The columnist, a Los Angeles freelancer, is a former Detroit News business reporter. This is republished from his blog, Starkman Approved, with permission.
By Eric Starkman
It was a frigid Montreal day when my sister in suburban Detroit called with a request that ultimately changed my life. My nephew had an elementary school project to interview someone with an interesting job and invite the person to speak to his class. I was flattered that I bested some other family members with more lofty positions and accomplishment.
At the time I was business reporter at The (Montreal) Gazette. As luck would have it, I was scheduled to fly to Toronto for a job interview. My plan was to rent a car there and make the four-hour drive to Detroit, weather permitting. It can be sunny throughout the entire world, but in the winter months you can always count on treacherous snow squalls between Woodstock and Chatham.
My sister knew someone in the Detroit bureau of the Wall Street Journal, and she asked if I might want to meet him. I jumped at the opportunity. In those days the Journal’s Detroit bureau was among the newspaper’s most prestigious assignments and it was overseen by the late Paul Ingrassia, one of the best newsroom managers and mentors in American journalism. Almost everyone who worked for Ingrassia became a superstar; a few went on to win Pulitzers.
I’m not going to mention the WSJ reporter’s name I met with because I’m not certain he’d want me to, but he was the quintessential Journal reporter of those days: confident, polished, and wicked smart. We met on a Friday afternoon in February on an unusually mild Detroit winter day. He took me to Silver’s, an office supply store in a downtown Detroit landmark building that had a good restaurant in the back. The reporter was wearing a perfectly pressed pink Ralph Lauren Oxford shirt.
While eating a tasty Caesar salad I confided to the reporter my dream was to work as a journalist in the U.S., and that I’d work any place that would sponsor me for a so-called green card allowing me residence status. My first journalism job was with the Journal’s Toronto bureau, but the newspaper then had little interest in Canada. The Toronto bureau chief was Ingrassia’s polar opposite; almost everyone who worked for him floundered and quit the paper within a year. I lasted about six months.
After lunch the WSJ reporter suggested we take a walk and soon we were in front of The Detroit News building. He told me that he knew Michael Schroeder, the assistant business editor, and he suggested I look him up. I resisted because I was wearing jeans and a worn T-shirt, hardly appropriate attire for a job interview, particularly to work in the business section. Business journalists in the 80s were expected to wear suits.
“You just told me that your dream was to work in the United States. I just gave you the name of someone who maybe can make that happen,” the WSJ reporter said. Pointing to the front door of The News building, the reporter continued, “If you are serious about wanting to work in the U.S., you’d go in and try to get Schroeder to see you.”
Not wanting to come across as full of BS, I walked in, headed over to security and asked to speak to Mike Schroeder.
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Mike Schroeder was possibly the nicest person to ever work in U.S. journalism. Even in his late 30s Schroeder had a Wilford Brimley warmth and wisdom about him, particularly when he was sporting a bushy moustache, which I believe he was when I first met him. Only an a-hole could have any issues with Schroeder.
In the mid-80s newspapers were in the midst of hiring freezes and gettling hired at any major publication was a formidable challenge, regardless of age and experience. I assumed the News was no different.
“I know you probably have a hiring freeze, but I was hoping you’d keep me in mind if the News ever has an opening,” I said to Schroeder after exchanging pleasantries and thanking him for seeing me.
“What’s your beat?” Schroeder asked.
“I cover banking and finance,” I replied.
“We’re looking for a banking reporter. That was my beat before I became assistant business editor,” Schroeder said.
(YFKM I thought to myself.)
Schroeder asked if he could see my clips.
I didn’t have them with me, but fortunately I brought them to Detroit because of the job interview in Toronto. I told Schroeder my portfolio was in Southfield, a suburb about 20 miles northwest of downtown. It was about 2:45, so I thought I could beat rush hour traffic and easily make it back to The News by 4 with time to spare to change into a suit and tie.
Schroeder agreed to meet with me again, with the caveat that he had a hard stop at 6.
Snow Squalls Formed
The northbound drive took longer because snow squalls began forming, slowing traffic. In my haste to get into the house of my uncle and aunt where I was staying, I tripped the alarm. I was impressed with the speed two Southfield police officers arrived to introduce themselves. They were naturally suspicious about someone with a Quebec driver’s license driving a rented car with Ontario plates claiming to need a portfolio in a Southfield house because of an unexpected job interview. They especially didn’t appreciate me asking if they could make haste running a check on me and calling my uncle to verify my story because I was in a hurry.
The matter was cleared up by around 4:30, and I was delayed another 10 minutes because I couldn’t find my tie. By 4:45 I was back in the car, and southbound traffic on the John Lodge Freeway was clear. I made it back to the News’ newsroom around 5:15.
Schroeder studied my clips intently, asked several insightful questions, and then excused himself to bring in Liz Spayd, the News’ business editor. She asked several questions, and then asked to meet with Schroeder privately. It was already about 6:20, well passed Schroeder’s departure deadline.
Schroeder returned and said he was prepared to offer me a job with the caveat that Ben Burns, the managing editor, had to approve the decision. Burns had left for the day, and I’d have to return to meet with him.
I returned a few weeks later to meet with Burns, a true giant in journalism (he was about 6’ 7”.) The meeting was perfunctory, as Burns said at the outset he trusted Schroeder’s judgment. My meeting with editor Lionel Linder was even shorter, lasting only long enough for him stand up, extend his hand and welcome me aboard.
I was not yet ecstatic, as I was worried that Schroeder didn’t appreciate the time and cost to get me a visa. Turned out my fears were unfounded. Schroeder had already spoken with someone at Butzel Long, The News’ law firm. A meeting with a lawyer had already been lined up.
The lawyer took me to lunch at the Checker Bar, a dive burger place nearby. Over lunch I shared with the lawyer that getting hired at the News was the best thing to ever happen to me. I vowed that if he could pull off getting me a green card, I planned to become a U.S. citizen and I’d throw myself a party at the Checker Bar.
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Getting a temporary work permit was fairly simple and Butzel Long got me one within a matter of weeks. But to secure permanent residence status, The News had to convince the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service I was of unusual talent and ability and that it couldn’t find someone with my comparable skills and talents. In addition to having to advertise my position and disclose to the newsroom what I was being paid, I needed to get exceptionally flattering references from my former editors at the Toronto Star and Gazette, as well as my graduate school journalism professors at Boston University.
It’s one thing to ask someone for a glowing reference. I needed my references to state I was so exceptional that I’d become God’s gift to Michigan journalism. Oh, and would you mind terribly getting your letter notarized because it’s being submitted in a government application?
The process was onerous, as was the cost, which fortunately the News paid for. I felt additional pressure to perform, given the lengths the News went to get me into the country.
Unfortunately, The News was acquired by Gannett, which was – and still is – to journalism what the 99 Cents stores are to retail. Linder and Burns were promptly ousted, replaced with a corporate suit and his deputy who previously ran Gannett’s mediocre papers in Rochester.
The News Was 'Gannettized'
The writing was on the wall that the News was going to be “Gannettized” and reduced to another one of the company’s McPapers. The best people are always the first out the door, and Schroeder started the exodus parade, landing a job at BusinessWeek (and later hired at the Wall Street Journal.) Spayd, who the Gannettoids humiliated with a demotion, joined The Washington Post where she rose to become managing editor. As The News prior to Gannett acquiring it was one of the best and biggest-circulation papers in the country, The News’ best talents had no trouble finding jobs elsewhere and they began leaving in droves.
As I didn’t yet have a green card and my visa was only good for employment at The News, I had to stick it out and work under the most deplorable managers of my career. At one point I nearly cracked and was prepared to resign and move back to Canada, but a colleague named Katie Kerwin took me for a walk and got me refocused on the big green card prize. Kerwin soon quit the paper, taking a job with BusinessWeek and eventually becoming its Detroit bureau chief.
I shouldn’t admit this, but I despised one Gannettoid editor to such a degree that when she once encountered me on a stairwell, I briefly pondered how many years in jail I’d get for pushing her down the stairs. Prior to joining The News I thought unions were for losers, but assurances from guild rep Louis Mleczko that he had my back was a source of great comfort. I’ve been a union supporter ever since.
After landing my green card, I set out with a former colleague to start a tabloid modeled after the Toronto Sun. We couldn’t raise the funding, but an advertising and branding campaign I prepared for the Detroit Sun found its way to the creative director of a local, nationally acclaimed advertising agency then called W.B. Doner. The director offered me a job as a copywriter, and on I whim I accepted.
I had but one regret when I quit The News: I never had the opportunity to produce the sort of journalism the paper represented to the INS I was capable of. I considered it an unpaid debt, an unfulfilled obligation that bothered me for more than three decades.
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After a year in advertising, I moved to New York to become an editor at American Banker, then a nationally respected trade publication, where I worked for an editor who gave the Gannettoids a good run for their money. I went into public relations and eventually founded my own firm, which I ran for about 25 years.
Eventually, I had my fill of New York and tried running the business out of San Francisco, with dwindling interest and success. I relocated to L.A. five years ago planning to pursue a screenwriting career.
A year ago last April I received a call from a friend in Detroit asking how I was surviving the pandemic. In the course of our one-hour conversation he mentioned his daughter was a nurse at Beaumont Royal Oak Hospital, until about a year ago among the best hospitals in the country. My friend mentioned in passing that Henry Ford Hospital was paying its nurses considerably more in hazard pay to work during the pandemic. The pandemic pay disparity struck me as odd and newsworthy, since Beaumont was bigger and catered to a more affluent patient clientele.
My longtime friend and former Detroit News colleague Allan Lengel is the co-founder and editor of Deadline Detroit, an alternative online publication focused on southeastern Michigan. As a favor to Allan, I planned on banging out a simple story about Henry Ford paying its nurses considerably more hazard pay to work during the pandemic. I figured it would take me less than an hour to turn around the story.
Instead, I produced more than 50 critical stories about Beaumont and its top managers. While putting together the initial story I quickly realized that something was very much amiss at Beaumont, and that it was a tainted corporate onion calling to be peeled away. I soon developed relationships with dozens of conscientious insiders who wanted it publicly known the hospital’s once renowned quality of patient care was eroding. I admired how they were willing to risk their jobs hoping to save the hospital and patient lives. Gaining their trust and telling their stories is what journalism is all about.
Fellow Canadian John Fox
In short order I was writing about surgeons being pressured to using medical devices they considered inferior, a controversial outsourcing anesthesia firm the co-heads of Beaumont’s cardiology department had “serious concerns” about, a nationally respected pediatric chief who was fired for protesting budget cuts, a prominent lawyer and donor warning Michigan’s clueless attorney general that Beaumont was potentially “another Flint,” a healthy 51-year-old patient who died undergoing a routine colonoscopy, nurse anesthetists who played a Wharton MBA for a fool, and drug infusion pumps at Beaumont and most other major hospitals the FDA has repeatedly warned are hazardous and known to result in injuries and deaths. Beaumont CEO John Fox graciously offered encouragement along the way, calling me a “psycho blogger,” “a mudslinging machine who’s only interested in the next bucket of mud,” and falsely alleging that I had possible secret Russian connections.
Interestingly, Beaumont’s John Fox also hails from Ontario, where I, too, was born. And despite all the bad publicity, not to mention a hospital survey that revealed the majority of Beaumont doctors had no faith in Fox and his deputies, Beaumont’s board is steadfastly loyal to him.
Last Tuesday, the Detroit Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists awarded my Beaumont coverage first prize in health reporting among its 2021 Excellence in Journalism awards. The award was a validation I’ve long sought to prove to Mike Schroeder, the legions of other Detroiters who believed and supported me, and to the INS that their faith in me and my journalism abilities was deserved and well placed.
I still have one more obligation to Detroit I need to fulfill: My citizenship party at the Checker Bar. I took my oath of citizenship in November 2013 while living in San Francisco. I threw a celebration party at my San Francisco condo, but it didn’t feel quite right because no Detroiters were there to mark the occasion.