behind the news

Detroit’s one-man brand

Steve Neavling is trying to monetize a home-grown city reporting site
March 6, 2014

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.

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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, 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.”

There was the time when Neavling was tossed out on his rear end by security guards at Wayne State University when a meeting for residents concerned about the city’s financial problems became overcrowded. There was another time when Neavling had guns pointed to his head for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. “I have a lot thicker skin than I did when I first started this,” he says.

Muckraker’s big break came after Neavling was handed video footage of police officers in Grosse Pointe Park, a wealthier, whiter suburb of Detroit, harassing a homeless black man. The stories stirred up old racial tensions in this divided region, but led to a storm of issues for Neavling.

He and Shah had to threaten legal action against local TV stations and CNN for pirating their video without credit. Then online and by phone, Neavling’s first round of death threats came, as well as racially charged taunts. Serious trouble began when one critic of Neavling’s Grosse Pointe Park coverage, a resident of nearby Grosse Pointe Woods, approached Neavling with a camera of his own.

According to The Detroit News, videographer Blake Arnold approached Neavling while they were both covering a fire–at the historic home of a doctor who was one of the first black people to move into the white neighborhood there in the 1920s–when Arnold began questioning Neavling about the Grosse Pointe Park police videos. A scuffle ensued, with Neavling swinging at Arnold. Arnold then filed assault charges against Neavling; the case, as of publication, is still open.

But the coverage of the Grosse Pointe Park police’s harassment earned Neavling notoriety, with appearances in local media and citation from his former employer, a paper historically reluctant to source its rivals when scooped. In the end, the police department was forced to undergo diversity training.

Traffic from the story earned some of the site’s biggest revenue, Shah says, and put Motor City Muckraker on the map with advertisers. The site just recently began selling its first ads to local businesses.

Motor City Muckraker earned its $12,000 last year with AdSense aloneabout $4,000 last year; it’s too early to project what revenues will be this year as site traffic grows and advertising increases. Neavling and Shah, however, do have additional plans for monetizing the brand. A spinoff site, Marijuana In The Mitten, will have medical marijuana reviews and has investor interest, and there are plans for Motor City Muckraker merchandising.

Bill McGraw, another former Free Press reporter who launched Deadline Detroit, a digital journalism venture initially funded by Compuware Ventures, traces Muckraker’s potential to Neavling’s ability to “pick your own spots” for coverage and focus on those.

“Steve has shown that one person who has reportorial skills can make a difference,” McGraw says, pointing to the policy changes at the Grosse Pointe Park police department as a result of Neavling’s coverage.

But the question of long-term sustainability still lingers. “Is it a lifetime vocation? Can you do it day in and day out for 10 years?” McGraw says. He also notes that while a sole reporter can easily move from one topic to the next, larger projects can be a challenge without a larger staff covering the day-to-day.

Among Neavling’s short-term goals is to keep adding to the site’s locally based network of contributors. “We don’t want people writing about Detroit if they’re living in the suburbs,” he says. “It’s important that people writing about Detroit live around the problems (and) live around the greatness.”

Aaron Foley is the chief storyteller at the City of Detroit. He is also the author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass and the editor of The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook.