Founder of new local news project in Detroit: 'It's on us ... the cavalry is not coming'
When Ashley Woods read about an accelerator program from Jessica Lessin's The Information, Woods applied on a whim. One hundred and 87 applicants from 33 countries applied too, and Woods, then consumer experience director at the Detroit Free Press, didn't think her idea for local news would win a spot.
"... I really thought I'd spend the next year building out this idea on my nights and weekends," Woods said. "Then I found out I won! I woke up in the middle of the night to an email from Jessica. It was a total shock."
Woods spoke with Poynter via email about her winning idea, The Information's Accelerator (which includes an investment of $25,000 or more plus a boot camp in Silicon Valley next year,) and the space she hopes her project, Detour, can fill.
Tell us about Detour? What will you cover? How will it work? How did you come up with the idea?
Detour will be an email newsletter and subscription company.
We're going to feature a mix of curated/social news and original, reported stories on the Detroit area.
We won't be about breaking news or "news of record." News organizations already do a great job of that in Detroit. What I believe we need is more analysis of how the news you're getting actually impacts you. More context. More diversity in the opinions we feature. More voices.
Lots to figure out still, but I imagine some big themes will be:
— Building a more equitable city.
— What the future of Metro Detroit looks like and who gets to shape it.
— Makers, creators and entrepreneurs.
— Diverse voices speaking out about race, class and opportunity.
But we're really going to be looking to our audience and our members to help us define what we cover. For an undecided, but low, monthly fee, members will have access to private Facebook groups and Slack channels to talk about the news without trolls. They'll be able to meet the Detour staff regularly and help shape our coverage. We'll curate local calendars for their phones and offer them discounts on events.
I love the intimacy and voice of email newsletters — and some of the established emails newsletters out there are already galvanizing their communities in a really inspirational way, like The Evergrey and WTFJHT. Detour is a little different because we want to create our own content, and we really want to focus on building a community who takes an active role in sustaining local journalism.
You're part of The Information's accelerator program. How does that work and what are you hoping to get out of it?
This is really an amazing program. In addition to the money, I'll spend a week in San Francisco at The Information with the other winners learning first-hand how to make this business work. I think it's incredible that someone like me from Detroit would ever have the opportunity to go to Silicon Valley and learn from some of the world's smartest people. And the relationship with Jessica and her team will be ongoing, even after I return home. They are really focused on making us successful, and that investment takes time.
It looks like you've spent most of your career in local news. Why start something new instead of trying to fix something that exists? Easier to turn a canoe than a cruise ship?
My decision to leave the Detroit Free Press after 3.5 years wasn't about fixing anything — it was just about focus. I knew I couldn't launch a product like this without dedicating all of my time and energy and concentration to making it 100 percent, and that's unrealistic when you're a masthead-level editor on the senior management team.
But you're right that I've always been a local girl. I really think that Detroit is the most interesting, challenging, exciting place to be.
I also believe it's on us journalists to figure out new solutions to keep local media alive. The cavalry is not coming. I think I can help local journalism the most right now through this kind of experimentation.
If you could wave a wand and fix one thing in local news right now, any one thing, what would it be?
The revenue model! That's what this is all about!