A long worn-out joke about Detroit goes something like this: “The last one out of the city, please turn off the lights.”
It’s a tired jab at a city that has taken more than its share of punches for its seemingly intractable financial troubles — not least of all from the Detroit press. But now the local media has stopped to take a closer look at the damage and the recovery as the Motor City teaches itself to fight again.
Several news organizations based in and around Detroit have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, a project sponsored by the San Francisco-based Renaissance Journalism organization with $500,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation and Ford Foundation.
The purpose of the year-long program is to report on the troubled city from a grass-roots perspective with the news organizations sharing their content, a collaboration that’s rare in a news environment as competitive as Detroit’s.
The nine partners in the cooperative include Bridge Magazine, an online publication of The Center for Michigan; Detroit Public Radio (WDET); Michigan Public Radio; Detroit Public Television; and New Michigan Media that combines five ethnic papers — Arab American News, The Jewish News, Latino Press, The Michigan Korean Weekly and The Michigan Citizen, which targets the African-American community.
Jon Funabiki, founder of the Renaissance Journalism program based at San Francisco State University, said with Detroit experiencing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, it was the right time to delve into the issues.
“One of the things we learned was that the mainstream news organizations really wanted to get closer to the ground on the neighborhood level, and working through ethnic newspapers they could do that,” said Funabiki. “But the ethnic papers wanted to do a larger story that the bigger ones could do. So it’s more about stories, the broader stories that everyone can get.”
The Detroit bankruptcy is a complicated hodgepodge of court procedures, legal jargon, financial spreadsheets, timetables, and fights between banks and pensioners. None of it is written in layman’s terms and few in the city truly understand it all. At the same time, most Detroiters realize that the financial crisis was 60 years in the making and that no smoking gun exists as to the cause of the fiscal collapse.
That’s where the cooperative’s participants come in, explaining how the actions of state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr and a neighborhood like Brightmoor on the city’s far west side are connected.
“(WDET’s) Craig Fahle attended a meeting of community leaders and there was this woman from Brightmoor, a tough neighborhood,” said Funabiki. “Everyone was talking about luring high-tech companies, but she said we need low-skilled jobs because we have low-skilled workers.
“When you talk about people saying something like we need low-skilled jobs, it’s an important perspective. The groups will be able to look at issues of race and class and racial tension because they would be getting stories from this level.”
To be sure, this isn’t the first time media has focused on Detroit as a story. There have been numerous articles, documentaries and reports for years on Detroit’s fiscal decline. In 2010, TIME magazine dedicated a year to reporting on the city. (Disclosure: I am a former TIME.com staffer and participated in the project.); Dateline NBC produced a controversial piece on the ills of Detroit; and CNN sent Anthony Bourdain to hang out for a piece that paid the city few compliments.
But Joe Grimm, a consultant on the Detroit Journalism Cooperative project, said Detroit is getting as much attention as it does because it is an important story.
“It’s no accident that The (New York) Times has done a lot of stories about Detroit,” said Grimm, who also serves as editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism and Poynter’s Ask the Recruiter writer. “They see it as a news story, and there are a lot more mentions of Detroit in global media. These foundations, Knight and Ford, have done a lot of stuff in Michigan for years. Knight was set up to help cities where John and James Knight had newspapers and Ford has always had an interest in Detroit given the company.
“So the idea is to help people understand what is going on in the city,” he continued. “The idea is to increase coverage, transparency and accountability as the city reorganizes.”
At the end of January, WDET launched a special website powered by the cooperative entitled Next Chapter Detroit that aims to explain the long-term effects of the bankruptcy on Detroit and its people. Sandra Svoboda, who blogs for website, said it takes the cooperation of many organizations to cover such a large issue as Detroit’s financial condition.
“Really, no one media outlet can tell this story by itself,” she explained. “You need a body of work to understand what’s going on in the courts, neighborhoods, in Lansing (the state capital), in Detroit City Hall and everywhere else that’s affected by this giant story.”
Svoboda said some of the stories have been told by the various media entities in the cooperative, but the Next Chapter Detroit provides a singular space to display them. “What we’re able to do with the cooperative is really showcase those stories all in one place and work together across the different media to pool our strengths so that the stories get told in more of a cohesive fashion and on several layers.”
Although the Detroit Journalism Cooperative will only last a year, the possibility exists to extend it, if the funders wish to continue, Funabiki said. However, the long-term takeaway, he adds, is that journalists will now be watching very carefully what is being done.
“There is a lot of distrust in the community of politicians, and with the traditional watchdog role of the media, if we can strengthen the community’s role and put the politicians and business community on watch, hopefully it might foster new ideas.”
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. The Detroit native has written for TIME.com, the Associated Press, and the Detroit News among many other news outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @madisonjgray