Dying Journalism and Deadly Water

Flint is a preview of a world where accountability is no longer profitable

Aviv Ovadya


The water in Flint was so bad that parents bathed their kids in bottled water to avoid rashes. How were officials able to dismiss their complaints for almost a year and a half?

The water crisis was caused by complex systemic failures, but the effects were simple, undrinkable, visible, and deadly. A strong free press should have pushed back. It should have done a better job of holding the government accountable. Why didn’t it? I was curious to learn more, and did some research about the state of journalism in the city. This is what I found.

Massive layoffs

The Flint Journal is the only newspaper in Flint, Michigan.

In 2009, the newspaper laid off 35% of their staff.

In 2011, they laid off an additional 91 employees.

As of 2015 there were 10 local reporters.

Note that Flint is not an exception — there were similar downsizings across the country, with many newspapers just closing shop. This is the new status quo for the economics of reporting.

Failed at critical election reporting

One might ask — maybe they just didn’t need that many people? I doubt it. During an election in 2013, the Flint Journal failed to report that a contender for city council had served for 19 years in prison after being convicted for murder.

After the election was over, they apologized for not reporting sooner:

“Here at The Flint Journal, it’s our job to hold people accountable — to talk about when things are good and when they aren’t good enough.

And, today we need to talk about ourselves: We didn’t do good enough. [sic]”

Newspaper or marketing company?

This is the company that now controls the Flint Journal (and many other regional newspapers).

(images and video removed)

In the text that the organization chooses to describe itself, there is no mention of “news” or “journalism.”

What does this mean for accountability everywhere?

In the case of the Flint water crisis, many, many people were directly affected. It still took more than a year of brown undrinkable water coming out of local faucets for anything to change. Could this have been reduced if Flint had more resources for journalism?

We have so many amazing journalists and writers — people who would love to tackle these issues — but they can’t pay rent with love. We need to figure out a way to support their work that works.

Otherwise, what happens to society when there is no functional watchdog to keep local governments and businesses accountable?

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Aviv Ovadya

See aviv.substack.com. BKC & GovAI Affiliations. Prev Tow fellow & Chief Technologist @ Center for Social Media Responsibility. av@aviv.me