I’m Mad As Hell and I Don’t Want to Take it Anymore: ABC 12 Loses Key People and We Lose Key Community/Media Relations Professionals

Gwen Ifill is coming to UM-Flint as part of the 2011 Frances Willson Thompson Critical Issues Forum. Ms. Ifill, a highly respected journalist, is coming to campus to speak about the present and future state of journalism. Ironically, she is coming to Flint at a time when local journalism is in crisis.

Local television station ABC 12 said goodbye to their owner, the Disney Corporation on March 31.  On April 1, the broadcasting company SJL took over. SJL is not new to the Flint area–the company owned WJRT back in the early 1990s before selling WJRT to Disney. I worked at WJRT during the SJL years, and while SJL wasn’t the greatest company to work for at the time, the 1990s SJL is nothing like SJL 2011.

Massive cuts are taking place at ABC 12. First, it was the News Director (and my former boss) Jim Bleicher who unexpectedly retired April 1. A couple of days later, it was seven people who worked behind the scenes, some of them for 20-30 years. And then today, a really low blow: anchors Joel Feick and Bill Harris.

Shake-ups in broadcasting are not a new thing. Some say it comes with the territory. But, I am arguing that this is significant for several reasons, and will have long term ramifications and reverberations for media relations, public relations, advertising, and for the community of Genesee County.

I first met Bill, Joel, and Bleicher (everybody in the newsroom called Jim “Bleicher.” In fact, I didn’t know his first name for several months) back in 1989 as a student from UM-Flint. I had the chance to be a full-time intern in production during the summer of 1989 a.k.a the Best Summer of My Life. It was so fun. I learned all about the TV business, working on such assignments as the Buick Open, the Crim, and getting to run camera and do work for the nightly newscasts. The newscasts were where I got to know these three men.

Joel was the nicest guy at the station.  Never a cross word for anyone.  The patience of a saint. Bill knew everything about Flint and had the best “scanner ears” in the place. And Bleicher was the guy who ran the newsroom not with an iron fist, but with a light hand that allowed for input, jokes, and plenty of sports talk. It was an easy place for an intern to fit in and learn.

By the time I arrived, Joel, Bill, and Bleicher had already been there for some time.  None of them are Flint natives–Joel’s from Toledo, Bill from Boston, and Bleicher came from Indiana.  Although they weren’t from here, they stayed here. And they didn’t just stay in Flint.  They made it better.

It’s easy to by cynical about news coverage, but the thing that WJRT has always done better than anyone (and I say this as a former competitor at WNEM) is covering the community. This sense of covering the news that was about the best of Flint really came from Joel, Bill, and Bleicher. It was Bill who will always be known for creating and nurturing Holiday Pops, bringing the Flint Symphony Orchestra and so many other talented people to our televisions each Christmas. Bleicher fostered the commitment to community by green-lighting the extensive coverage of the Crim Festival of Races for many, many years, as well as such things as Back to the Bricks, the grand opening of every major building in town from the new Bishop Airport Terminal to Genesys Hospital and the First Street Residence Hall on the UM-Flint campus. Joel covered many great human interest stories over the years, telling these tales with warmth, compassion, and humor.

These three men have been there for it all. I still remember the night we had to cover the Phil Donahue Show that was in town at the Whiting for the premier of “Roger and Me.” I can vividly recall the extensive coverage of General Motors strikes, and how I learned the language of labor negotiations between GM and the UAW from listening to the work of Bill, Joel, and Bleicher. The three of them know the culture, language, and politics of this town. They would gently correct the new people who would call the city of Clio, “Clee-o.” They could explain the meaning of Chevy in the Hole. They knew the importance of a coney run to Angelo’s on an election night while we would wait for the election returns to come in.

I am upset by their dismissal.  No–I am shaken to my core.

For all that Flint has lost over the years, what has always remained a constant has been ABC 12. Bill, Joel, and Bleicher I’m sure all had opportunities to move on to bigger television markets and very lucrative careers. But they made the choice to stay in Flint.  They made a choice to believe in Flint, to cheer the successes and to cover its tragedies with empathy and professionalism. In losing these three, we are losing something sacred, especially in the realm of community relations.  For all the bad press Flint has received over the years, it was ABC 12 that understood the city the best, its problems, its hopes, its potential. And that takes people who have been here as long as Bill, Joel, and Bleicher.

For those of us who rely on positive media relations, I think the future feels a bit uncertain. It has always been easy to call the assignment desk or a reporter and explain what was happening at the university. The people of ABC 12 listened to our story pitches, and even when they had lots of news to cover, almost always made time to cover the news at UM-Flint. I don’t know if that will be possible anymore because of the cuts that are taking place. This will make it harder for the positive news about the city and its institutions to get out to the rest of the world, whether through a news feed or a Google search. It will be much harder to get the positive voice of community out. Resources are going to be short, and that usually means less positive news, more leading with bleeding. I’m hopeful that I’m wrong about this.

The people who will remain at ABC 12 will have the stress of more work, less help, and I’m sure lowered morale. The people who remain deserve as much community support as those who have left. None of this is their fault.  This is a business model that I’m sure works for those who stand to profit. It is this business model that has diminished the news staff at the Flint Journal and at WEYI.  Even my old station WNEM is moving to a model where everyone is a “One Man Band.” There is content to fill, and it’s more important to fill it with stuff rather than meaning. I do not fault the good people who work in the newsrooms.  It is business.

As citizens, the demise of newsrooms should be a concern to all of us. The press is needed to hold the powerful accountable, and to hold up a mirror to our community, reflecting the days’ events. Flint has lost again as the people of ABC 12 deal with this–what’s the polite word?–reorganization.

I’ll be thinking about all my friends at ABC 12 during Ms. Ifill’s visit. As she speaks with our journalism students who are  hopeful for careers in this field, I know I will feel melancholy, remembering my own carefree days during the summer of ’89 at ABC 12. I wish that’s the way it was. To Bill, Joel, Bleicher, Scott McCrorie, Rob Calef, and all the others who are no longer employed at WJRT but did so much–Good night and good luck.  And thank you.

Jen Hogan