Update: NYC Writer Feels The Heat, May Come For 'Flint Fights Back' Follow-up

December 28, 2013, 4:27 PM by  Alan Stamm

Laura Dimon of PolicyMic, founded in 2011.

Manhattan journalist Laura Dimon, hearing howls from Flint and beyond, says she hopes to visit the city she ripped from afar.

The columnist for PolicyMic, a two-year-old site aimed at readers in their 20s, is receiving many dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of emails and tweets about her Thursday post headlined "This is America's Most Apocalyptic, Violent City — And You’ve Probably Never Heard Of It."

Some share polite disagreement, some have sarcasm or insults, one offers a local shirt and a few unfairly conflate the article with her dad's position as the chief executive at JPMorgan Chase.

The 26-year-old writer responds to most tweets with grace and openness, acknowledges she would have liked to see Flint and now is "trying to visit" as she and editors discuss a possible follow-up: 

The T-shirt pitch comes from a Ferndale business called Midwest Lint -- "3 guys born and raised in #Flint producing positive t-shirts about our beloved city. We will gladly send you one." In several tweets, they suggest:

Maybe you can wear one of our t-shirts for your next essay to make it seem like you visited the city.
If you're going to stay on #Flint as a topic, we can point you towards some positivity. It's not all blight.
Use this opportunity and attention to turn a (-) into a (+).

Before the article sparked a firestorm, Dimon fished for a celebrity RT the day it was posted:

Friday night article:

Flint 's "story of depression and decay," as New York journalist Laura Dimon describes it in an online article, is far different from her experience as a child of privilege and wealth.

Dimon, a columnist at a Manhattan digital media start-up called PolicyMic, is one of three daughters of Judith Kent and Jamie Dimon, chairman, president and CEO of JPMorgan Chase -- one of the "too big to fail" banks. The career-starting Dimon has a 2009 psychology degree from Barnard College and a seven-month-old master's from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

None of that means she can't report sensitively and insightfully on Flint -- if two-year-old Policy Mic gave writers the time and budget for field reporting. That isn't how Dimon covers "the hell that has become of much of America's Rust Belt" for a site that's much closer to Upworthy and BuzzFeed than to Atlantic Cities or National Journal.

Dimon's piece about "Detroit's failing and forsaken neighbor 66 miles to the northwest" is largely a compilation of facts, figures and material published elsewhere -- what pre-digital journalists called "a clip job," referring to clippings from other publications and their paper's library. The Flint report has 21 external links in just 26 paragraphs, including four each to articles in Forbes and The New York Times. 

One of four people quoted is a filmmaker whose comments are from a July 2012 article in Wired. Another is a photographer whose sentence is from a blurb at his online portfolio. The others are an author who says he was interviewed for 45 minutes by phone and a second photographer who also apparently was contacted by phone or email.

'Vestiges of a Bygone Era'

With no on-site descriptions, street interviews or comments beyond those from four fellow media creators, Dimon contributes sweeping statements such as this: 

Flint is emblematic of a deeper story in America, only one of the many similar tales to emerge from the once thriving, now deteriorating Rust Belt of the United States. These manufacturing and industrial hot spots, spanning from Albany, New York, west across Ohio, Indiana, and through Michigan, were once the great symbols of American innovation and economic prosperity.

Today, they're mere vestiges of a bygone era that's been eclipsed by new economic power centers like Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

Gordon Young, author of a June book titled "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," tells Dimon: "Locals hate that the only story told about Flint is a negative one."

Then they'll hate the headline atop her text: "This is America's Most Apocalyptic, Violent City — And You’ve Probably Never Heard Of It."

This is Shimshon Hagibor street in Ramla, Israel, according to Google Street View. PolicyMic posted it more than a day as Flint.

Oh yes they did: PolicyMic tries to lure readers by suggesting the piece is about a surprising, obscure, under-the-radar urban nightmare -- rather than a place Dimon describes as "the birthplace of General Motors" and the focus of "the 1989 documentary 'Roger and Me' about the city, which was recently inducted into the National Film Registry."

  • Saturday update: Nine photos accompany the article, including a top one from AP that actually shows a deteriorating commercial block of Chene at Palmer in Detroit, as Deadline reader Joe Manzella of Clinton Township notes Saturday morning in a comment below this article.
  • Sunday update: That photo was rep;laced late Saturday after an email exchange about it between Deadline Detroit and Dimon.

An uncredited photo of a street in Ramla, Israel, accompanied the article until after 10 p.m. Friday. A Redditor named Sam first noted that incongruity Friday afternoon in this thread. He proves the error with the Google Street Maps image at right and posts:

I thought I was hallucinating at first, but this picture is not actually from Flint. I know this because I lived in the place pictured almost my entire life. It's a city in Israel called Ramla. I'm really confused as to why this picture is featured in the article and I'm a little creeped out.

In other words, this article about Flint is about as substantive and reliable as JPMorgan Chase subprime mortgage credit derivatives.

The apple apparently doesn't fall far.

  • Update: The Israel photo was yanked after 10 p.m. Friday.

But wait, there's more -- or more with less substance actually. A 10-paragraph sidebar is headlined "16 Portraits of Everyday People Who Refuse to Let Their Hometown Be Defeated."  

The number of photo portraits is accurate. But they and 10 quote-free paragraphs by Dimon are all we get.

Cooking Without Ingredients

Laura Dimon, who didn't visit Flint residents, says they have "resilience and loyalty [that are] a testament to the true spirit of this city."

Here's part of what she whips up like a chef with imagination as the main ingredient:

Some people have not left. Their resilience and loyalty is a testament to the true spirit of this city: one that's about identity, pride, and a refusal to be defeated.

The photos below depict some of these stories, the stories of the everyday people who are fighting for a better Flint. The stories of the very real Americans who never get recognized, but will carry on the fight regardless.

The stories of the people who inspire us all. 

A Texas reader, Sara Munoz of Arlington, finds the serving notably light. At Policy Mic's Facebook page, commenting on a link to the sidebar, she wonders Friday where "these people's stories or even their NAMES" are.

  • Update: In a comment below this article, interviewee Gordon Young says in part: "I wish the author would have devoted less space to all the negative statistics and old news about Flint’s decline, and more to the inspiring residents of my hometown who are using innovative approaches to improve the city. That's what I tried to do in my book.."

PolicyMic, founded in June 2011 by two childhood friends, casts itself on the About Us page as "our generation’s platform to make our voices heard . . . [through] high-quality, personal analysis on the news, policy, and pop culture that’s changing our world."

We handpick the best and brightest voices of our generation to provide fresh, expert analysis and perspectives you won't find anywhere else.

Traditional media has failed to engage, inform, and inspire us. We want to be part of the solution.

Old-school publishers and broadcasters are derided as "divisive, opaque media conglomerates."  

'Studying the Tricks' of Traffic

That's their spiel. Here's an outsider's view from media reporter Hamish McKenzie of PandoDaily, who wrote about the brash startup in August: 

Based in New York, it shares a similar ethos to BuzzFeed and Upworthy, both of which have mastered the art of traffic generation through social sharing. Indeed, much of its traffic success can be attributed to its ability to make its content go viral, a combination of science and art that PolicyMic has learned through studying the tricks of its senior siblings. . . .

PolicyMic’s viral team . . . is responsible for assigning story ideas, determining angles, and coming up with headlines for PolicyMic’s writers to work with.

Got that? McKenzie writes that "a behavioral analyst" leads a group whose tasks include "coming up with headlines for PolicyMic's writers."

That cart-before-horse reversal -- "do a clip job on Flint as America's most apocalyptic, violent city" -- is not how things typically work at new media or those with print roots.

But while traditional editorial practices may point the way to an ethical high road, they're not necessarily the route to a high-traffic path in journalism's reshaped landscape. The airy souffle that is Laura Dimon's main article has been viewed 646,400 times since going online Thursday evening and shared 41,600 times from the site.  

Read more:  PolicyMic

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