Steve Neavling may be one of the most hated men in Detroit. Since leaving his post as a Detroit Free Press city hall reporter two years ago, this slim journalist has been stalked, threatened, punched, pushed, and, currently, he’s facing an assault charge.
“Today alone I got three death threats,” Neavling, 37, said late last month, after one of his latest posts, about graffiti artists boldly tagging Detroit’s crumbling historic buildings, went viral in Detroit.
Neavling reports as the “Motor City Muckraker,” uncovering controversies big and small in America’s largest bankrupt city. Beginning the month after he left the Free Press, Motor City Muckraker was at first a one-man operation of Neavling roaming about town—chronicles range from stakeouts of known drug houses to numbers of broken stoplights. His site has since grown into a small network of about five regular contributors.
While Neavling’s brand certainly isn’t on the level of, say, Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Klein, or Nate Silver, the small mission has landed its fair share of scoops and has Detroit’s legacy media taking notice. And with recent layoffs at the Free Press, a change of management at the city’s smaller daily, The Detroit News, and a soon-to-expire joint-operating agreement hanging over both papers, Neavling could point a possible way forward for journalists unsure of their futures.
“I never saw this as a full-time job until about six months into it. To have the freedom to pursue any story I want is truly liberating,” the five-year Detroit resident says. “It was so many council meetings,” he added, regarding Free Press coverage—and indeed, it was a council meeting that led to his departure from the paper.
After five years working at the Free Press, Neavling was abruptly dismissed in April 2012 after a verbal clash with then-City Council President Charles Pugh. At a city council meeting, attendees were crowded into a small room in city hall instead of larger chambers. When Neavling asked why, Pugh gave a less-than-professional response. Neavling printed the quote; Pugh complained to Neavling’s editors, and Neavling was shown the door.
Looking for a way to keep his name out there, Neavling and his girlfriend, Abigail Shah, invested about $200 into a URL, Web hosting, and design for Motor City Muckraker. But without the credibility and name recognition of the well-known newspaper behind him, it was difficult to obtain access to high-level meetings, especially once Detroit began to spiral into bankruptcy.
Shah, meanwhile, took on multiple roles as researcher, bookkeeper, site manager, and social media manager, learning how to earn money through Google’s AdSense program and figuring out how to best promote the site.
The pair experienced some financial setbacks; just after the launch of Motor City Muckraker, they were burglarized and also wondering how to pay for Shah’s burdensome student loan debt. They moved from Lafayette Park, a quiet neighborhood on the edge of downtown Detroit, to a small, cheap apartment in its rougher Cass Corridor, where they sleep on a couch.
“When you’re making $12,000 a year and living in Detroit with Detroiters, it gives you a better understanding,” Neavling says. “You get a better sense of people’s problems.”
Shah adds, “It’s really exhausting having a newsroom in your living room.”
To make ends meet, Neavling worked as a stringer for Reuters’ Detroit bureau and the law enforcement site TickleTheWire.com, where he spends three early-morning hours a day. He ended his relationship with Reuters when a teenage photographer for the wire service was killed on assignment in Syria. It didn’t sit well with Neavling morally; “I just sent them an email and said, ‘I’m done.’”
The setbacks didn’t stop Neavling’s dogged reporting as he uncovered stories such as unscrupulous behavior from the state’s
attorney generaltreasurer, including alcoholism and alleged threats against his ex-wife for having an affair with a Detroit News reporter. Neavling also chased scanner reports, giving first-hand accounts of beleaguered fire and police responders as resources dwindled in the lead-up to the bankruptcy.
Neavling didn’t count on violence becoming part of the job, too. At the Free Press, he spent much of his time in city hall space designated for the press. As the pavement-pounding Muckraker, Neavling found himself breaking up street fights—or getting into them.
“I’ve been passionate since I was a kid, and I can’t do something without putting all of myself into it,” he says. “I see Detroit as a very vulnerable place right now, and I get very, very passionate when I see something that is unjust happening.”