Unsolicited advice for the new editor of the Detroit Free Press

DETROIT, MI — Yesterday, Robert Huschka was named executive editor of the Detroit Free Press. A well-liked staffer for more than 16 years, Huschka’s recent rise in the ranks has been strikingly fast. In February, he assumed the managing director role, and in May, he became interim editor. His resume is also a little unusual for a top editor: The bulk of his career has been in news design and presentation.

But while the job description emphasizes the importance of the highest journalistic standards, reporting experience isn’t a requirement. And in an interview Tuesday, Huschka told me that his presentation background is an asset that can inform a new era of multi-platform storytelling. At the same time, he said he is most excited about the role because it offers the opportunity “to tell great stories, to right wrongs, to be involved in the things that deeply affect the community.” Journalism, he said, “is most successful when it changes the world. My ambition is not small.… I do understand the weight that comes with this job.”

Huschka replaces Paul Anger, whose 10-year leadership of the Free Press brought two Pulitzer Prizes to the paper, as well as two Edward R. Murrow and four Emmy awards, and saw the Freep help dislodge a corrupt mayor from office. While Anger held the titles of both executive editor and publisher, that role is now split, with the publisher role held by Joyce Jenereaux, president of the Free Press and Michigan.com, the entity that oversees the business side of a collection of media properties in the state, including the Free Press’ longtime rival, The Detroit News.

Jenereaux said that Huschka stood out among the other candidates because he wrote a “very, very detailed and comprehensive vision statement about where the Free Press can go in the future. That was something unique and well thought-out.” She also said that Huschka was the “most passionate” candidate she considered.

Hushcka takes the helm at a time of radical change for the paper. Not only is it navigating the usual industry turmoil, including Gannett’s recent spin-off of its newspaper division, but the paper has lost three major newsroom leaders within about six months, as well as Nathan Bomey, one of the star reporters in the city’s bankruptcy coverage. Plus, both Detroit papers not long ago moved from their historic headquarters into a new downtown building. The Free Press is also at a critical juncture in its relationship with the News, with which it shares one of the nation’s few remaining joint operating agreements. Competition between the two outlets has led to better overall reporting in the city, but the outlook for the News, a Digital First property and the smaller of the two papers, is unclear.

At the same time, Detroit remains, I believe, the newsiest city in America. It’s facing tectonic shifts in its politics, redevelopment, and culture, and the need for accountability reporting is greater than ever. But the paper is much smaller than it once was; I was told by staff writer Patricia Montemurri that a current staff roster lists about 150 employees, compared to about 320 when Gannett bought the paper in 2005. Still, the Freep remains the largest news outlet in the state, and the third-largest Gannett property, behind USA Today and the Arizona Republic. I was also told by one candidate for the top job that the prospect of further downsizing did not come up in the interview (nor did any dramatic “Newsroom of the Future” restructuring). That means the Free Press is best situated to provide the kind of journalism the city needs.

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Count this, then, as a proposed to-do list for the new regime: a set of recommendations for how this 184-year-old newspaper might tackle this moment. These ideas are informed by interviews with 11 current and former staffers in recent weeks, including Huschka, as well as my own observations as a Free Press subscriber for more than seven years. (I’ve also occasionally contributed to its entertainment section.)

Hire the kind of editors that make reporters nervous. One of the departing newsroom leaders was former managing director Nancy Laughlin, who retired in February. Laughlin was known as a rigorous, hands-on editor–the kind who gives reporters a healthy nervousness when they turn in their draft–and I’ve heard from reporters who feel her absence has affected coverage this year. Finding a strong replacement will send a signal that, while the paper needs to innovate in many ways, news reporting done with care and craft remains a priority. As Jim Schaefer, a Pulitzer-winning staff writer, put it: one of the things the paper needs most is “damn good journalism that sells itself.”

Build a stronger presence in Detroit’s neighborhoods. With changes happening fast in the city, there’s a simmering tension between “old Detroit” and “new Detroit”–a divide with correlations to both race and class. And while no one news outlet can be expected to single-handedly overcome the divisions within the city and the broader metro area, their existence inevitably prompts a question: Who is the Free Press for? And if the goal is to be for the whole city, or the whole metro area, what would that look like?

The paper has reported on the city’s changes from different perspectives. But there are opportunities to do more, especially in the city neighborhoods far outside downtown. One approach: Don’t just “report on” these communities. Become a visible, consistent presence. Show up at community events. Visit the local branch library. Spend an afternoon working at the neighborhood diner. Host Free Press coffee hours in a local park. Invest the time not just to develop sources and build relationships, but to understand how to re-orient the vantage point of a story. (One model to build on: John Carlisle’s personable, compelling features.) More newsroom diversity, especially people who speak Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali, would also enhance coverage of both the city and the suburbs.

The obvious concern here is resources: Newsrooms everywhere are strapped, so how can the paper give staffers time to not write stories? But if you trust your staff, giving them this time and freedom is hardly a risk; it’s an investment in better stories.

Build on promising momentum with original and substantive events. The Freep Film Festival is one of the paper’s most significant initiatives in recent years: a multi-day, multi-venue showcase of excellent nonfiction films. The paper has also found a hit with its Top 10 Takeover program, a dining series at favorite local restaurants hosted by the food critic. And more modest programs are also proving popular, like the free lunchtime workshops on how to take great Instagram photos, taught by photo editor Diane Weiss (also known as @DDDEtroit and @brushpark_myhood).* The paper also ran a workshop for readers to learn about FOIA.

Events like these are strong ways to carry out the paper’s mission by emphasizing discussion and public engagement. In some cases, they are also potential revenue generators. And most especially, events are a good way for the paper to develop stronger ties with communities where it doesn’t yet have a strong presence, including in the region’s robust ethnic enclaves. The Free Press should look at staging more of these events at venues in Detroit neighborhoods that are outside downtown and Midtown. The Film Festival, for example, might consider screening some of its films at the historic Redford, Agar, and Senate theaters, all of which sit further out from city center.

Nail down a visionary strategy for video. In the studio cobbled together in the Freep’s old building, the video team was limited by the constant dinging of a nearby elevator and large, low fans—none of which made in-studio filming or recording easy. That’s why most of the paper’s early ventures in video were filmed on-location. But the new offices are designed with high-production video and audio in mind. This brings a wealth of new possibilities: short documentaries, shows, in-studio interviews, and a video counterpart to the paper’s new podcasts in arts and sports.

“I think a lot of newspaper video teams, in the early days, were trying to figure out how to be YouTube, or how to be TV,” said Kathy Kieliszewski, director of visuals. “But we always shied away from that… and we gravitate toward what my old boss calls ‘journalism made hard.’ Really high-end stuff. We want to continue to do that with the new studio.”

One of the most popular recent Freep video ventures involved Jim Schaefer and photographer Eric Seals spending a week on a 1,013-foot Great Lakes freighter, where they did a great deal of Periscoping, tweeting, and Instagramming, as well as time-lapse videos. “People really engaged with them,” Kieliszewski said. “They were literally taking photos of the boat when they saw it pass by and tweeting them back to us … It was this great journalism experience [because] we were bringing people to places they never get to see.”

The possibilities for video are exciting. But so far, no clear strategy is in place, and the staff is facing a learning curve with all the new equipment. They need support from the top to nail this down. And the goal should include not only swinging for home-runs, like Brian Kaufman’s 17-minute film about a local man facing trial in Lebanon for the 1980 murder of two Irish peacekeeping soldiers, but also for what Kieliszewski describes as solid singles. It also includes more experimentation in livestreaming. And no matter what, don’t bother with trying to translate basic news stories into video, because that just doesn’t work. “If I had someone do a story about how gas will be $2 a gallon by Christmas, no one will watch it,” Kieliszewski said.

Support cross-pollination with other local media. Since April, Stephen Henderson, the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor, has been doing double duty as the host of “Detroit Today,” a news talk show on WDET, a public radio station. The hour-long program airs twice a day, Monday through Friday, and requires a significant investment of time beyond Henderson’s public television gig. (CJR has looked at the significance of an earlier incarnation of this show.) While this might be seen as taking time and energy away from the Free Press, the cross-pollination actually feeds a more robust and interesting media ecosystem. The two forums reach different constituencies, and Henderson told me that shaping the radio program to meet the needs of a different set of people has deepened his understanding of pressing local news issues and of the community. And, he added, “the hope is if we’re reaching listeners that we don’t reach with the paper, maybe they’ll want to check out what this person does in print.”

Get a sign out front. When the Free Press and News moved into their new offices in the heart of downtown, their central location was touted as a big plus. But nearly a year later, there’s still no sign out front touting the papers’ presence. Getting one soon will be a morale booster to staff, an advertisement to potential readers who linger in downtown’s Campus Martius Park, and even an invitation for potential sources to come inside and share news tips. Make it visible: the Detroit Free Press is part of this city’s future.

* Correction: This sentence originally misspelled Diane Weiss’ first name.

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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.