Ron Fournier doesn’t miss covering the White House

April 5, 2017
Category: Business & Work

Yes, you can go home.

If you labor in the self-regarding echo chamber of Washington, D.C., leaving can be difficult. The issues in the capital are important, the spotlight intense and enervating, the proximity to power is alluring to many and the professional benefits can be ample.

“I cover the White House,” you can perhaps tell the world, even if it means you served largely as a stenographer at daily briefings and staged events. Your “insider” tales can be of ample dinner-table fascination to outsiders, even if they relay facts and rumors you found reason not to actually write.

Ron Fournier, 53, left that behind last year after experiencing the full breadth of the capital experience. Upon his arrival in 1992, Fournier covered the Clinton White House after covering them in Arkansas for The Associated Press. That followed a post-college stint with the Hot Springs, Arkansas Sentinel-Record and work at the Arkansas Democrat.

He didn’t become AP Washington bureau chief until 2008 and later moved to Atlantic Media properties, including The Atlantic and National Journal. While at Atlantic Media, he adapted well to the new world of the internet and social media, becoming not just an editor but also an often-provocative analyst.

Now, he is editor-publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business and, he says, happy as can be. I caught up with him to find out about his transition.

Fournier. (Photo credit: Kurt Nagl, Crain’s Detroit Business)

Fournier. (Photo credit: Kurt Nagl, Crain’s Detroit Business)

Remind us, how long were you in Washington, for whom, and basically why you decided to leave?

I came to Washington in 1993 with The Associated Press, for whom I had covered Gov. Bill Clinton in Little Rock. I moved to The Atlantic Media Group in 2010, where I ran the National Journal newsroom before becoming a columnist in 2012. For my last couple of years in Washington, I was a columnist at The Atlantic.

I left because my wife, Lori, and I missed home and our two oldest children (we have three) had already moved to Michigan. We left the state out of college 31 years ago and never stopped missing our families. We never stopped calling Detroit home.

What’s your job at Crain’s? How big an operation? What do you guys do?

I’m the publisher and editor of Crain’s Detroit Business, which is roughly the same size as the AP bureau I ran in Washington. We cover the business community in southeastern Michigan.

Were there any big practical, emotional or psychological changes for you personally in going from reporting “big national stuff” in Washington and doing what you do now?

Not really. Journalism is journalism. A good story is a good story. For that reason, this job is more fulfilling for me than anything I could do in Washington. In D.C., I covered dysfunction and could never move the needle.

In Detroit, I help a vibrant, important newsroom cover a community of leaders who, for the first time in my lifetime, are working together for a greater good. Our audience is the top influencers at the intersection of business and public policy. If I play my cards right, I can make a difference. Nobody makes a real and significant difference in D.C. these days.

You knew well about changes in local media across the country over the last ten or 15 years, especially with decline of newsrooms. Has your understanding of that change been altered at all upon return home — be it for the better or worse?

It confirmed two things I already knew. First, the most important journalism in America is conducted at the local level. Second, local journalism has been ravaged the last 10 or so years. I’m lucky in that Crain’s is a century-old company navigating change like a startup — and that our audience values the information we provide. We can make a positive difference in our community and hold leaders accountable, even as we turn a profit doing so.

There has been not just intensity to the coverage of the early day of the Trump administration but some organizations have allocated more resources to it, especially covering the White House. When you see that jam-packed White House briefing room on some days, do you have any feelings, one way or the other, about how resources are allocated as you view it as a local editor a long distance away? Do you shake you head at all over all those people covering rather similar stuff?

I shake my head at the thought of so many talented people wasting their time getting spun. Having spent hours in the White House briefing room under Presidents Clinton and Bush, I can tell you that was the worst use of my time. Reporters should report: Develop sources, file FOIAs, massage data and, above all, interview people outside Washington. Lots of them. All the time.

To your point: Whenever I visit a city hall or a statehouse media room, I want to cry. These rooms that were once overcrowded with skeptical, dogged, competitive journalists are now less than half-empty. That is good for corruption and bad for America.

What are you proudest of so far at Crain’s?

We restructured the newsroom to give beat reporters more time to develop sources and write rich enterprise stories. Along with that change came the hiring of three amazing young reporters who aggregate business news from southeast Michigan while chasing breaking news. Readers are starting to notice that we are both deeper and broader.

What’s been the impact of the return home for you and the family, from a more personal level?

Man, where do I start? How about with the fact that I left work early yesterday to babysit my grandson. My mom, sister, and one of my brothers live in Macomb County, just a few miles from our house. Another brother lives in Grand Rapids. We are having a blast together.

Here’s the thing: I’m honestly working much harder than I did the last few years in D.C., but I’m putting family first — for the first time. Leaving D.C. and getting back home helped me adjust my priorities.

You were a fixture in D.C. You covered the Clintons after covering them for the AP in Arkansas. You were involved in the nitty-gritty daily tsunami of stories about Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Do you miss it? Why or why not?

Absolutely not.

I’m proud of the work that I did. I did as well as I could. I had nothing else to give.

Look, I don’t know Detroit (I left out of college). I don’t know business news (I’ve covered politics since 1988). I don’t know the business of news (as publisher, I now run a small business). I’ve got a lot to learn and I love to learn.

I’m also arrogant enough to think I might have something to give Crain’s and Detroit.

Anything that most surprised you about Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year?

I was surprised that she was incapable of surprising me. This is what I (and others who admired her) hoped she’d do.

A lot of reporters become addicted to the D.C. scene, including developing a certain sense of self-importance. The notion of leaving, especially to return to a smaller media pond, can be unsettling. What do you say to some of those folks, based on your own return home so far?

Don’t define yourself by your job. Get a life. Go home.