Crossing borders for big picture
by Posted Tue, Feb 1 2011
When journalist Paul Clemens decided to document the closing of an automobile-industry factory in his native city Detroit, he did not initially grasp the international implications of the story. After a year of immersion reporting, Clemens not only grasped the implications, he lived them, as he crossed national borders in pursuit of the big picture.
Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant is an excellent example of how time equals truth in journalism. Spending almost every day for a year observing any story up close is bound to yield familiarity with sources (including the main characters) and processes unknown to journalists hampered by deadlines.
Based on Punching Out, Clemens is a worthy addition to the list of superb practitioners of immersion journalism and an example for journalists around the globe. Stories that cross national boundaries and involve multiple languages especially benefit from immersion techniques.
Born in 1973, Clemens watched Detroit rise and decline in conjunction with the American automobile industry. The sites of automobile-parts plants that used to employ thousands of proud, well-compensated laborers now sit empty. After the Budd Company automobile parts stamping factory closed in 2006, Clemens decided to investigate the reasons for the closing and observe what would become of the gigantic building once it was abandoned. (Stamping plants manufacture specific parts, such as doors. Engine plants manufacture engines. Assembly plants put the parts and engines together.)
He learned that heavy machinery from the closed factory would be transported to Mexico by truck to perform the same functions as before, while Detroit workers drew unemployment checks from the state of Michigan and perhaps the federal government. Eventually, Clemens made the journey to Aguascalientes, Mexico, to view for himself the bitter irony of machinery from the Budd plant—which had been situated between two Chrysler-owned factories in Detroit—stamping parts for none other than Chrysler’s Dodge Journey line.
To educate himself in the early stages of the project, Clemens studied the biweekly publication Plant Closing News, founded by Jon Clark in 2003. Successful journalists understand that every story can be enhanced by reading such specialized publications. The first year of publication, Clark reported on 983 plant closings in the United States and Canada. The number rose every year after that.
To achieve maximum comprehension of how the closed factory had operated, Clemens drew on first-hand knowledge from an open stamping plant. The result: vivid prose that ought to dominate all narrative nonfiction. Here is an example:
“Like the liftoff of an airliner, the stamping of auto body parts requires inhuman force, producing decibels registered by your internal organs. The presses sound, unmistakably, as if they could kill you, which they could, without much interrupting their normal functioning. You’d notice the collision more than they would. … It would be difficult to find a stamping plant of long standing without a history of tragedy. In recent decades, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and automation have helped to reduce the human loss—the latter, in large part, by reducing the need for humans altogether.
“…Compared with a state-of-the-art assembly plant such as Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant, the scene in an old, closed stamping plant such as Budd is hellish, backlit by Goya. (There were in fact foam fingers in the Budd plant that said GOYA. It stood for Get Off Your Ass.)”
To find sources in the early stages of his research, Clemens printed the online comments connected to a Detroit News feature about the Budd plant closing.
One married woman mentioned that she had worked at the plant for 30 years, her husband for nearly 33 years, and her father for 36 years. Naturally, Clemens interviewed them, and they led him to other out-of-work laborers. Clemens also contacted the representative of United Auto Workers Local 306 to gain access to documents and the physical plant itself. Through his contact with the union representative, Clemens received an introduction of a former Budd factory security guard recently employed by the rigging company dismantling the gigantic presses. He provided entry into the plant for Clemens, making the immersion reporting possible.
As Clemens became familiar with the men (and a few women) dismembering the plant, it is not difficult to think why the reassembly effort evoked deep emotions. His journey to the Mexican town to see the gigantic pieces of machinery reassembled gives birth to memorable reporting to close the book-length narrative.