When was the last time you heard of a local TV newscast airing a 10-and-a-half-minute story? How about airing that story four times as viewers and online readers caught wind of it?
You have to understand that WJBK’s Charlie LeDuff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who worked previously at The New York Times and also as a school teacher, a carpenter, and a cannery hand in Alaska.
Now on TV in Detroit, he is a crusader for justice in a way that can unsettle some. His stories are laced with opinion, judgment, investigative reporting and occasionally wry humor. He has shown up on TV wearing a white T-shirt and sunglasses, looking like Errol Flynn as “Zorro.”
“I think that Charlie has become a hero in Detroit,” Dana Hahn, WJBK Vice President of News, told me. “He is like a celebrity. People say he is kind of fighting for the little guy.”
LeDuff, with his photojournalist partners, golfed his way across Detroit to expose just how broken the community had become. The one-hole, par 3,168, 18-mile course would take him through abandoned houses, vacant lots and a 3.5 million square foot abandoned auto plant, which LeDuff says is the biggest abandoned factory in the world.
“Right from the get go, I’m realizing this here might be the stupidest idea I’ve ever had,” he said in the story. “It’s 100 degrees, I’m wearing black, and I can’t golf. But I’m committed because they’re talking of reinventing this city.”
He continues, “What does the city even really look like, block-by-block. Who lives here, what do they want, what do they need? Has anybody asked them? Besides, how many cities are so empty that you can take a full-on swing?”
Pretty quickly, the viewer comes to understand that this is not just a silly stunt by a creative crew. Along the “course,” LeDuff listens to the frustrations of Detroiters who say they can’t get the city to listen up or clean up.
One woman watching Charlie chip a shot into and out of an abandoned house shouted, “That is a good-ass use for that house because they won’t tear ’em down, they won’t do nuttin; they won’t cut the grass.”
While golfing, he saw huge tracks of city-owned land overgrown with weeds, “There’s not enough money under heaven to get all of that grass cut,” LeDeff told me. Neighbors are beyond frustrated, they are losing hope that their city can ever restore itself.
“My idea was to go around the city and see what people want, what are their frustrations, let’s have a neighborly conversation,” LeDuff said. “I am showing up for no reason except to say, ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘How are you looking at stuff?”’
WJBK photographers Bob Schedlbower, Chris Sherban and Matt Phillips not only had to hump their gear through abandoned lots, crumbling houses and a burning, abandoned factory, they acted as LeDuff’s producers and ball-spotters. Together, they shot seven hours of video. Hahn wanted to turn the experience into a half-hour special, but LeDuff convinced her that this was more like “reality news” and belonged on a regular newscast.
Things get serious. Guys sitting on a porch tell Charlie they are sick of City Hall. A businessman says he is arming himself with an assault rifle.
Charlie and his crew played through the crumbling and sometimes burning Packard plant. Abandoned in 1956, it is so big that international tourists come by to see it.
“How is this thing still standing here?” LeDuff asks me. “I suppose Rome and Athens are cool, but we should not be a city where people come by to see our ruins, to see what we once were? That should make us angry.”
“Yes, I learned about abandonment,” LeDuff said, “But I learned about hope too.”
“It has been a crazy reaction,” Hahn said. The story aired during the week of July 4th, when viewership is down. So the initial reaction bubbled up online interest as the story went viral well beyond the reach of the TV signal.
Hahn says the station saw tens of thousands of new unique users watch the video, despite conventional wisdom that says online users are most interested in short videos of kittens and celebrities.
“The point of this story is to get people kind of talking,” she said. “A lot of people are just down on Detroit. That piece does not show much hope but when you meet the people on the streets, despite where we have come from, where we are now, it is the people of city who will have the power to get us where we go next.”
LeDuff closes the piece saying, “I am thinking back to what I saw behind me. A city, its people, holding on. Waiting for a savior, a savior who might not be coming, I wonder if people know the savior might be found within themselves, their neighbors, maybe, their families most definitely. The saying is true: No man is an island.”
This story is spiced with silliness and theatrics. There is a lot that journalism purists will criticize. I could live without the fake sportscast and weather clips. And still, this story moves me.
Detroit is one of many cities in deep financial trouble. Just this month, three California cities filed for bankruptcy. Add to that list Central Falls, Rhode Island and Jefferson County, Alabama. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Boise County, Idaho tried to claim bankruptcy but a court would not let them. (See a map of bankrupt cities in the U.S.)
As I watched LeDuff’s story, I wondered how many reporters would be as comfortable as he is talking to everyday folks, wandering through parts of town without a Starbucks, the parts of town journalists usually only visit when police lights are flashing.
LeDuff took a swing at trying to get viewers interested in what is really happening in his city. Isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do?