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5 Thoughts About "The Detroit Story"

Thursday's conference at Wayne State University, called “Taking Charge of our Story”, featured an exciting mix of  activists, community organizers, academics and journalists (including those who'd define themselves as bloggers and those, like me, who come from more traditional media backgrounds). The most enlightening part of the day was Tom Sugrue's morning speech about the true history of Detroit, especially the part where he compared the experience of his father with that of an African-American man who lived in the same neighborhood. The most invigorating part of the day was the afternoon, where several groups split off to workshop ideas for new stories about Detroit.

With much of the day given to a question that can be summed up as “Why isn't the mainstream media telling the ‘real' story of Detroit?”, I figured I'd offer some observations from the mainstream media side of things.

  1. There's a dichotomy that community organizers need to acknowledge. On the one hand, they (rightly, I think) trumpet the democratization of media, the fact that with social media everyone's a publisher. On the other hand, they bemoan the fact that traditional mass media aren't getting their story out. And by this they don't mean that traditional mass media aren't publishing their stories in blogs such as this one or the many that are hosted by the Detroit Free Press and the News. They want print coverage in traditional mass mediums.
  2. Getting stories into print is harder than it ever was. There's less of it, for one thing, accompanying the falloff in advertising support. So if community groups and activists want to get their stories into print, they have to work even harder than they did in the past. Just as reporters have to work hard to find these new sources of information.
  3. I was struck by the fact that no one at the conference suggested that telling the story of Detroit is a multi-platform challenge. Since you can't count on getting your story to one reporter and scoring a print piece, you need to have an active Twitter feed, develop a community that spreads the news, create video, look at new storytelling constructions like flypmedia, and understand the ways traditional outlets use different media to create blanket coverage of a topic.
  4. Reporters at traditional mass media companies report—they ask questions and put things to the test. Of course Detroit wants a positive image. But individual stories of hope can't negate the truth of life on the ground in the city. The Free Press and News, with severely drained resources, do a pretty terrific job of covering all aspects of the city, without giving up their traditional watchdog duties in any way. Who else is can uncover local corruption in the in-depth way the Free Press revealed the troubles around Kwame Kilpatrick? Looking to the future, the papers have to consider the pain that the city will undergo in the years ahead, and analyze whether these emerging plans of reinvention will work or not.
  5. National mass media is not a monolith. These days, it's an experiment. Whether it's Fox, TIME, NBC, or the Free Press, there's a blog, there's a Twitter feed, there's video, there's local reporting, national reporting, print, pretty much the whole kitchen sink. Inside those companies, all of this is regarded as important coverage. Every mass media company is looking at telling stories in new ways. TIME's Assignment Detroit project fits right into that, in that it's a multi-level effort that keeps spawning new things. We've got a blog with local writers. They cover local events and individuals who are trying to make a difference, while also commenting on the region's biggest stories. We've added into that mix the TIME 11, our group of local high school kids writing and blogging about life on the ground for teens. In the months ahead we'll add more video and we'll add photography. We have print stories running in a range of outlets from TIME to Fortune to Essence and Sports Illustrated, and major text and video stories on Websites like time.com and CNNMoney.com. And we've taken a stake in the city in a number of ways, including donating our Detroit house to a community service group when the project is over. From our end, we hope that adds up to coverage that works locally and nationally. For people looking to have access to TIME journalists, that means multiple ways to get your story heard.
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