“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take—that caring leads to compromise; that for journalists fighting isn’t a right, but a luxury—seems simultaneously outdated and more important than ever.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.”

Happy and Morgan often describe themselves as “wearing different hats” when it comes to different aspects of their work in the neighborhood. When they’re reporting and writing about the area, they’re journalists; when they’re making presentations to Detroit’s City Council on behalf of the neighborhood or applying for grant money, they’re private citizens. And yet the lines they draw for themselves, they’re the first to admit, are as slack as the felled phone lines that sway on Dobel Street: when journalism meets activism, the divisions between narrator and player are necessarily muddled. There’s no off switch for outrage.

09/01/07 01:52:46 am, by Michael Happy
Categories: Dobel Street
Where’s the beef?
I had all intentions of sitting down tonight and beginning to write the story about how a group of former residents of the City Airport community joined forces with current residents of the area—including a church, a community group, a neighborhood watch group and local businesses—to turn back the clock at Fletcher Playground. It’s a story I will tell in the days leading up to the celebration at the park on Sept. 8.
But today I’m not in the right state of mind to do justice to that story and to the wonderful people I have met and been reunited with along the way. I’m angry, and I want to raise your blood pressure as well, inspire you to write a letter, make a telephone call, get involved—whether you live in the city now or used to call Detroit your home.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.