Editor’s Note: The Center for Michigan recently convened a panel of about a dozen former Michigan journalists who’ve left the profession. Our topic: ways to reinvigorate civics-minded journalism in an era when it is growing more and more difficult to make a living by working for the traditional media outlets. The panel we convened certainly doesn’t have all the answers, but we’re working on several ideas for expanded coverage of Michigan issues. One of those at the table is Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review. Here’s what he has to say…
By Ken Winter
When I look across my classrooms and see so many community college students financially struggle to get an education, I wonder how our dysfunctional state government serves them to become Michigan’s future workforce and leaders.
No Michigan Promise scholarships for them and some 96,000 college students, Michigan’s already financially troubled 519 K-12 school districts getting yet a second cut of approximately $127 per-pupil in state school funding after just getting whacked $165 per-pupil on Oct. 1.
Because of the same partisan bickering, North Central Michigan College in Petoskey has fallen victim for seven years to not receiving its promised state match to upgrade its health and science facilities for biology, chemistry, physics and nursing that were built in the 1960s. More space is also needed to meet program demands.
A registered nurse graduating from our college’s two-year program can earn an estimated $84,000 annually in the Petoskey area. There is a waiting list for students to enter nursing and other allied health programs to fill open positions in a state exceeding 15% unemployment—the highest in the nation.
Why? Because politics has taken over good public policy in Michigan. There’s more interest in advancing one’s personal political agenda than helping everyone through the state’s worse economy since the Great Depression.
This is only a snapshot of what’s happening across Michigan. Unfortunately, these stories hardly surface in today’s news because there are fewer reporters because news organizations have dramatically reduced newsroom staffs.
A former Lansing-based state government reporter recently observed that state government coverage by Michigan’s largest news organizations continues to diminish. This is also true across in state capitals across the country.
“In the mid-1980s, for the example, the Detroit News Lansing Bureau had a dozen journalists—a number now down to three (reduced more last month),” he wrote. “The Booth Newspapers chain (formerly eight dailies now seven) virtually eliminated its Lansing bureau. No Detroit TV station has staff full-time in Lansing. Michigan is part of a national trend in reduced state government coverage.”
Unfortunately, the general public is not aware of this because it continues to see what it believes to be solid news coverage appearing in their local newspapers, broadcasts and 24/7 news cycles. Too often now, a lot of news comes from press releases and blog sites created by politicians and lobbyists that go unchallenged by the press before being published or broadcast.
For example in the State Aid Fund debate, I rarely read that Lansing lawmakers have allowed tax exemptions from 1994 to 2002 that has resulted reduced collections of $85.7 million in from sales and use taxes in Fiscal Year 2002 alone
If the public were aware of this, would there be more pressure to remove tax exemptions before cutting $54 million from the education budget and looking for additional tax increases to raise state revenues? Knowing that 38 current state senators and more than 70 percent of Michigan House of Representatives will be gone by January 2011, would this be a time for citizens to push for the elimination of those special interest tax exemptions?
The lack of press coverage goes beyond just the governor and state legislature; it’s vanished from state agencies and other organizations having impact on Michigan government and citizens. The lack of good enterprise and investigative reporting is a threat to our democracy.
Ken Winter is a journalism and political science Instructor for North Central Michigan College and Michigan State University’s Red Cedar National Writing Project. He is the
former Editor and Publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and past president of the Michigan Press Association. He is also currently a CMU political science graduate student.