Detroit’s first ‘chief storyteller’ on why his city needs an in-house journalist

Aaron Foley. Photo provided by the author.

I’VE WORKED AS A JOURNALIST since I was a teenager. I started with my local paper’s high school apprenticeship program, moved on to my college newspaper for four years, and ultimately working at various publications, most recently as the editor of BLAC Detroit Magazine. But I’ve had to explain my work as a journalist more times in the past six months than I did in the previous decade.

I am the City of Detroit’s chief storyteller—a job title I came up with at a bar. In March, I was appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan to be a journalist embedded in, and employed by, city government. I do this work in one of the largest and most media-rich cities in America.

I can’t call myself a “journalist,” of course, because journalists do not work for the government, and I did not want to disrespect my colleagues in the field. But everything I do—from researching and interviewing to monitoring website traffic and figuring out new ways to reach our audience—falls within the realm of journalism. I’ve built a team of five—a writer, a web editor, two videographers and a photographer—to cover news and features in Detroit. We research, report, fact-check and then publish to two platforms: a website and a cable channel, both branded The Neighborhoods.

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Since I started this job, I’ve often been asked why the mayor wants in-house journalists covering news in Detroit. For years, media in and outside of Detroit has skewed toward looking for this city’s “savior,” which Anna Clark previously detailed for CJR. (Disclosures: Clark and I have published books about Detroit through the same publishing house, and a number of my friends and/or former colleagues are quoted within her story.) However, that particular story did not explicitly hit on how imbalanced the city’s media coverage is when it comes to matters of race, religion and sexual orientation.

Take a look at Detroit’s media landscape, and you’ll quickly see that people who aren’t straight and white are ghettoized into niche publications. The same is true for the journalists who cover them. LGBT issues have a home in our gay weekly, Between the Lines. Our ethnic pubs, respectively, cover whatever is in their title: The Arab-American News, Latino, Michigan Korean Weekly. Prior to coming to the mayor’s office, I was editor of BLAC (for “Black Life, Arts and Culture”), one of two Detroit publications geared toward African-Americans.

Becoming Detroit’s chief storyteller seemed like an opportunity to create a new platform, hire a staff plugged into parts of Detroit that all Detroiters experiences daily but don’t read about in mainstream news, and do so in a way that pays homage to the city.

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The other is the Michigan Chronicle, where my mother began her journalism career 30 years ago. Conversations my mother had about newsroom diversity three decades ago are the same conversations that I have today—in Detroit, no less, a city that has been a majority-minority city for more than half of her lifetime and the entirety of mine. Detroit once set the example for how newsroom staffs reflect their coverage areas, according to a September report from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan. But minority journalists now make up just 16 percent of the Detroit Free Press and 17 percent of The Detroit News. The region’s major alt-weekly, Metro Times, counts only one Hispanic employee amongst its otherwise all-white full-time staff.

During Mayor Duggan’s second year in office, he held a town hall with our local National Association of Black Journalists chapter, and said something that later became a deciding factor in my decision to take my job this year. Duggan mentioned that it wasn’t fair that longtime black-owned businesses don’t get the same media treatment as newly opened businesses run by younger white entrepreneurs—the saviors. This was not an off-the-record comment or a side note; Duggan said it onstage during a Q&A.

No one covered Duggan’s comment that night as a story; still, it illustrated Detroit’s need for more balanced coverage—not just on businesses owned by people of color, but where these businesses are, who patronizes them, and the stories behind the people involved. That coverage often doesn’t happen here because our newsrooms do not reflect what Detroit looks like.

To me, becoming Detroit’s chief storyteller seemed like an opportunity to create a new platform, hire a staff plugged into parts of Detroit that all Detroiters experiences daily but don’t read about in mainstream news, and do so in a way that pays homage to the city I’ve rooted for long before it became trendy to do so. And, in this media climate, how often does a 30-something black dude from Detroit get the opportunity to do that?

As with BLAC, I maintain editorial control. The mayor does not approve or reject pieces prior to publication—I get asked this a lot—nor does he suggest ideas.

I want to set a standard here. Every city could potentially have its own storyteller—someone who could enable more journalists to pursue passion projects while simultaneously bringing vital information to a hungry audience.

I do not want to replace Detroit’s legacy media. While many of our outlets could still drastically improve their diversity statistics, our shop at the City simply does not have the size or resources of a larger publication. And Detroit still needs government watchdogs and investigative reporting, no matter what.

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Leaving journalism to become a government journalist hasn’t happened without criticism. In the past six months, along with being called a sellout for simply being a black man working for a white mayor, I’ve also been called a propagandist. The concern is valid; we are living with the backlash of fake news, and news consumers are more wary of what happens when political figures step into the media fray.

We’re also knee-deep in an election year, with the general election less than a month away, and so I’ve been called a political hack more times than I can count. I get it. But I’m not going to throw away a decade-plus career in journalism to write election propaganda and call it quits after November if the mayor wins his bid. If you see headlines like “17 Reasons Why Mike Duggan is the Best Mayoral Candidate EVER” or “We Just Can’t Handle these Hot AF Instagram Feeds of the Buildings and Safety Department,” then yeah, that’s propaganda.

Instead, you’ll see headlines that Detroiters need to read. Since our launch in August, we’ve done stories on Asian immigrant populations, young black entrepreneurs, gay and lesbian couples and block club leaders. We’ve talked about everything from surviving domestic violence to a midnight boxing program for eastside Detroit youth, from having expensive glasses stolen off your face to a beet salad recipe made with local ingredients. And we’re still only in the beginning.

I want to set a standard here. Every city could potentially have its own storyteller—someone who could enable more journalists to pursue passion projects while simultaneously bringing vital information to a hungry audience. That Detroit, of all places, could lead that charge is something I’m proud to say I’m a part of.

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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.