Flint, MI — In addition to founding Flint Beat in 2017, Jiquanda Johnson has worn many hats for the publication including editor, reporter, and salesperson. Now for the very first time, she’s been able to shed the excess job titles and focus on her new role: publisher and executive editor.
With enough financial support and a team assembled including a slew of freelance writers, a new managing editor, their first full-time staff writer, and a photographer coming in through a program called Report For America, a major weight has been lifted off of Johnson’s shoulders, letting her focus on furthering the company.
“I’m geeked about being a publisher. My girlfriend sent me this plaque for my birthday. It said, ‘Jiquanda Johnson, Publisher.’ And it hit me,” she said. “I can build this thing to be the best that it can be.”
Until recently, Johnson wore a lot of hats—sometimes all of them: editor, publisher, reporter, sales account executive, social media director. But since opening in 2017, Flint Beat has continued to grow its funding base and its staff.
Flint Beat is almost entirely grant-funded. Recently, Flint Beat was awarded a $125,000 grant from Borealis Philanthropy’s Racial Equity Journalism fund and a $100,000 grant from The Facebook Journalism Project, allowing Johnson to expand her team and coverage.
That’s a long way from the days when she was working another full-time job and funding Flint Beat out of her own pocket–and an even longer way from the time she discovered the job she was meant to do.
“I didn’t even think I would be a damn journalist. I thought I would be a lawyer like Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show,” says Johnson, recalling her childhood. “I hadn’t written a single paper at Beecher High School. I wouldn’t have known to complain about it. When you’re a kid, you don’t know what you need and you can’t identify when the system may be failing you, right? So I never wrote a paper. I took really remedial classes when I first went to college. When I was finally able to take real English courses, my teachers told me I was a really talented writer.”
While going to the University of Michigan-Flint, Johnson was indecisive and switched her major between accounting, marketing, and communications, then finally transferred to Wayne State to major in public relations. An Intro to Journalism class, taken just for college credit, led her to fall in love with the craft of reporting breaking stories.
“I’m a horrible student. I could care less about that, but I’ll work my ass off in the newsroom,” says Johnson. “While I was at Wayne State, at one time I was working at a nightclub on the weekends, I was working at a sporting goods store in Auburn Hills during the day, I was working at the Detroit Free Press as an intern, and I was also working at the student newspaper and going to school full-time. You know what my grades looked like. They were horrible.”
Johnson’s love of journalism led her to gigs at Detroit News, the Flint Journal, NBC25, and a Fox news station in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In 2011, she bought the domain FlintBeat.com and continued to pay GoDaddy every year to renew it, without any real plans—until the Flint water crisis.
Johnson was reporting for The Flint Journal at the time and it seemed like the right time to properly reflect the voices of her community.
“I started coming to the city of Flint and I was listening to residents talk about the news,” says Johnson. “At the time there was so much water crisis coverage, sports, and crime. I got it–I’m from Flint–but there were so many other stories that could be told and so many other gaps that needed to be filled.”
She put in a resignation to the Flint Journal and a week before her time was up, she picked up her first story for Flint Beat.
“When I started, I didn’t start as a business person, I started as a journalist. I was breaking stories, people were following me, other news agencies were calling me and it was super cool, but then six months into it I realized I needed to pay my bills. So I worked a job and did this thing up until last year.”
Johnson was a one-woman show doing literally everything for her publication without making a dime. Doors were opening, but locally, she couldn’t find funding.
“I just know that being a black woman, I can’t walk into a room and tell people, ‘Hey, fund me because I have this really great idea. This is what it looks like and it’s going to change the community we live in. It’s going to impact and empower.’ I have to actually produce, you know? I have to take out of pocket, invest in myself, and actually produce before anyone locally will entertain funding me. They still haven’t funded me. I get told no all the time around here.”
Things were tough, but her passion continued to drive Flint Beat until it began getting attention from national organizations. The grants started coming in.
“My supporters are typically organizations and foundations that are heavily invested in journalism, especially in preserving local news,” says Johnson.
“I pay attention and it’s not based on if people picked up some story and it’s getting shared on a national level, I’m so Flint-focused, it’s more about what does this community need and what do they want from the news? So it’s changed a lot, I think,” says Johnson. “Now our mission is local government accountability, solutions journalism, public health, and then having a platform for creatives. Those were things I hadn’t necessarily identified when I started, but now it’s written. These are the things we’re looking for. This is where we need to invest.”