How do you cover a bankrupt city?

Reporters from Detroit's two dailies on chasing a "life-altering, precedent-setting" story

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.”

More advice: Learn to read corporate financial reports. Make sure you can access and decipher court filings. “And open a PACER account,” Snell added “You’ll need it. Bankruptcy court records are expensive.”

The Freep also invested in a subscription to Bond Buyer, a trade publication covering the municipal bond market. “It was fairly expensive—$700 a year—but the paper didn’t flinch. We got a number of good tips from it,” Bomey said. Tapping those sources of expertise allows reporters to bring added scrutiny to the budget. “So many cities are hiding [risks to their] financial health,” Bomey adds. “What financial tricks are they using to look good?”

“For whoever’s covering bankruptcy, it can be intimidating, yes,” he said. “But it’s all about people—bondholders, lawyers, politicians, the community. It’s a people story. Once you realize that, you see it’s an incredibly rich story. It’s also a wild amount of work.”

Attacking the story

Collaboration is key for the reporting teams to strategize the bankruptcy story.

“There is a lot of adjusting on the fly and a lot of flexibility required to respond to breaking news off the court docket,” Snell said. “When we have exclusives and breaking news, our editors have been great in freeing us up for bankruptcy coverage and enlisting colleagues to jump in and backfill our regular beats or team up on bankruptcy stories.”

Snell pointed to a special section the News put together on six decades leading up to today’s crisis, viewed through the lens of one street in Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. It took massive staff time away from other news, but it was worth it, he said. “The bankruptcy is life-altering and precedent-setting for the city, residents, municipal workers and the bond market. We realize how big of a story this is and that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from a news perspective.”

To keep up with the incredible fund of documents the bankruptcy is unleashing, the Free Press also depends on teamwork. “You couldn’t possibly keep track of all this stuff on your own,” Gallagher said. The business staff keeps track of court filings, tipping other reporters to what they need to know. The staff also files FOIA requests for what’s not coming out.

Bomey and Gallagher’s “How Detroit Went Broke” report relied on 50 years of financial data. Nearly everything more than decade old was still on paper and unavailable online, so the pair analyzed 40 years of information in library archives. They “lost a few hairs” along the way, Bomey said, but in the process developed a financial database that proved pivotal for their remarkable report.

“You’d think anything before the internet doesn’t exist,” Bomey said. “That’s not the case. It takes legwork, but it’s out there. And the library’s your friend.”

The Freep will mine the database it created for future bankruptcy stories, but Bomey said the paper plans to eventually make the information public.

For all its benefits, collaboration also threatens confusion, overlap, and stepped-on toes. But the Freep’s team says the story is big enough that internal rivalries have not been an issue. “There’s so much to cover, no one’s saying, ‘Oh, it’s my story.’ Everyone’s getting their own share of bylines,” Gallagher said.

“I think we’ve all tried to be as collegial and generous as possible about divvying up the workload, and not at all territorial,” adds Helms. “There’s just so much to do—take-out stories, daily court coverage, deep investigative and enterprise stories, as well as pulling off big scoops.”

There’s no denying that the scale of the story takes time away from other work—especially in a Freep newsroom that, at about 190 people, is smaller than it was even a few years ago.

“We’re all working overtime shifts and doing our best to keep up with other beats,” Helms said. “Three of our business reporters are also our main automotive reporters, and I can tell you they struggle to keep up with their ‘real jobs’ on top of bankruptcy duties.”

Arts writer Mark Stryker said in an email that “The challenge—and I suspect everyone here feels this tension—is to balance the demands of the bankruptcy story with other beat responsibilities… Of course some stories and reviews that I would typically be doing have gone by the wayside.”

“That’s the reality of the industry today,” he added. “We have always had to make choices, but the pressures become more intense when you find yourself engulfed in a story of this magnitude.”

A little healthy competition

Both the Freep and the News have fewer resources than they once did. But the old dailies still do the lion’s share of important public affairs journalism, and Detroit is still a two-newspaper town—and that brings a little healthy competition to the bankruptcy coverage. “There are two major dailies in Detroit and we are fighting like hell to tell this story and break news,” said HelmsSnell.

The Free Press has had the upper hand, dating back to being the first to report the declaration of a financial emergency in Detroit, and first to report that Gov. Rick Snyder had selected Orr as emergency manager in March. A week before Orr’s formal appointment, the team collaborated on a major Sunday profile, with reporters contributing from Florida, Washington D.C., and Detroit. (Unfortunately, these stories are no longer available for free online, which is also the case for much of the News’ important work. One wishes an exception to the paid archives would be made for a navigable collection of the papers’ bankruptcy coverage, as it is an unfolding story.)

The Free Press also broke the news that Orr’s pre-bankruptcy offers could be for as little as 10 cents on the dollar to some creditors, and the paper was hours ahead of other outlets in reporting in July that Detroit would indeed file for Chapter 9. In a great catch on the Freep’s Facebook page, the paper also noted how the city appeared to have fast-tracked its filing to beat a planned pensioners’ lawsuit that would have put a stop to the city’s ability to file: on the bankruptcy paperwork, the date looked to have been scratched out and rewritten by hand.

While the Free Press has led the way on the bankruptcy story, the News and other outlets have had scoops of their own. The Freep’s Helms said that “coverage of court proceedings and the strategies for the battle over pension cuts has been particularly cut-throat with the News.” Bomey tipped his hat to Snell in particular.

Snell broke several stories about alleged corruption, a risky Wall Street deal back by Kilpatrick, and the battle between pension officials and Kevyn Orr; the News has focused on the city’s pension funds as the pillar of its bankruptcy coverage. Snell also broke the incredible story about Orr inviting Wall Street bondholders to take a bus tour of Detroit while under armed guard—but only after signing a waiver “indemnifying the city if anyone is injured or killed during the roughly four-hour tour,” as the article put it.

This isn’t just a cross-town newspaper war, though. HelmsSnell acknowledges that some national outlets—namely, The New York Times, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg—“all have ace reporters who live here and have written important stories.”

But the Free Press’ frustration with poor national coverage inspired its “Truth About Detroit” series, which truth-squads “some of the lesser efforts by the big guys,” as Helms put it. On the receiving end of scrutiny from the Freep’s factchecks: a Bloomberg story suggesting that 50,000 stray dogs roam Detroit, a 60 Minutes report crediting Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert with the entirety of downtown Detroit’s revitalization, and Rush Limbaugh’s claims that former mayor Coleman Young is at fault for Detroit’s problems.

“A lot gets tossed out about city, like the idea that no one lives here, when [Detroit’s population] is the size of Cleveland and Pittsburgh combined,” Gallagher said. He found a Daily Show segment, “Chapter 9 Mile,” to be on point in its satire of national broadcasters parachuting into the story. (In July, I joined a roundtable on WDET, the local public radio station to discuss national coverage of Detroit.)

“One of the main lessons of Detroit’s bankruptcy was that old, simplistic narratives don’t amount to much, particularly those about unions and the dominance of one party [the Democrats] in the city’s political leadership,” Helms said. “Detroit is a complex place with a complicated history, and it deserves to be told fully.”

The audience and the impact

So what is the audience for all this journalistic effort? Gallagher said he notices an incredible level of interest in what the city could look like in its future. “This is a story about federal bankruptcy court, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the municipal bond market in New York, and kitchen tables in Detroit,” he said.

But he added that the audience for the bankruptcy story has two camps: as he describes it, there is the group that sees it as a painful but necessary process, and there is a group that sees it as “a plot by Republican governor to steal assets, bust unions, and deprive black people of votes.

“Trying to mediate [between those camps] is difficult,” Gallagher added. “A lot of people don’t believe anything we print. This is not an entirely rational story. It can be hot-headed, and emotional. … It’s a very unusual political moment in Detroit right now. It’s not just a numbers game.

His colleague Bomey said that social media has been useful to track engagement with the bankruptcy story—and what he’s seen offers motivation for journalists to aim high.

Thinly sourced, sensational coverage like the 50,000-stray-dogs story can go viral, Bomey said. But his investigation with Gallagher on the lead-up to bankrupcy “got an unbelievable amount of sharing”—according to Muckrack, more than 17,000 social media shares. The lesson, Bomey says: “People are looking for in-depth analysis.”

Correction: Two statements made by Robert Snell of The Detroit News were incorrectly attributed to Matt Helms of the Detroit Free Press in the original version of this story. The errors have been corrected. CJR regrets the errors.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , , , , , , ,