than a typical day.

Airing a whopping 64 hours of local news
per week, Fox’s WJBK had plenty of airtime
to dedicate to the bankruptcy as well. “Every
day, there’s a story to be told about the
bankruptcy and how it affects people,” says
Dana Hahn, VP of news. “It’s
in every newscast, and in the
lead position when it needs to
be. But there’s a lot of breaking
news in this town.”

Indeed, there is. A scan of the
station websites last week showed
lead stories about an elderly woman
being robbed at a market (WJBK), a Tigers
ballplayer facing a drug suspension (WXYZ)
and the jarring headline “10 People Shot Over
Last 12 Hours in Detroit” (WDIV).

Yet Detroit is very much a tale of two submarkets:
the struggling city and the prosperous
suburbs, and views on bankruptcy are
pretty much split along the famed 8 Mile
border that separates them. (Generally
speaking, city residents are mistrustful of the
process, say residents, while suburbanites
see it as inevitable.) City residents comprise
around 16%-18% of the market, says Drutz,
whose station is located downtown.

The bankruptcy news does not appear to
affect station revenue, which wasn’t so hot to
begin with. “We’ve seen modest growth in the
first half,” says Tom Canedo, VP and general
manager at WWJ-WKBD. “I hear cautious
optimism from the business community.”

The latest chapter in Detroit’s sad saga is
unlikely to affect recruiting talent either, say
station chiefs. Whether it’s crime, corruption
or the cache of the storied Big 3 automakers,
reporters see Detroit as a newsgathering
paradise. “Years ago, agents
would [lament], ‘Oh…Detroit,’” says Hahn.
“Now people actually want to move here.”

The reporters are also gaining valuable experience
in what might be a troubling national
trend: cities following Detroit into bankruptcy.
“This is Ground Zero for a new kind of city
planning across the country,” says Mike Renda,
WJBK VP and general manager.

The stations will continue to find the human
angles to bankruptcy, such as retired civil
servants facing slashed pensions, while leavening
that with stories of corporations moving
downtown and slum blocks being rebuilt. The
experience only stands to make Detroiters
more battle-tested. “This town knows how to
take a punch,” says Drutz. “It knows how to
dust itself off and get back to work.”