News Startups Guide

Nonprofit hyperlocal news in suburban Detroit

January 12, 2012 POINTE, MICHIGAN — When the 2010 Census was released, it revealed some interesting changes in the metro Detroit community of Grosse Pointe. Whereas in 2000 the non-white population of the area was marginal, in 2010 the percentage of minorities had risen steeply. The number of African Americans living in Grosse Pointe area, for instance, had increased by 300 percent. The online news site jumped on the story, publishing a 2,000-word piece that addressed the area’s historically racist legacy and explored the perspective of a newly arrived interracial couple and a number of black homeowners.

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    • It’s the type of unique coverage that the article’s author, Nancy Nall Derringer, says Grosse Pointe Today strives for. Race relations are the “cancer of the whole metropolitan area,” explains Derringer, and an issue that doesn’t get written about in local media often. “That’s sort of what makes us different from the others. When you only have a few people working for you, it’s really about what can we do that the others can’t,” says Derringer, who is a co-founder of the site.

      Grosse Pointe Today is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that aims to deliver news about a range of local issues–schools, government, real estate, business, and public safety–to the five municipalities that make up the community of Grosse Pointe. “We are still very traditional in that we don’t do advocacy journalism,” says Derringer. “But at the same time there are places [here] you can get traditional journalism, so we try to do something different.” That involves producing stories that try to answer the questions of “Why?” and “What does it mean?” “We’re always kind of writing a second day lead,” says Derringer.

      The three founders of Grosse Pointe Today are also the site’s only staff members. Each has deep roots in print journalism. Ben Burns, the site’s publisher, had a storied career in newspapers–he is a former executive editor of the Detroit News–and is a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame. Sheila Tomkowiak, designer and marketer for the site, is a veteran newswoman with thirty years of experience as an art director, editor, and writer. Derringer, who reports and edits the majority of content on the site, spent twenty years at newspapers in Indiana.

      The three met at Wayne State University, where they hold teaching positions. They’ve used the site to give their students journalism experience. On average, they have around six students reporting for the site each semester. Because Grosse Pointe Today covers the five adjacent communities that make up Grosse Pointe, each with their own city councils, there’s a wealth of material on which to report.

      A historically affluent area, the suburban communities have been negatively affected by both the housing collapse and shrinking budgets of local government. In addition to Grosse Pointe Today, the communities are served by a local Patch site as well as a weekly print newspaper, Grosse Pointe News.

      Thus far the staff and contributors to the site are unpaid. “Our business model in a lot of ways is a lot of praying,” says Derringer. Burns provided seed money for the site, and was soon helped along by the Knight Foundation’s J-Lab New Voices program, which awarded the site $15,000 in 2009. The site received an additional $10,000 from the New Voices program, which Burns matched with another contribution.

      “At this point we are financially stable with monthly revenues exceeding costs in most months,” wrote Burns in an e-mail. “We need to work on development and fundraising in the community and will do so this year.”

      The site accepts reader donations ($1,000 will make you an “honorary publisher”), but at this point donations do not make up a significant percentage of revenues, according to Burns. The site also sells advertising directly to local businesses, which makes up about ten percent of revenues, according to Tomkowiak.

      Of online news startups in general, Derringer says she feels like she is living through a revolution, which isn’t always comfortable. “It’s still a tenuous field to be in but it’s interesting and you learn a lot.” She adds, “In terms of whatever is going to save us, save journalism, I really believe the answer is not going to be simple or easy. It’s going to be complex and come from many directions.” Data



City: Grosse Pointe

Maura R. O'Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. This year she was awarded a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and will be reporting on American foreign aid from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa.