Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

How public media can help the recovery of Detroit

Dec. 3, 2013, 9 a.m., Posted by Eric Newton

Welcome to Detroit Public Television, via YouTube

“There’s not much difference between most places in Detroit and post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s not as shocking because it happened over a long period of time, but it’s just as devastating.” —   Stephen Henderson, Detroit native and Free Press editorial page editor on “PBS NewsHour,” Aug. 9, 2013

Something about a disaster brings out the best in us, even if the worst in us may have caused the disaster in the first place.

In Detroit, the winds were man-made and the wreckage piled up over decades, not days, but the damage was the same. When this summer’s filing of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history came, the nation focused its attention on some hard financial facts. Still, you could hear a backbeat in the stories: a city that motors on, looking for solutions; residents making life work despite broke and broken police, fire, streetlights and more than 75,000 abandoned buildings. The best of us.

Disasters also bring out the best in local journalism. Even in these dire days for traditional media, it’s the locals who drive the backbeat, who correct the national blunders (50,000 stray dogs roaming the streets of Detroit). We know we need news and information in disasters. But are we ready to step in and help when the media itself needs a boost?

Today, with a $250,000 investment, Knight Foundation is creating the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, pooling the resources of five nonprofit media organizations on data-driven, solutions-based journalism on the city’s challenges. The cooperative hopes to look ahead, beyond daily coverage, and engage residents struggling to understand their options and make the right decisions. (A separate $250,000 grant from Ford Foundation went to Zero Divide, which brought in Renaissance Journalism to launch the Michigan Reporting Initiative, to do similar coverage but with a focus on statewide issues, such as the establishment of emergency managers.)

Everyone can benefit from better news and information. Detroit’s nonprofit and for-profit media already work together, so the new stories – and community discussion about them – will flow through the media ecosystem. Four journalism co-op members, the Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine, Michigan Radio, Detroit Public Television and WDET (Detroit public radio), already share their content with the Better Michigan section of the Detroit Free Press. The fifth co-op member, New Michigan Media – a coalition of more than 140 ethnic media outlets – already shares its content with a leading local television station, WXYZ (Channel 7). The Detroit Journalism Cooperative hopes to widen those partnerships.

Exactly what stories will the journalists do? We don’t know. They’ll be meeting and deciding that themselves. But we’re confident, in a city that still hasn’t found the answers, there’s plenty of media work for everyone. Bridge Magazine offered up a sample of what is to come in its Nov. 6 analysis of the impact of retiree benefits and other legacy costs on city budgets throughout the state.

We simply can’t overlook the role of media in rebuilding after any type of disaster. That’s why Knight helped start the New Jersey News Commons in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Detroit’s hurricane was social, not meteorological, but its impact is no less real. That’s why we’re helping the Detroit News Cooperative. To ignore journalism, news and information when we need it most would be, in and of itself, a disaster.

Eric Newton, special adviser to the president at Knight Foundation