‘We wanted to come home’: Ron Fournier on making the move from DC to Detroit

Photo by: Arthur Palac

Ron Fournier, the national political journalist, made headlines of his own this week when he announced that he was leaving Washington, DC, for his hometown of Detroit. 

During his 25 years in the capital, Fournier served as bureau chief for The Associated Press, editor-in-chief of National Journal, and, most recently, as political columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic. But in September, he’s trading that in to become associate publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business. He has family in the area, and a cottage in Northern Michigan, but in his column this week describing the move, Fournier also emphasized his return as coming out of a desire to join in Detroit’s “revival and reinvention.”

What does this look like journalistically? I spoke with Fournier by phone on Wednesday about the switch from national to local journalism, and what it means to cover business in Detroit at this moment. This interview has been edited and abridged.

Tell me more about why you decided to make the leap.

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It’s pretty simple: We wanted to come home. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true. Since we left in ’85, we loved Arkansas when we lived there [where Fournier began his career as a reporter], and we loved the DC area. But every time we’d visit Detroit, we’d be talking about when we’d next go back home. We almost made the move 10 or 12 years ago, but it just wasn’t right when the kids were younger. We finally said that when Tyler, our youngest, graduated high school, we’d do it. Our daughter already lives in Detroit, and our new grandkid. And Tyler graduated in June. He’s mildly autistic, and if we’re going to rebuild the structure of service programs that came in public schools, we should do it in Michigan, as we build our life anew.

So it was purely personal. I always said I’d move back even if I had to work in the yards to do it, but now I get to come back and have a really cool job. Detroit is really fascinating. It’s going to be a neat place to cover for the next few years. 

National Journal, your longtime employer, has been going through a lot of change over the past year. Did did this factor into your decision to leave DC?

No. This has been something that’s been in the works for years. If anything, this is the wrong time to be leaving National Journal and The Atlantic, with everything going on. National Journal is focusing these last few years on its core mission, and while they’ve been doing that almost exclusively, The Atlantic is publishing a lot of great journalism. I love the freedom I have to write about what I want, when I want, and being edited by my editor here, Yoni Appelbaum, who is an incredible young editor and makes my writing so much better. If all I wanted to do in life was policy and political writing, leaving Atlantic Media would be a foolish thing to do.… But as David [Bradley, Atlantic’s owner] has known the last couple years, I really want to get home.

What do see as your newsroom role at Crain’s? 

What I know about is that I’ll have a dual role, bringing my experience and background to an already really strong newsroom and doing what I can to make it even stronger. I’ll help Jennette Smith, a remarkable editor, run her newsroom. I love teaching and passing on what little I know.

And on the business side, I’ll be working with a great team and hopefully learning from a great team led by KC Crain. How often do you get to work for a third-generation owner of a hundred-year old company? They own like 55 publications, including Advertising Age, which I didn’t even realize was part of the Crain’s family. I’ll work directly with [publisher] Mary Kramer to grow the audience and make money so that we can support really good accountability journalism. How do you produce stories that move the needle journalistically?

I don’t know the city that well—it’s been a long time since I lived there—and I don’t know the business side of journalism, but this seems like a great way to learn about both.

Are there specific stories you’re excited about covering? 

I’ve always been interested in the art and science of leadership—how, in Washington, the president and Congress work or don’t work together—and how power is concentrated. In Detroit, that happens in unusual ways. That’s a story I’m really interested in covering.

Also, the entrepreneurship beat is really an interest of mine. Crain’s has a lot of creative beats you wouldn’t expect at a business publication, with someone covering government, and someone covering food, and someone covering sports. Honestly, all of it is all-new to me. I have no idea what it’s like to work at a business publication. But the one thing I do know is that this is a company really committed to journalism. I don’t know what I will like the most!

Crain’s Detroit Business has risen in prominence as the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News have downsized. It’s not just a niche intra-business publication anymore; it’s playing a larger public-facing role, with reporting on issues like entrepreneurialism, nonprofits, and the Flint water crisis. What do you see as the role of Crain’s in the local media ecosystem?

As other newsrooms are having challenges with their resources, holes are opening up in the market. The vision of people like Mary and KC is that they that realize that covering the business of Detroit isn’t just about covering businesses in Detroit; it’s covering things like the business of sports, the business of government and politics, the business of entrepreneurship. They realized, smartly, how broad business coverage in Detroit can be.

For someone like me, it’s exciting; a big pallet we can draw from to cover the amazing story of Detroit’s resurgence. There’s no part of Detroit’s renaissance that we can’t cover from a Crain’s perspective, economically and socially.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm about the idea of a Detroit resurgence. At the same time, it’s important to have independent coverage of local power centers, including in the business world. Is there a tension there, especially at a business publication? I ask in part because in your Atlantic piece, you mentioned that the business development of Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family–the two entities most dramatically reshaping the urban landscape–are part of what’s inspired you to come back to Detroit. Inevitably, you’re going to be responsible for coverage of them.

There’s tension on any beat, in any newsroom. It’s certainly a part of the newsrooms in Washington. There’s tension when you cover politics and you also want the country turn out well. But when somebody is doing something wrong, you have to be able to criticize it. That’s what Crain’s has always done.

What Dan Gilbert and the Ilitches and Mayor Mike Duggan have done is amazing and inspiring. I’ll be living in the downtown that Dan Gilbert had built and attending hockey games in the arena Chris Ilitch is putting in on Woodward Avenue. But as soon as I see, or as soon as reporters see, that business is not being done properly, we can’t shirk from [covering] that. It’s not that different from when, in Washington you have to run a negative story on someone who’s been a longtime source and you need to be a source in the future. But you never stop doing it. It’s the way you gain respect, by fairly covering the beat, and not being afraid to call out those who don’t do right, and also to call out people who are doing right. I’ll bring the same attitude to Detroit.

Lots of news outlets have been moving into live events as a way to both generate revenue and build relationships with the community. But they can sometimes blur the traditional lines between editorial and business. What do you think of the Crain’s Detroit Homecoming event? It seems unusual in that its target audience is not locals per se, but expats.

Do you mean journalistically or from a business perspective? I attended the last two Crain’s Homecoming events. [Note: The third, an invitation-only event, is September 14-16.] Journalistically, the kind of programs they put onstage are providing me as an audience member with information I didn’t have before and insight into the Detroit business community I didn’t have before. So in that sense, it’s good journalism. Business-wise, it makes a lot of sense for Crain’s to reach out to expats get them interested not just in the city but in the Crain’s brand. Putting on the event draws sponsorships and money that can be invested in the newsroom. 

It’s not unlike the live events at Atlantic Media, which are incredible, like the Aspen Idea Festival. At the conventions, we had I think almost two dozen events at the two conventions, and they were done out of the same space the journalists were working. Up onstage were a couple members of Congress and pollsters being interviewed by Ron Brownstein, while the rest of us are writing stories. So they are providing hardcore journalism on issues that not just us but other outlets are covering, and as a sponsored event, it’s making money so the rest of us could go to the convention. Done right, live events can be another platform for doing journalism.

Anything else you’d like to add?

This isn’t an anti-Washington play. I love the city, and I love Arlington, where I raised my family. I will miss a lot of people. I will not miss the dysfunction I cover, but I will miss Washington, DC, a lot.

Also, one thing I miss about Arkansas is that you could cover a story in the capital and go outside and bump into people affected by it. I think being in Detroit will teach me to be more careful as a journalist, because I’ll be closer to the people whose lives are impacted by it.

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.