Urban-Affairs Reporting in the WSJ

The Journal deserves a nod for a good inside-the-paper story on Detroit public schools’ using free food, celebrity visits and a chance to win an IPod and other prizes to get kids into school on a day when a student headcount determines state funding.

The stakes were especially high for the Detroit Public Schools, where Wednesday’s carnival atmosphere masked grim financial realities. Enrollment has plummeted roughly 50% in the past decade, contributing to a $259 million deficit this year that has put the district on the brink of bankruptcy.

The piece catches readers up on the context: a financial czar appointed by the governor is using emergency powers to stave off bankruptcy, root out corruption, and stabilize enrollment, which has been falling faster than population for years. A graphic at the bottom says it all: In 2001-2002, the district had 160,000 students; this school year it’s expected to have 84,000.

The chief, Robert C. Bobb, locked in legal battles with the marginalized school board, has been resorting to unorthodox methods to reverse the numbers, including ads featuring Bill Cosby, door-to-door visits by Bobb and others, a beefed up security initiative from the city, etc.


Whatever the final count, DPS faces a steep decline in funding from last year, and Mr. Bobb is still struggling to align the district’s finances with its enrollment, which is sinking faster than the city’s population. At least two-thirds of students lost by Detroit public schools switch to local charter schools or suburban districts that admit Detroit students.

Not to make too much of it, but this 800-word piece, by Alex P. Kellogg, follows periodic WSJ stories on Detroit, all of them admittedly gloomy, but illuminating in their way:

“Detroit Schools on the Brink,” July 21.

“Detroit School Woes Deepen,” August 13.

And a longer bit by Michael M. Phillips on why the median home price in Detroit is $7,100, September 26.

I’m a big believer in this kind of reporting. Sure, it’s a bummer, but it provides a steady stream of information from blasted parts of the country to the Journal’s affluent and influential audience, and, in some some small way, knits them together. That’s one of the magical things newspapers can do. It’s worth noting that the Detroit stories sparked many heated (if ideological and tedious) comments.

The one downside is that a focus on Detroit might emphasize its anomalous character—as though the rest of the country was okay.

Still, we’ve knocked the Murdoch Journal plenty, and will discuss deeper and troubling trends in upcoming posts.

But if urban-affairs reporting is part of the package, that’s to be encouraged.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.