Detroit City Hall hires writers to tell its own stories

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city of Detroit is getting into the storytelling business.

To dig into neighborhood issues in a way it says traditional media hasn’t, Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration recently created the role of “chief storyteller,” which may be the first of its kind in the country for a major city, officials said.

Duggan tapped former Blac Detroit magazine editor Aaron Foley for the $75,000-a-year position. He will serve as editor of a soon-to-be-launched website — and potentially a print publication.

“This is very experimental. I’d like to see how far we can push it,” said Foley, 32. “My goal is this whole citywide platform where residents can give feedback and interact with the city on a different level. It’ll be one more way for people to get connected with City Hall.”

Foley, who published “How to Live In Detroit Without Being a Jackass” and helped launch MLive Detroit, grew up in the city’s Russell Woods neighborhood and said his life experience and professional work make the job a good fit.

“It’s doing all the same duties as a journalist without the job title,” said Foley, who said he wants to share stories from city block clubs, organizations and other neighborhood groups “we don’t often hear about.”

The city hasn’t cited a specific budget or launch date for its website, but the initial focus will be on news and feature stories, and Foley has put out a call on social media for freelance writers with expertise in the city’s east, west and southwest sides.

“This is an opportunity to explore the people, stories, organizations, businesses and projects in Detroit neighborhoods,” said Peter Kadushin, Duggan’s director of communications. “It’s been a part of the mayor’s vision to share and tell these stories and give this larger voice to the neighborhood. We aren’t familiar with a city that has a similar role to Aaron’s dedicated to doing just that.”

Detroit plans to leverage existing editing, video, photo and graphics staff from its media services office, which oversees the city’s television station. The city also has hired a web editor, Kinsey Clarke, who started Tuesday in the job that pays $50,000. Foley said he hopes to also have a writer on board this month. Duties for each will mirror a typical publication, he said.

The news site, Foley said, intends to provide a modern take on city initiatives, departments and community happenings at the “granular level.”

Information gap

Matt Friedman, co-founder of the Farmington Hills-based public relations firm Tanner Friedman, said no market has been immune to cuts in the news industry in recent years and more organizations are beginning to seek ways to tell their own stories.

“Everyone who has responsibility for delivering messages to audiences is trying to figure out how to bridge gaps that have been created by the contraction of traditional media over the last 10 years,” he said. “There is no one definitive answer for how to fill these information gaps, but this is one of them, for sure.

“It’s a great irony that the city of Detroit coming out of bankruptcy is spending funds in this way when many businesses still won’t.”

Duggan deployed a similar strategy while heading up the Detroit Medical Center, recruiting veteran news anchor Emery King around 2005 to take part in patient-centered videos, said Dee Marx Prosi, DMC’s vice president of marketing.

DMC produced more than 100 videos detailing procedures with surgeons and patient participants and shared them on YouTube. At one point, DMC had the fifth highest YouTube views in the hospital category, which Prosi attributes to that medical library.

“Nobody (else) had that,” she said. “It was a different perspective and a fresh view.”

In the city’s case, the fate of its news site will rely on the public’s response to its content and execution, Friedman said.

“The difference-maker here on how effective this strategy is, is how credible it is perceived by audiences. If it is perceived as nothing more than propaganda, it won’t be effective,” he said. “It has to be credible, and it has to be useful for the audience, not just for the politicians in charge.”

‘Good news stories’

Foley’s hiring comes as veteran Detroit Free Press reporter Matt Helms joined the city’s communications staff last month, but in a role unrelated to the news site. Helms will earn $85,000 annually to research and produce messaging on the city’s new and large-scale policy initiatives, Kadushin said.

Duggan, Foley said, has been considering a city-initiated news site for a couple years to ensure neighborhood stories are being told and balance out what’s been a “hyper focus” on Detroit’s downtown.

“You have people seeing Detroit as just downtown and this giant sinkhole around downtown, and that’s where we can use this platform to show all the things going on,” he said. “Our focus is going to be on all of the neighborhoods, downtown and Midtown included.”

Duggan is in the midst of campaigning for a second term as Detroit mayor. His top contender in the race, state Sen. Coleman A. Young II, the son of Detroit’s first African-American mayor, has argued Duggan has “totally forgotten” the city’s neighborhoods. Duggan has said he regularly visits community groups and holds weekly meetings in neighborhoods and will continue to.

Young called the city’s plan to share more neighborhood-level news a “waste of time.” Duggan, he said, should focus instead on addressing the city’s schools, poverty and unemployment rates.

“We need a mayor who is going to speak to these things and not use taxpayer dollars to promote himself,” Young said. “This is not what we need right now. It’s absurd.”

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the site is a long-needed neighborhood platform and “there’s nothing political about it.”

“It’s something that should be done regardless of who is in office,” she said. “If he can’t see the value in telling the stories of people in our neighborhoods who are moving our city forward every single day then that should raise questions about him, not the mayor.”

Friedman said he doesn’t view the news venture as a campaign tactic: “There’s enough evidence here to support the argument that this is a broader communication strategy that extends beyond an election campaign.”

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, co-founder of the Lansing-based strategic communications firm Truscott Rossman, said communities commonly put out monthly newsletters and annual reports, but Detroit’s approach is a novel one.

“If a municipality doesn’t make a concerted effort to deliver their good news stories, people won’t know about it,” she said.

In northeast Detroit, a coalition of several nonprofits and block club associations have been putting out its own biannual community newspaper to about 10,000 within the city’s District 3.

Karen Washington, a coordinator for Restore Northeast Detroit, said she agrees more news coverage of city neighborhoods is needed, but she wants to know “what’s the twist?”

“It’s a great undertaking, but I just want to know the method,” Washington said. “What story are they trying to portray in the neighborhoods? What’s the reach?”

But Washington is open to the concept and said if it’s done right, “we certainly would tap in.”

“Information is power to me,” she said. “I just want it to be a tool that can be used to benefit the greater good of the neighborhoods.”