“I do this to try to make a difference.”
So says Michael Symonds who came to WMUK last April through Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms across the country to cover under-reported issues.
A 23-year-old Dowagiac native, Symonds is tackling a new beat at WMUK, covering stories from rural communities in Southwest Michigan. But you might be surprised to learn what propelled this young man into this work: his best friend, Carson Ausra, who died at age 20 from Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
“I couldn’t make sense of it, you know,” says Symonds. “It was just this 20-year-old who had never done anything wrong in their entire life (who) not only had their life taken away, but had to go through months and months of treatment, where they couldn’t do anything else outside of that treatment, just to pass away.
“I had to have something come out of it that wasn’t just senseless death, so I decided I would do something good with my desire to write, and what came into my head was, ‘Well, I could report the news and give people information that seems important.’”
Symonds will serve in the RFA position at WMUK through July.
How did you get to where you are today?
Originally my best friend was going to do computer science, so I was like, “I’m gonna do computer science, and I’ll just bare my teeth through it.” I started Michigan Tech in the summer of 2020, and we were going to go up there together. We were the Two Musketeers. But in August of that year my friend was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma.
He said, “You know, with cancer and everything, I’m rethinking if I still want to do computer science.” I talked to him about it, and I talked to a therapist about it and came to the understanding that I was not doing what I wanted to do, that I was afraid to do what I wanted to do.
I have wanted to write my entire life, but I was afraid because I come from a very mechanical family. My dad’s a CNC worker (using a manufacturing method called computer numerical control) and owns a machine shop. My brother went to U-of-M for mechanical engineering, one uncle’s a chemist, the other is a CNC worker as well. Being the person in the family who wasn’t mechanically inclined, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I knew I was going to go to Western Michigan University — I didn’t know what for exactly — but it was closer to my friend so I could support him. On May 23rd, 2021, he passed away. I couldn’t make sense of it but I decided that I wanted to do something good, to fill that void as much as I could.
I majored in journalism, worked at the Western Herald (the WMU student newspaper) and started a little radio show called Stupid Questions at WIDR (WMU’s student radio station). I was interning at WMUK, and Sehvilla Mann (the WMUK news director) suggested I apply for the Report for America position that they had.
What do you do for Report for America?
WMUK wanted to cover rural areas more, reporting on stories that aren’t being covered. Usually when places like Cass County are covered in the news, it’s “this person who died in a car crash in Cass County” or “this person was arrested for meth in Cass County.” WMUK doesn’t cover those stories. We get different stories to get to know the community.
Another part of the RFA job is the service aspect of reaching out to local schools and organizations to help foster youth journalism. I’ve worked with Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s Voices of Youth program, where they teach students to report and write a story in a month.
The program had never done audio journalism before, and they had one student who was interested in that. She did a climate change story and ended up talking to State Rep. Julie Rogers. It was a big thing for the student. We brought her into the studios so that she could interview Rogers and do the narration for the story.
What makes audio journalism different?
It’s like television without the visual part. When doing a story, we have to bring the audience in through sound. It breeds its own innovation style.
When you hear somebody crying or hear them having fun at a festival, that’s powerful. In written journalism you can only do so much to express how sad or happy somebody is. People get enveloped in the story when they hear the actual people who are affected by it.
What are you most proud of in your work?
There was a story about a battle over books in Brandywine (Community Schools, in Niles Township) and how this little town was being torn apart over it. I spoke to a teacher whose own father was not talking to them anymore because of it.
I’m doing a story right now about how LGBTQ+ communities are becoming more accepted in rural areas. I talked to someone from Colon, and just hearing their story about when they were a kid they were threatened with violence, and slurs were thrown around like nobody’s business, but now they’ve had a gay pride float in the Fourth of July parade in 2023.
He said, “I’m glad somebody’s doing a story about how much has changed and how things are getting better instead of just, ‘Hey, things suck or people hate you for being gay.’ I’m glad someone is covering the story and not denying how bad things were but showing that we’re making progress and things are changing.”
That was a clear indication that I’m doing something right.
— Interview by Jarret Whitenack, edited for length and clarity.