When John Eligon wrote for the Northview High School newspaper, he dreamed of reporting on the Olympics while having fun interviewing classmates. But as one of four black students in his graduating class of 2000, he also found greater Grand Rapids a pretty conservative place where it was hard to have a meaningful conversation about race.
When he returned to his hometown shortly before Christmas, Eligon came as a reporter for The New York Times, covering issues of race, gun violence and polarized politics. What he found was a city with a more vibrant urban culture and more political nuance than the one he remembered.
“It’s a rediscovery of a new Grand Rapids that I never knew,” Eligon said, sitting in The Bitter End, one of the many coffeehouses that have sprung up since he left. “It’s been pretty cool to talk to various stakeholders in the community.”
Eligon will share his insights with Times readers, in an upcoming story about how the nation’s post-election political divide looks from the vantage point of West Michigan. Spurred by President Donald Trump’s rally at DeVos Place just after midnight on Election Day, Eligon came back for the first time in 11 years to take the community’s political pulse. His reporting revealed a more complex picture than the stereotypical Dutch conservative heartland.
“It’s somewhat unique politically,” Eligon said. “The city itself is very Democratic, but the big money is very Republican. You have Republicans who are funding ArtPrize, which is more of a liberal type thing. You have Republicans funding developments that are bringing millennials, who tend to be more liberal.”
Despite culture clashes over issues like gay marriage, liberals and conservatives come together when it comes to investing in the city, he added: “Blue or red, people put green above that.”
Cutting His Teeth at The Roar
It was meaty material for Eligon, a national Times correspondent based in Kansas City, Mo. and specializing in issues of race. He’s covered the police shootings in Ferguson, Mo. and other cities; the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre; protestors at a Trump rally in Wisconsin; gang violence in Chicago and the death of Prince. A boxing aficionado, he also covered the final fight of welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao and elegantly analyzed the ring prowess of Muhammad Ali.
And yes, he got to cover the Olympics — the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
For Eligon, 34, it’s all part of a compelling career that took root as a staffer for The Roar, the Northview High student newspaper that was revived this school year. The paper was then a class taught by longtime journalism teacher Jim Rex, who retired in 2007. He recalls Eligon as a very good student and writer with a strong work ethic and subtle sense of humor.
“If I had to say why he was able to get a job with The New York Times, it would be his intelligence,” Rex said. “He is a very smart guy.”
Eligon says he had a cool time at The Roar, writing his stories on paper then transcribing them to computer.
“It was fun to go around and talk to people. Everybody’s in their class during the day, and you’re like walking around interviewing people. You got to not be in class, for a class.”
He says it’s “great” that The Roar has been restored and is helping train a new generation of reporters.
“Journalism is an essential profession,” he said. “Now you have young people who are going to have to deal with the challenges of the profession. Not just the economic challenges but the cultural challenges, like people not trusting (newspapers) and getting their media from all over. If you want to be a journalist, especially now, you have to engage with that early.”
Varied Beats Lead to Race Issues
Born in Trinidad, Eligon came to Orlando, Florida with his family at age 6, then to Northview when he was 11. His mother, Ann Marie, taught physics at Grand Valley State University and his father, Ronnie, worked in insurance.
By high school he had developed a deep interest in sports reporting and fashioned his own news website. Besides The Roar, he also wrote for The Paper, an alternative Grand Rapids newspaper, for which he reported on a Catholic Church mission trip he went on to Louisiana.
‘The media’s job now is to really have this authentic engagement with communities, then you can build back up trust.’ — John Eligon, Northview grad and New York Times reporter
Further boosts came from attending a Grand Rapids Press journalism workshop, a $1,000 college scholarship from the Detroit Free Press and a six-week summer apprenticeship in its newsroom – an experience that clarified his career aspirations. “That definitely solidified it,” he said.
He went to Northwestern University with a double major in journalism and German, and worked as a summer intern in 2001 at The Grand Rapids Press. After graduating he spent a year covering sports for the Free Press before moving to The Times in 2005. There he covered sports, metro stories, criminal courts and state government, then moved to Kansas City in 2012 when The Times opened a Midwest bureau there.
After covering six states as a general-assignment reporter, his beat took on more focus with the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Eligon heavily covered the shooting, which he called “a very big moment for black America.” The incident and its ugly aftermath prompted The Times to make him a national correspondent covering issues of race and class.
More Community Coverage Needed
Ferguson’s racial troubles were long in the making but the media wasn’t paying enough attention, Eligon says. Reporters need to better cover local communities if journalism is to survive the assaults against it, including economic decline, the rise of social media and fake news, he argues.
“The media’s job now is to really have this authentic engagement with communities, then you can build back up trust. Building back up trust will help legitimate media rise above the fray of fake news and hyper-partisanism.”
As for Trump’s vilifying of the media and rampant public criticism, Eligon insists he doesn’t see a serious threat to freedom of the press. It all comes with the territory of honest reporting and being held accountable, he said.
“It’s OK for us to be under attack a little bit,” he added. “It keeps us sharper.”