Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Make no mistake: Detroit’s bankruptcy, the largest municipal bust in American history, puts the future of our entire state at risk. Although it’s easy enough for some people to claim that it would be better if Detroit sank into Lake St. Clair, the fact is that Michigan as a whole can never again prosper if its largest city remains a sinkhole of poverty, despair, corruption and violence.
The good news is that the positive response to this crisis has been unprecedented. An extraordinary coalition of foundations, both local and national, has pledged hundreds of millions to help the city. Overturning decades of conventional political wisdom, Mike Duggan — a white guy brought up in nearly all-white Livonia - has been elected mayor of Detroit, whose population is more than 80 percent black. And Rick Snyder, a Republican governor, is trying to persuade a sometimes Detroit-phobic Legislature to put $350 million into a “grand bargain” to help save the Detroit Institute of Arts — and ease the post-bankruptcy burden of city retirees.
And not least in all this: The launch Jan. 30 of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, a group of non-profit news outfits working together to share “data-driven, solutions-based journalism that deepens public understanding of Detroit’s journey through bankruptcy and engages residents in the revival of this once-powerful city.”
Those words are those of David Zeman, editor of the Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, which is partnering with WDET-FM, Michigan Radio, Detroit Public TV and New Michigan Media to pool hundreds of years of journalistic experience to help Michiganders understand the roots of Detroit’s crisis and provide insights the city’s future. The Cooperative is being funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
The intent is to provide news coverage that complements that now being provided by the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and local radio and TV. To mark this, Bridge Magazine released last Thursday its first contribution to this collaboration, a series of articles intended to provide fact-based benchmarks to help Michigan citizens to understand just where things stand in Detroit as of early 2014.
The goal is to judge progress (or lack of it) as time goes on. Data from Bridge articles indicates the situation isn’t pretty:
n Of the city’s total revenue today, 42 percent goes to meet legacy costs such as retiree pensions and health care, a huge rise from 30 per cent in 2006.
n Detroit pays $129.1 million annually to service long-term debt, double the amount 10 years ago.
n A 2012 Detroit News poll found that 40 percent of Detroiters want to move out of the city within five years. Why? Forty percent of streetlights don’t work; 40 percent of city buses are broken; an estimated 78,000 vacant housing units spawn blight and crime.
n The city spends $800 million on police, fire and EMS services, but police response time in 2013 averaged 58 minutes, nearly five times the national average. Only 18.6 percent of crimes were “cleared” by arrest or prosecution.
n As of last November, unemployment in Detroit was 15.1 percent. Joblessness for youth 20-24 was 40 percent, in part because only two thirds of the city’s population had graduated from high school. Half of Detroiters with jobs work outside the city, but at least one-fourth of the residents don’t have a car; what bus service exists is entirely inadequate to get them to and from work.
n Detroit Public Schools in 2009 registered the worst scores in the entire history of the National Assessment of Progress Test, and math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders were the worst in the nation.
Zeman, an award-winning reporter and editor, pledged that Bridge will establish benchmarks “that we will return to in the months ahead to chart Detroit’s progress and hold public officials accountable. Going forward, we aim to be an indispensable resource for the people of Detroit — who have endured years of mismanagement and broken promises — and to residents across Michigan, who sometimes question how their lives and communities, and tax dollars, are tied to the fate of the state’s largest city.”
This is a terrific challenge for any group of journalists, no matter how talented. But it comes in addition to the other solid stories published by Bridge over the years, including our most recent report of Academic State Champions for Michigan’s K-12 public schools that drew record traffic to the Bridge site last week.
An informed public is the essential “iron core” of a working democracy. At Bridge Magazine, we’re doing our very best to keep that core hard, polished — and free of rust.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.