Taking on Detroit’s big challenges through informed engagement
Detroit has a lot going on when it comes to local news innovation.
As one of the “Knight cities,” it enjoys significant investments from the Knight Foundation.
That includes a grant in 2013 to form the Detroit Journalism Collaborative, a partnership between public TV and radio stations, ethnic media outlets, digital education outlet Chalkbeat, and statewide nonprofit Bridge Magazine.
A few years ago, Knight began working with the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM) on an initiative to lift up smaller media outlets and try innovative experiments. Katie Brisson, CFSEM’s vice president of programs, said Knight’s Detroit program director Katy Locker wanted to root this new initiative at the community foundation because of its strong local relationships. The Ford Foundation joined the effort as well, bringing an interest in Detroit’s robust ethnic media.
Before launching a new fund, Brisson said, “We wanted to ground ourselves in information.”
The foundation hired journalist Debra Adams Simmons to do a scan of Detroit’s local news ecosystem. She interviewed more than 60 stakeholders, including local journalists, civic leaders, corporate executives, clergy, entrepreneurs and citizens, along with national journalism experts. She also drew from published reports and other sources.
Detroit has a history of journalism innovation and is rich in talent and collaboration, she wrote. Yet not only are headcounts at the major newspapers about a third of what they had been two decades ago, their staffs are even less diverse than before, which erodes trust.
“Community engagement and public-affairs journalism both require journalistic relationships with the community, but many Detroit news consumers do not see themselves reflected in the news — or, often, in the newsrooms that create it,” Simmons wrote. She saw opportunities in developing the city’s talent pool and engaging in local communities.
While the scan involved big-picture thinking about the field of local news, the task for funders was to determine what they could feasibly do to make an impact with finite time and money.
“The report is addressing big, big issues,” Brisson said. “We had to pull from that, what tangibly can we do with grants that last a year?”
Knight’s focus was innovation, while Ford was concerned about representation. Together, the three funders looked for new ways of doing things and authentic voices from the community. “We said, who’s out there already trying some things that, with an infusion of cash, could really do it in a robust way? Who has ideas they haven’t been able to try for lack of money?”
The Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund launched in 2017 and has now made more than $650,000 in grants to journalism projects reflecting diverse perspectives, including investing in New Michigan Media, a network of ethnic and minority newspapers.
Now in its third year, the fund also continues to support workshops and convenings within Detroit’s journalism community.