Detroit ReportersHit 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

mmalone@nbmedia.com | @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.”