Frankly, it’s hard to foresee things getting much better nationally for the next year or so. I’m more worried about our country than at any time in my 78-year lifetime.
Oh, sure, Michigan should do pretty well. The auto industry is likely to continue to post robust annual sales numbers, which reached more than 17 million vehicles last year, though perhaps not at the same pace as recent years.
The unemployment rate should continue to inch down. Downtown and Midtown Detroit will continue its upward march.
But under it all, I’m very worried about the underlying foundations of our state — and nation.
On top of my worry list is the continued deterioration of what might be called the mainstream media, particularly newspapers, which for more than a century have served as the essential, impartial chronicle of events and the crucial ingredients of our civil discourse.
When I started out in the newspaper business in the mid-1960’s, there were a couple of busloads-worth of Lansing-based reporters covering the politics and policy of our state.
There are far fewer reporters watchdogging the happenings under the capitol dome these days. Newspapers have suffered round after round of cuts for years now as the Internet, social media, satellite radio and many other competing forces for citizens’ leisure time have eroded the traditional journalism business model and snatched the attention spans of many newspaper readers.
No offense to the ink-stained souls who are still working mightily to keep newspapers alive. But they have fewer and fewer resources at every turn. And most of today’s reporters must run from assignment to assignment, sending social media updates as they go, and have precious little time to think, inquire, or investigate beyond the basics of who, what, when, where and why.
Too many meetings and committee hearings go unwatched. Too many public records go unreviewed. Too many questions go unasked. That’s not the fault of the remaining reporters and editors. But it’s bad for democracy.
Because today’s journalists are simply outnumbered.
Into the void comes plenty of infotainment and fake news – further eroding public focus on truth, justice, and accountability.
These are among the reasons we started Bridge Magazine five years ago – to help bolster journalism and provide nonpartisan, thoughtful, trustworthy news coverage for the many thousands of readers in Michigan who care for our state. We’ve earned a slew of state and national awards, including the “Michigan Press Association Newspaper of the Year.” More important, we’re appealing to Michiganders who want and need trustworthy news coverage: We attracted a million unique visitors to our website last year. (For a comprehensive archive of our stories, go here.)
And, through a new partnership with the Michigan Press Association, newspapers can offer syndicated Bridge content to local readers statewide.
Closely associated with the decline of traditional news media is the ongoing fracturing of our society into separate, mutually exclusive and mistrustful groups in our state, each occupying a distinguishable slice of our demography but with little interest in or understanding of the others: Trump or Clinton or third-party voters, elites of all stripes, urban dwellers, residents of rural Michigan, African Americans, disaffected millennials, Muslim and immigrant families, conservative Christians, the LGBT and the disabled communities.
To a degree previously unmatched, each group is spoken to — and defined — by its own distinctive slice of social media and residential sorting. People tend to live with those like themselves.
Why is this worrying? Just take a quick look at the election just passed, which was by all odds the most virulently nasty in at least the past 50 years. Even here in Michigan, where the voters are generally pretty well-mannered, the partisan gaps yawned wide.
And there’s nothing on the horizon that will fill up the chasms that will dominate the 2018 election, when the governorship, every major statewide office and both houses of the state legislature will be up for grabs.
Unless something changes, the built-in dynamics of the political parties and their special interest allies – aided by a fractured, diminished and pulverized media environment – will surely replicate a version of the embarrassing political process we just endured.
That’s why the Center for Michigan is in the process of widening and deepening its public engagement activities, which since 2007 have involved more than 45,000 Michiganders in small “community conversations” throughout the state. In age, gender, place of residence and race the participants in these bottom-up gatherings have looked just like the diverse face of Michigan and form a truly representative sample of citizen preferences in our state.
This year we hope to develop common ground citizen priorities and policy platforms to help channel election-year rhetoric into constructive, substantive discussion of what’s needed to make Michigan a better place.
To further combat hyper-partisanship and fake news, we are developing a Michigan Facts Guide – 100 fact-checked statistical measures of Michigan’s economy, education system, public health, environment and other quality of life factors. This guide will help ground the public, the candidates for office, the policy makers – not to mention Bridge reporters and our public engagement team – in what is real and what is not in today’s noisy environment.
We’ll also publish a Michigan Solutions Guide that will provide grounding in a wide range of policy reform proposals presented over various years by various experts and groups across the political spectrum. Both will be published this spring.
To understand just why we think these guides are important, remember what happened in the discussions that led to the “Grand Bargain,” the citizen-based deal the cemented Detroit’s return from bankruptcy and laid the foundation for the city’s growth today.
Every element of the stakeholder community in Michigan’s largest city participated in the discussion. Judges, policy experts, academics, newspaper reporters, the business community — all participated in the discussions that led to one of the most extraordinary achievements in Michigan’s history as a civil society.
An achievement, that is, that was also broadly accepted.
We’re going to have to do much the same over the next two years to lay the groundwork for a better Michigan. We need to figure out how to deal with our schools, which by most measures are failing to keep up with those in other states. We need to work out how to support our urban communities, which are presently being strangled by state and tax provisions. We have enormous infrastructure needs – including systems for safe water in Flint and elsewhere.
And most of all, we need to attract, train and retain thousands of America’s best and brightest to help drive our state’s progress.
There is only one way to do all these essential things:
We ALL must learn to work together in developing a citizen agenda for a better Michigan — and in constructing a practical implementation strategy to get it done.
It’s a two-year New Year challenge. And one that will be vitally important to the future of all our citizens.