Journalism

Detroit News writer Frank Donnelly shows why good newspapers remain vital

Whitney Kropp, 16
[Photo by Dale G. Young]

Don’t tell Whitney Kropp, 16, and other teens in West Branch that metro dailies are losing readers, impact or relevance. They have a huge reason to disagree.

A poignant front-page Detroit News article two days ago about Whitney has been picked up around the world, notably by NBC’s Today Show, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, America’s best-known film reviewer and thousands of social media chatterers. That viral spread is unsurprising, given the feel-good topic.

Town turns tables on school prank” is the headline. “It’s like ‘Carrie’ with a happy ending,” says Frank Donnelly’s well-crafted report. (That irresistible  sentence was recycled swiftly by broadcasters, in the head of a Time blog post and as the lead of pickups by news aggregators.)

Donnelly, who joined The News in 1999 and whom I was fortunate to work with, touchingly describes the high school sophomore’s “remarkable transformation” from victim to victor after a small number of schoolmates rigged a vote electing her to the homecoming court as a nasty joke. The Sept. 24 article, bylined Francis X. Donnelly, explains how kindness trumped meanness:

Before the homecoming vote, she was either ignored or scorned by classmates. Now, when she isn’t fielding yet another free offer from a business, she’s being lauded by hundreds of strangers on the [Facebook] support page. Cast in an unlikely role, she has embraced it. She vowed to continue representing the sophomore class.

Scratch that “hundreds of strangers” bit, which was true before Donnelly’s piece made a splash. Support Whitney Kropp passed 94,70 strangers by Thursday morning, a surge that began as The News’ article went viral (drawing 67,000+ Facebook recommendations and 2,100+ reader comments). When Frank interviewed Whitney last week, the support page had 3,500 fans, according to its creator.

On Tuesday (Sept. 25), a day after Donnelly opened the floodgate, the Today Show aired a report by Kevin Tibbles from West Branch. More than 120 other news pickups fill three screens on Google News, including links to Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Gawker, Yahoo! News, UPI, the Huffington Post, the Toronto Star, the Daily Mail in London and the Fairfax News in New Zealand. The Detroit Free Press caught up online shortly after 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The best head I spotted is at Jezebel.com:

Asshole Teens Vote Girl to Homecoming Court as a Joke,
Proving We’ve Learned Nothing from Carrie

And oh yes, a movie reviewer you know linked to Donnelly’s 1,100-word original Tuesday evening in tweet that was retweeted 200 times:

We now know West Branch, Mich. has a world-famous homecoming queen and a high school full of jerks. You go, Whitney!  [@ebertchicago | Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times]

While The Detroit News wasn’t first — a distinction apparently earned Sept. 17 by WNEM, a CBS affiliate in Saginaw — the metro daily moved it from a heartwarming regional feature to serious national attention.

“I found out about Whitney when I was interviewing a Saginaw guy for a separate story,” Donnelly says in a message. “He told me his old high school classmate was trying to get the word out about this bullied girl the town was rallying around.”

He promptly pitched a trip to West Branch in place of an earlier assignment — “the obvious choice,” says deputy metro editor Maryann Struman.

Frank Donnelly

So a hearty hat tip goes to Frank Donnelly (colleagues never say Francis) and his editors for investing in  a 330-mile drive to and from a rural farm community and dispatching a photographer from Lansing rather than trying to eke out a quickie by calling Whitney and other sources and asking for emailed photos. His dateline reflects traditional field reporting, not an ethics-bending ruse as is regularly the case at a certain Michigan media group. (That site’s belated pickup Wednesday from “media reports” has a West Branch dateline, true to form.)

“Frank often writes about stories of interest outstate and makes a point of going to those places,” Struman adds. “He feels it is critical to his stories to get a sense of color for the area.”

I salute my talented former newsroom associate and his paper for showing again that enterprising daily journalism — in print and online — stands out in a big way. Don’t take just my word — see what Alivia Kropp, an Ogemaw Heights High senior, posted Tuesday on Facebook about her younger sister:

As of right now, Whitney is the voice for thousands of bullied kids who don’t have the courage or strength to stand up for themselves. But putting this story out there, this will show them that they can stand up for themselves without being ridiculed more.

Share your view

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s