Crystal Proxmire, who intends to represent one aspect of journalism's future, launched her writing career at age 9, with an essay in The National Enquirer. She won $25 for explaining "Why I Love America" and never looked back.
Her father, Ron Realy was an aspiring writer who earned his living at a craft store. "If you have to be raised in a store," Proxmire said, "Frank's was a pretty good place." Working at tasks like sorting colored thread helped build organizational skills, she insists, and reading magazines on the store racks provided basic training.
By high school—she went to Hazel Park High—"all the girls were focused on their hair; I was focused on being a writer."
Today, Proxmire, 36, publishes Oaklandcounty115.com, an online version of what the weekly local paper used to be, from multiple offices in downtown Ferndale. Like any small-town newspaper editor, she does everything from soliciting advertising to reporting stories to posting photos on Facebook. And she's making a difference.
Her offices are sprawling and rent-free: Our interview was conducted at Tim Horton's, one of Proxmire's many Oakland County bureaus. She practices her profession by walking around and talking to people, the embodiment of what she calls "grass-roots journalism." It was Proxmire who raised tough questions about the superintendent of schools in Ferndale, now departed. "Local journalism matters," is her credo.
"We see her writing her stories all over town. Wherever there's good WiFi," says Dave Coulter, Ferndale's mayor, who says she fills a vacuum in the community, as other local news outlets disappeared. "Democracy can't work when reporters aren't holding people accountable. What she does is critical," he says, describing her reporting as fair and accurate and filling a void.
It was Proxmire's reporting that revealed abuses in Ferndale Housing Commission practices, from closing meetings that should be public, to the virtually complete lack of oversight the commission had operated under for almost two decades. "We didn't understand the breadth of what was wrong until she showed us," says Coulter.
Like all newspaper publishers, Proxmire is struggling to support Oaklandcounty115.com and herself. Although grants are available for non-profits, she's insistent about keeping her website independent. She has a clear sense of her own ethics and vision for the future and prefers to remain on her own. "I spent more on FOIAs (requests for government information) last month, than I did on groceries," she says matter-of-factly.
The site has won a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) award for local reporting, and recognition from the City Hall marquee, even as she lives and publishes on about $1,000 a month. Among her supporters are readers of all parties. "We need to have conversations that aren't one extreme or the other," she says.
Last year, she broadened the website's reach from Ferndale to Oakland County, and envisions a mini-empire of small news operations such as hers. "My goal is to create an ethical, sustainable and scalable news model," she says. She's encouraging supporters to contribute on Patreon.com, a crowd-funding site that connects art patrons with artists, hoping to create a committed readership who actively support journalism as a cause.
Proxmire is gutsy and genuine, a 21st century journalist who wears out shoe leather (she doesn't drive) and technology at about the same rate with a single-minded goal: Keeping OaklandCounty115.com alive.