FLINT, MI — As Flint Beat continues to expand, they’ve enlisted the talents of Scott Atkinson, a multi-faceted journalist with years of experience covering Flint, to fill the role of managing editor.
With the school semester coming to a close and the COVID-19 pandemic causing him to shut down his dojo, Flint Beat’s founder Jiquanda Johnson approached Atkinson with a new role as managing editor at the perfect time.
“I didn’t have a lot of intent to get back into journalism,” said Atkinson. “Journalism broke my heart. There came a point when I felt like I was just doing it for the money.”
With his new position, Atkinson is confident he can be a positive addition to the publication and properly reflect the city he loves when it needs it now more than ever.
“I’m very cognizant of who is contributing to Flint Beat, but more importantly, who we’re covering. So am I personally representative of Flint’s demographics? I don’t think I am. Do I feel like I have the ability and passion to make sure that it is represented? Absolutely.”
Atkinson grew up in Durand, MI, and currently lives in Grand Blanc. Although he doesn’t claim Flint as his hometown (he lived in the city only for a brief time, in 2007 and 2008) he has a deep-rooted history with the city starting back to when he was 17 years old training jiu-jitsu on the city’s east side every weekend with his teacher and now friend, Marvin Diem.
“I was at the Flint Dojo one day and saw this newspaper sitting there,” says Atkinson. “I picked it up, it looked kind of cool, and there was this story in there written by the editor at the time, Matt Zacks—I think it was called Fire Alarm. He hung out with the Flint Fire Department for 24 hours and it was a really cool story. This really cool in-depth fly-on-the-wall narrative journalism that I thought was incredible.”
That newspaper was The Uncommon Sense, a DIY Flint publication that ended up being Atkinson’s first paid gig as an investigative reporter while he was going to Michigan State University to study journalism. Once he graduated in 2006, he moved onto what he imagined would be his be-all-end-all gig, The Flint Journal.
“After that, the journalism industry started to take a swan dive,” says Atkinson. “When I hired in, it was supposed to be a place you can spend your whole career and have a great retirement. The Flint Journal has always been a destination paper. Then there were more layoffs. Then more layoffs. I wasn’t getting any raises, I had a family that I had begun and it was exactly that, I needed more stability.”
Searching for that stability lead him to pursue his master’s degree in English from U of M Flint, start teaching, and spend the rest of his time being a stay-at-home Dad. Once Atkinson and his wife had another baby and it was time to call his old editor and come back to the paper.
“That was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life because I was hired three days before they made the big MLive switch,” says Atkinson, recalling a pivotal moment in his career. “I was incredibly skeptical about being an online-focused publication. I felt like the newspaper was what mattered and set us apart from everyone else. My editor thought it would be a good idea to put me on the Flint entertainment beat. I realized for one, I had more freedom to report on what I wanted and I also had the opportunity to write longer stories.”
Atkinson began flexing his creative muscles on long-form pieces ranging from an extensive four-part series on a local band to the “Orphans” of Michigan School of the Deaf that were buried in unmarked graves in Flint’s oldest cemetery with two people simultaneously searching for them.
“That didn’t last, unfortunately,” says Atkinson. “The journalism industry has struggled. These big operations are trying to maintain what they are but they have to cut, cut, cut…for my personal situation that was no longer sustainable. So I started teaching full time, I started freelance writing which also had been a dream of mine. It was a good move for me.”
Landing pieces in The New York Times and The Guardian, in addition to creating Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology through Belt Publishing, he was finally able to express himself and check some items off every writer’s bucket list. Unfortunately, even with these major achievements, they were staggered just enough to not provide a solid source of income.
“If you have another job and a family, the hours that you put in to get assignments and do all of the journalism, it’s really tough,” says Atkinson. “Journalism sort of broke my heart because it was one of the things I was supposed to do and it didn’t seem like it was working out for me. So I went to one of my other loves, jiu-jitsu, and opened my own school, Wolverine Martial Arts on Fenton Rd. I figured that was a way to take my own destiny into my own hands. I was tired of larger companies telling me my worth and not liking that numeral.”
With Flint Beat, Atkinson says, he feels like he can make an impact.
“It’s very different than the Uncommon Sense, but I also love that I’m back in a place where there’s this energy for wanting to be in the community, for thinking about how we cover the community and how we represent the community. Being able to help lead that means a lot.”