How a Knight-supported journalism cooperative is chronicling Detroit’s story

Journalism / Article

Above: The Rev. David Alexander Bullock leading a protest outside Dearborn police headquarters three days after a white Dearborn police officer shot and killed an unarmed black Detroiter he had chased across the border into Detroit. (Bridge photo by Bill McGraw via Detroit Journalism Collective)

The Intersection: A Project of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative 2016 on YouTube

Bill McGraw is a writer for Bridge Magazine, a former reporter, editor and columnist for the Detroit Free Press, and co-founder of Deadline Detroit.

In 2013, the Ford Foundation, Knight Foundation and the San Francisco-based Renaissance Journalism project proposed an experiment in Detroit: Could nine media outlets on four platforms using four languages collaborate on a venture to share content and enhance reporting on one of southeast Michigan’s biggest news events in memory—Detroit’s federal bankruptcy case.

Detroit was by far the nation’s largest city to file for Chapter 9 protection, and the case was complicated, fraught with peril and vitally important to the 4 million metro Detroiters who live in a region long split by racial and economic divisions.

The nonprofit media outlets represented a broad range of mainstream and ethnic news organizations: DPTV (Detroit public TV, WDET (Detroit public radio), Michigan Radio, Bridge Magazine, The Arab American News, Detroit Jewish News, Michigan Chronicle, Latino Press, and The Michigan Korean Weekly.

The organizations accepted the challenge, named themselves the Detroit Journalism Cooperative and launched a year-and-a-half-long series of reports to inform residents of developments from the federal courthouse, monitor the actions of the city’s emergency manager, give voice to the residents and pensioners who had the most to lose in the case, and chronicle the city’s bid to recover after bankruptcy. The cooperative also sponsored community-engagement activities to reach the area’s most diverse and disenfranchised residents.

The reporting was gathered on a website titled Next Chapter Detroit.

The bankruptcy case ended in December 2014, and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative followed up with in-depth reporting on a number of Detroit neighborhoods.

In early 2015, Knight Foundation challenged the partners to go deeper than incremental story collaboration and devise a narrative about Detroit that would become a touchstone Detroit Journalism Cooperative project.

The result, after months of planning, is The Intersection, a multimedia  examination of the issues today that were at the center of the civil disorder that shook Detroit in 1967, nearly five decades ago. The five-day riot, which many people call a rebellion, ended with 43 deaths, 1,189 injuries and 2,509 stores looted or burned; it was the most destructive of dozens of urban uprisings across the nation in 1967-1968.

The metaphorical intersection is the crossroads of many individual fates and social issues that continue to radiate from the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue in Detroit, the epicenter of the 1967 disturbance. In an era of Black Lives Matter and national debate over the incarceration rates of African-American men, the subjects raised nearly 50 years ago have special resonance today.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig on Community Relations | Detroit Journalism Cooperative, on YouTube

Already in 2016, The Intersection has scrutinized the issues of political and civic power and the evolving relationship between police and ordinary residents; subsequent installments will address poverty, racial attitudes, schools, justice, housing and segregation. With each installment, we ask: Have conditions for the city’s mostly African-American residents gotten better, worse or stayed the same since 1967?

Along with the main subjects, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative partners are providing collateral coverage of such important topics as police brutality, the rise of Arab Americans at Detroit City Hall and the Kerner Commission, the 11-member panel appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of the riots in Detroit and other cities, and to propose solutions. The cooperative is using the Kerner Commission’s final report as a baseline for examining the city’s progress in the decades since.

The partners’ work is shared, cross-promoted and integrated, and the Detroit region is benefitting from the unique approach of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, which is entering its third year.

Over the next several months on Knight Blog, the partners will share insights from our experience as members of the cooperative—and our efforts to share the stories about our evolving city on multiple platforms. Our goal is to both enlighten and inspire, while engaging residents around the issues most relevant to the city’s recovery and restructuring.  

 For more information on the project, visit detroitjournalism.org