BridgeDetroit launched in the middle of 2020 with one purpose: to focus on “lifting up the issues that Detroiters themselves identify as important to their lives.”
That meant staffing with a diverse team that reflected the city’s demographics, and hiring an engagement director whose job would be to meet with the community in an effort to create something that truly represented Detroit.
It started as a response to the question, how does Detroit address its public information gap in the wake of city bankruptcy? Led by the Knight Foundation, local journalists first convened to discuss what type of news the city needed the most.
BridgeDetroit executive editor Stephen Henderson — winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for columns in the Detroit Free Press about the city’s financial crisis — said the brainstorm group found a promising model: the Detroit-based service journalism nonprofit Outlier Media.
“They are consistently talking to Detroiters about their needs and challenges and then trying to respond to those needs through journalism,” he said. “We wondered, could we do this on a grander scale, if we could build a newsroom around the idea of doing that?”
Knight was the first to fund the proposal to create a newsroom that reflected, reported and covered Detroit — where four out of five residents are Black — from a community-based perspective. Ford Foundation, Kresge Foundation, McGregor Fund and a host of other local philanthropic groups got on board by the end of 2019.
A key component to the start-up was deciding not to build everything from the ground up, but instead to have the organization hosted under the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank that also runs the state news organization Bridge Michigan.
“We decided that we needed to root this in some existing business success. And the Center for Michigan had come up with this great nonprofit model for Bridge Michigan and had built the infrastructure to sustain it — payroll, computer systems,” Henderson said.
“In addition, they gave us access to their funder network…[ and] we’ve added to that network…. The funding model is there, the business infrastructure is there. We just need to put flesh to bone, to create the organization that creates the content.”
Henderson approached Catherine Kelly to lead the newsroom. Kelly, a Detroit native and media veteran, had been the publisher of the Black newspaper, the Michigan Citizen. That paper shuttered in 2014 due to declining print revenue, and Kelly left journalism to take a job in corporate communications.
“I was working in corporate media. I just got a promotion; I was going to stay,” said Kelly. “Then the pandemic hit. Stephen and I were talking — he was pitching it and pulling it together. Meanwhile, I was on all those corporate Zoom calls, and I thought, what am I doing? With the pandemic, it was this moment of, what are you doing with your life? Is it important? What really is important?
“The need for information in Detroit is huge. The need to work with the community, to understand the information gaps that exist in Detroit are tremendous. You have to understand how hard hit Detroit was by the pandemic. It felt like a time to serve. It just felt so urgent. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said.
One major challenge posed by COVID- 19 is the inability to host events to guide BridgeDetroit’s Community Priorities Model. The idea for the model is this: traditional and mainstream media have a history of overlooking communities of color and, when they do cover them, the coverage lacks the sensitivity and perspective of a newsroom that reflects the readership.
“It’s a part of our model that we want to share,” Henderson said. “We want to produce a report every quarter and share with newsrooms what we’re hearing from Detroiters — about what they want covered, what they’re interested in and what’s going on in their lives. What’s happening in your neighborhood that will challenge you the most? This effort has been hobbled by the pandemic, by the inability to get in a room to get things done. As the world comes back to together, that’ll be another dimension of the work that’ll take on importance.”
In interviews with Quill, Henderson and Kelly spoke at length about the challenges of starting a newsroom during COVID-19. They also discussed the Community Priorities Model and its role in serving BridgeDetroit’s mission.
Take us to March of 2020, the start of the COVID-19 shutdown. Where was BridgeDetroit in its process of launching at the time?
Stephen Henderson: We had spent much of the fall of 2019 lining up initial matching funding. Our initial launch window was middle of 2020. When the pandemic hit, we were of two minds.
One, it was such a disruption that it would be impossible to launch a new newsroom. We couldn’t be in the same room with anybody
But we were also of the mind that the pandemic was such a disruption to Detroiters. Early on, it was clear Detroit was going to suffer a lot differently than the rest of the state, so there was this urgency to get Bridge going because we knew there would be stories, there would be engagement that Bridge would be involved in that other media might not get to.
We had to make a decision, quickly, about whether to delay our launch date or to move it up. In the end we moved it up to launch it without a physical newsroom and without our staff ever having worked in a physical place — which is still true, by the way. There’s only been two times our staff have been together, both times to take socially distanced photographs. Those were the only times our staff had met each other in person.
We could just as easily have defended the choice to say, “look, we can’t do this.” But the content demanded that Bridge exist. And we made all those decisions before we knew anything about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement that would go up around his death. [The protests] were bigger here than they were in many other cities; they went on longer. They inspired and pushed forward a group of local leaders who a lot of people didn’t know before. BridgeDetroit really was the face of that emergence. There were stories about didn’t see in the big dailies. It wasn’t just that we decided to launch: the pandemic became a twin huge crisis story that we had to figure out how to respond to right away.
I suppose knowing how to respond to a crisis is part of what it means to be a journalist. But for you guys, it wasn’t just about covering these events, it was also about how to launch and run a brand new operation. And cover the stories in a manner that defines the organization.
SH: And then it ends with the election, which was its own story in Detroit. This was the center of the challenges of the validity of the election outcome. We had white suburbanites come to the city and try to interrupt the vote count, literally banging on the doors, carrying Trump flags, chanting “stop the steal.”
And we were inside. Our reporters were inside watching the vote counting, chronicling the incredible conflict between the people rightfully counting votes and the people wrongfully wanting to make that not happen. Everyone covered that, but the coverage Bridge offered was really different from the other coverage.
SH: There was one particular Detroiter [Sommer Woods] who was at the center of controversy, in the days after the election. She stood outside the convention hall where they were counting votes and stared down this white mob that had gathered, trying to get in, and told them that they couldn’t. She backed them away. There was instant coverage of that everywhere. But the next day, the publication she sat down with to talk about what happened was BridgeDetroit. We approached her from the vantage point of, “Hey, this is a story about us as Detroiters. About our votes, about an attack on our votes, and it’s a story about the ways in which Detroiters have defended themselves against that attack, and you are the central figure.”
We sat down with her for two or three hours. We took incredible photos of her. That’s another dimension of BridgeDetroit: if you look at our coverage, we’ve worked with photographers who were very grounded in the city and the people of the city. She depicts the city in a really different way from other photographers. It’s not that it’s more accurate — you can’t make up a photo. But it’s more truthful. It’s a deeper way to photograph and to display Detroiters and the spirit that people here have. It comes across. The photos of Sommer Woods are some of the most stunning photos of her I’ve ever seen.
The idea of accuracy versus truth — that’s something I’ve dealt with as a person of color in a newsroom. I’ve been told I was too emotional to cover Asian-American issues because I got too upset at racism. But it seems like you have a model that can combat biases rooted in the practices of traditional journalism.
SH: We have had a long discussion in journalism about the idea of objectivity and its importance in telling fair stories. I’m not someone who thinks that’s an idle or unimportant conversation. But what’s changed about it is the idea of being dispassionate. There’s a difference, right? You can be objective, you can be fair, but so much of journalism is, through its own exercise, dispassionate. The people telling the stories aren’t the same as the people who are having stories told about them. The communities that are being portrayed aren’t being portrayed by the people from those communities.
When you change those ingredients in a newsroom, what you get is still objective and fair and following the rules of journalism, but it’s not dispassionate. You can’t be dispassionate about your own community or your own people. We follow all the same protocols. But you can see the distinction in those stories. It matters differently to us. I won’t say it doesn’t matter to other journalistic organizations; it does, but it matters differently to our staff. You can see that in the ways stories are written and depicted, in the way that we choose to tell those stories.
A key player at the paper in covering Detroit from a Detroiter’s perspective is Managing Editor/Director Catherine Kelly.
What role does the community play in what gets covered at BridgeDetroit?
Catherine Kelly: The goal of the community priorities model is to regularly talk with and understand the issues and concerns from Detroit residents. They tell us what is important to cover. Housing instability is a big issue. Tax foreclosure. The crisis caused by COVID-19. When the residents tell us what’s important to them, our job is to cover these topics. We started a series on home repair. We are covering a marijuana ordinance in Detroit that’s developed to benefit longtime and legacy Detroiters. In this time of defunding the police, we’re spending a lot of time with the police commissioner. Our reporters are close to public meetings and community meetings. It’s not about getting the mayor’s quote, but what do the residents have to say?
This is very different from a more top-down, hierarchical model, of an executive editor from another city who’s on their way to a promotion assigning stories to a reporter.
CK: When you come from a community newspaper and a Black newspaper — the Black press believes in telling its own story. Being able to control your narrative is a big part. I was raised with that, and I bring that to my work at BridgeDetroit. If you let the [Detroit] Free Press and [Detroit] News define Detroit’s narrative, there’s so much that’s missing.
I’ve talked to other reporters of color about changing the culture of a big newsroom. It’s so hard to change a place from within. But as a new publication, you don’t need to fight that fight anymore. It seems like you have a certain basis of understanding.
CK: We’re pretty much on the same page. You don’t have to argue with that all-powerful editor who is part of a hierarchy and whose very role is to maintain the system that doesn’t serve the community. In the past, these news orgs have forgotten that mission to report, document and serve — but ultimately serve. You’re trying to connect people with information. Get people good information so they can make good decisions in their life.
Wei-Huan Chen is a freelance journalist and former theater and arts critic for the Houston Chronicle. Before arriving at the Chronicle, he was arts and culture reporter for the Indianapolis Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Featured Photo: The BridgeDetroit team includes Orlando Bailey, engagement director; Louis Aguilar, senior reporter; Stephen Henderson, project executive and executive editor; Olivia Lewis, reporter/editor and Catherine Kelly, managing editor/director. (Photo by Valaurian Waller)