In the year since Going Home has been live, Happy, Morgan, and a team of community leaders have mobilized those who feel a claim to the neighborhood—residents both current and former—to clean up Fletcher Field, turning it from urban wasteland to playable park. They have formed an advocacy operation, Friends of Fletcher Field, to ensure that the park remains a safe place for neighborhood kids to play. They are taking steps to register Friends as a nonprofit. They have organized a reunion of now middle-aged students from the neighborhood’s old high school, enlisting many of those who came out for it—some from across the country—to dedicate time and money to the neighborhood. They have met with the members of the Rotary Club and other service groups to ask for money and manpower to help the neighborhood. They have arranged for groups to speak at City Hall on its behalf. They spend so much time, in fact, either in the neighborhood or thinking and writing about it that when they laugh with each other about their wife (Happy) or their girlfriend (Morgan) leaving them over their “other woman,” they’re only partially joking. It’s common to see a Going Home post time-stamped 2 a.m. “We’re trying to be abstract and high-level here,” Morgan says, “but we’re also learning the resources it takes to keep things going on the ground.”
Ask Happy and Morgan what Going Home is, fundamentally, and they’ll tell you, without hesitating, that it’s journalism—a logical extension of the work they do and the skills they’ve developed as professional reporters. But Going Home is more than storytelling. It is community building. It is advocacy. And Happy and Morgan aren’t just reporting the neighborhood’s story. They’re affecting the story. In some ways, they are the story.
“It’s just not right,” says Christine MacDonald, a Detroit News metro reporter in the paper’s City Hall bureau. Going Home’s blatant agenda-mongering, she says, no matter its good intentions, compromises the paper’s overall credibility. Dave Josar, MacDonald’s colleague in the City Hall bureau, shares her concern, and wonders, “What are the rules here?” It’s a fair question, and one that newspapers around the country are struggling to answer as they incorporate reporters’ blogs into their online strategy. (Going Home shares space on the News’s Web site with forty-four reporter-written blogs on everything from politics to parenting to crafts.) Where to draw the line—between opinion and reporting, between advocacy and journalism—in such an uneven landscape is difficult to say with any consistency. The traditional take—that caring leads to compromise; that for journalists fighting isn’t a right, but a luxury—seems simultaneously outdated and more important than ever. “You give that up to some extent when you become a reporter,” MacDonald says of the former propositions. “All we have at the News is our reputation.”
Happy and Morgan, though, see the work they do in the community—even the political activism—as bolstering, rather than threatening, that reputation. “There are two sides here,” Happy says. “Either you help or you don’t.” To him, and to Morgan, journalism isn’t just about telling stories; it is about using those stories to affect people and effect change. And credibility, they believe, lies less in objectivity—“I hate that word,” Morgan says—and more in caring, actively, about sources and stories. “Michael doesn’t cover the city,” his editor, Nancy Hanus, the News’s director of new media, points out. “That would be a different kind of an issue. But the fact that, as a native Detroiter, he got involved in something, and wanted to share the power of what he could do through this blog with others, and got other people involved—I don’t think we do hardly anything that resonates so deeply with people anymore.”
Going Home, Hanus believes, fights the reputation of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am journalism (get in, get story, get out). Happy and Morgan are committed to the neighborhood. They’re there before work, after work, on weekends. Observing, listening, learning. In other words, doing classic immersion reporting. “As we change as an industry,” Hanus says, “people out in the community are coming to be a part of making the story, and I think that’s a good thing .We can only be doing a better job of covering our communities. And the fact that community is part of this report is, to me, where community journalism needs to go.”