DETROIT, MI — This might just be the newsiest city in America—and Stephen Henderson’s job is to make sense of all that news. 2013 spun Detroit through a landmark bankruptcy, emergency management, and a soap opera of a mayoral election, and Henderson, the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, delivered columns that sharpened the news morass with a fierce and engaging point-of-view.
On Monday, those columns were recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, the 10th Pulitzer in the paper’s history. “My head is still sort of spinning” at the news, Henderson told CJR. “I am trying to be present to it all so I can remember it later, but it’s difficult.” (Disclosure: I contribute occasional articles about literature for the Freep, but I have never been on staff and have never worked with Henderson or the editorial page.)
Henderson worked at The Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Lexington Herald-Leader and the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau before becoming the Free Press’ editorial page editor in 2009. But he’s got deep roots in Detroit—the city is his hometown and he is now raising his family here—and that shows in his columns, which explore the roots of the city’s fiscal crisis, argue about the most productive ways for activists to shape current policy, and probe Detroit’s complex racial politics. The Pulitzer citation describes his work, aptly, as “written with passion and a stirring sense of place, sparing no one in their critique.”
I spoke with Henderson about the Pulitzer, the role of newspaper commentary, and his hopes for Detroit—and for journalism—Friday morning. This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.
Why was this set of columns chosen to submit to the Pulitzer committee?
Every year we try to do work at the Free Press, and particularly at the editorial page, that is deserving of big national recognition. This last year was a particularly obvious candidate given the nature of the news. So [publisher] Paul Anger and I started talking about whether we would submit me as a columnist, and if we did, how we would do it. The first package [of columns] I put together had a lot of Detroit stuff in it, but also other things—national and state stuff. He looked at it and said it was good, but he wondered what an all-Detroit entry would look like. At first I thought, not a good idea because it might seem too provincial for a Pulitzer committee. It seems like, particularly in commentary, the prize usually goes to national columnist. I mean, the [Washington] Post and [New York] Times have won it more than any other paper. So I was skeptical about it. But I put together a set of Detroit columns, and he sent a note that this is what we were doing. I thought [the package] was good, very strong, but in the back of my mind, I still thought if it had the national pieces, it had a better chance. But he’s the publisher, so we sent it.
What is the purpose of commentary, and the editorial page more broadly, in modern-day newspapers?
I always have said the editorial page is the voice of the newspaper. If you think about it, the Free Press is more than 150 years old—it’s older than state of Michigan—and it has spent every day of its existence right here in downtown Detroit. If that’s not citizenship, I don’t know what is. My job as editorial page editor is to give a face and a voice to that citizen. The role the paper is supposed to play is to be a protector of the city and particularly the citizens here. To give voice to people who live here. We do that in a number of ways. I try to do that in my columns where I feel more freedom to do so because of my personal connection to city.
A lot of newspapers are turning away from commentary. If anything, I’d say we’re embracing it more at the Free Press. If you look through the Pulitzer entry, certainly more than a quarter of them ran on the front page and not the edit page. And that reflects how important Paul Anger sees the role of commentary. When big things happen in the bankruptcy, the first thing he says is, “We need a column to go along with that story.”
That’s really interesting—shifting the role of commentary to be in direct juxtaposition with news reporting.
Columns—and it’s not just my columns that run on front page—I think add perspective and depth to the news. Here’s what happened in the story, and then we’re trying to tell you here what it means. Or here’s how you ought to think about this, or here are some things you might miss in the big story.