DETROIT, MI — Is Detroit the newsiest city in America? You could make a case for it. Between the largest municipal bankruptcy filing ever; the appointment of an emergency manager; ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s racketeering conviction; a mayoral election; and the resignation of three city council members, reporters for the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News have had to hustle to keep pace this year.
The major metropolitan dailies made big changes to cover the bankruptcy, which emergency manager Kevyn Orr filed for in July. This month, creditors, pensioners, and city representatives make their cases in a trial to determine Detroit’s eligibility for bankruptcy, perhaps setting a precedent for troubled municipalities around the nation.
Between daily news and in-depth investigations, Detroit reporters have an endless stream of extraordinary stories to tackle. Among them: “How Detroit Went Broke,” an investigation by Free Press reporters Nathan Bomey and John Gallagher that prompted CJR’s applause. The bankruptcy process—with its thousands of pages of legal filings and creditor reports—is also unexpectedly shedding light on information the papers had been trying to get for years, Bomey said. For example: The city’s average police response times (58 minutes) had been obscured for a long time, but was volunteered in Orr’s June report to creditors, which the Freep published online.
So, three months into the morass, it’s worth asking: How do you cover a bankrupt city—particularly when the local news engines themselves are strapped for resources?
Setting the stage
Months ahead of time, Free Press staff discussed how the newsroom would adapt if the city filed for Chapter 9 protection, the provision in federal law governing municipal bankruptcy. “There were discussions about assigning lead reporters or even hiring a new reporter to focus solely on bankruptcy court, but in the end we brought together a large team of current reporters with broad skill sets,” said Matt Helms, City Hall reporter, in an email. He, the other City Hall reporter, and four business reporters make up the core “bankruptcy beat.” Arts writer Mark Stryker is tapped for his expertise on the Detroit Institute of Arts, which appears vulnerable in creditor negotiations. Editorial columnists and graphics staff also contribute. To coordinate it all, the Free Press holds meetings on the bankruptcy story every Tuesday afternoon, with 20 or 30 people in attendance. “Everyone from the food critic on down is expected to contribute if they have a story,” said Gallagher.
“We say what we’ve got,” Bomey said about the meetings. “If one of our competitors broke a story, [publisher] Paul Anger might be there to talk about it, or read us the riot act.”
The Detroit News also planned a team approach. Robert Snell, federal courts reporter, leads a reporting team from Metro, Business, Features, and Sports. They collaborate through daily meetings while one editor, Kelley Root, oversees all bankruptcy coverage. Root works closely with the News’ web editor to edit and post stories, coordinate photos and video, and plan social media. Business reporters cover the city’s credit ratings and the impact of healthcare changes for city employees and retirees, while the arts reporter competes with Stryker on the DIA story. The sports desk covers how the bankruptcy impacts the city’s pro teams, as well as plans for a new hockey arena downtown. The News’ state capital reporter, City Hall reporters, and D.C bureau chief are also key players.
Both papers benefit from experience covering stories that broke on a 24-hour news cycle over many months, including the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler and the Kilpatrick trial. Snell noted that the News “adopted the Kilpatrick trial blog format for all bankruptcy hearings.” (See it here.)
While many reporters were steeped in expertise about Chapter 11 bankruptcy after covering the auto industry, Chapter 9 filings are unique. The newsrooms prepared accordingly—and the lessons they learned may help reporters covering other municipalities flirting with Chapter 9.
The News “brought in a Chapter 9 expert to brief reporters on the law and what to expect, which was an invaluable help in the weeks leading up to the city’s filing,” Snell said.
At the Free Press, Helms made a personal study of Chapter 9, focusing especially on other cities that had filed for it. “I also attended a background session by one of the Detroit area’s leading bankruptcy attorneys, and ended up inviting him to make a presentation to the Free Press staff,” Helms said. “That proved really helpful.”
Helms suggested that reporters in a similar situation “work way in advance to identify and have working relationships with the key players,” including politicians, union leaders, bankruptcy lawyers, and creditors and their lawyers. “One of the saving graces was having a fair amount of lead time to get ready,” he said. “Big cities don’t file for bankruptcy without strong hints that it’s coming.”