As Detroit’s legacy news outlets struggle to diversify, some reporters move on

A mural by Dasic Fernández celebrates Yemeni culture in Hamtramck, an enclave of Detroit and a home to many Yemeni immigrants. Photo by Megan Frye.

Last summer, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) hosted its annual conference in Detroit. Representatives of the city’s mainstream media were there with recruitment booths. But as much as Detroit’s publications need the voices of Black people, who make up 80 percent of its population, its newspapers—whose staffs are 75-percent white, overall—didn’t have openings.

Detroit’s 673,000 or so people deserve better representation, many journalists of color say. So do minorities in the city’s increasingly diverse suburbs, in which reside the largest Arab-American population in the country. Editors are aware that they have a problem reflecting the city’s diversity of residents in their coverage and their newsrooms, but say budget constraints prohibit more hires, even after many have lost journalists of color to buyouts, layoffs, career changes, relocation, and retirement.

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“Sometimes editors post their jobs on platforms that they are familiar with instead of asking the people of color in the newsroom if there’s another place to look,” Vincent D. McCraw, who is president of Detroit’s NABJ chapter, and who recently took a buyout from The Detroit News, says. Journalism schools should not be the lone avenue for recruitment, he adds. “Saying that there is a lack of talent is a common refrain that is frankly not acceptable. There are other avenues to recruit.” Recruitment of journalists of color should be a priority for all newsrooms, he insists, even when budgets are tight.

Sarah Rahal, a breaking news reporter at The Detroit News who is Arab-American and fluent in Arabic, says that reporters are often sent to speak with the Arab-American community only in response to an immigration or deportation event, or in the event of a major world-news story involving Arab people. “There’s plenty of stories that are yet to be uncovered in the Arab-American community, from ongoing community charities to the tension behind growing Arab adoption centers to the increasing astronomical rates it costs for locals to get Arabic channels,” she says. “More representation means more accurate, equal coverage.”

Martina Guzmán, a Race & Justice Journalism Fellow at the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University’s Law School in Detroit, says that legacy outlets often cover ongoing concerns as one-off stories. “There are really pressing, critical environmental issues,” says Guzmán, who is Latina and who previously reported for WDET-FM. “There are mass water shutoffs; thousands upon thousands of black families, mostly black women, are getting their homes foreclosed on. Most people in Detroit cannot afford insurance.”

Guzmán says journalists of color in Detroit are starting their own outlets. ‘They have given up waiting for white editors to do the right thing.’

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The bulk of metro Detroit gets its news from two daily newspapers and four local television stations. According to each paper’s response to a 2018 American Society of News Editors survey, employees of color make up 26 percent of full-time staff at The Detroit News, and 27 percent of the Detroit Free Press. But the current figures are worse, since this year has already brought buyouts.

“In the latest downsizing, we lost four African-American professionals from the staff, which was painful,” Peter Bhatia, the editor-in-chief of the Free Press, says. Bhatia, who is biracial and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association, acknowledges that the number of journalists of color in his newsroom is not sufficient. “We are very aware of where we are and put a tremendous amount of emphasis on trying to make sure we provide authentic coverage of communities of color in the larger area,” he says.

Recently, the Free Press reorganized to put more emphasis on urban coverage, with heavy focus on investigative, watchdog, and enterprising reporting, and a reduced focus on crime stories. “I think the issues of poverty and race here are deeper and more complex, and require a level of reporting sophistication that is probably harder to find than in other markets,” Bhatia says. “That’s one of the reasons we have to continue to diversify our staff.”

Gary Miles, managing editor of The Detroit News, expresses a similar desire to change his newsroom’s numbers. “I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in a newsroom that really adequately reflected the demographics of a region as rich in diversity as metro Detroit, and I certainly wouldn’t say we’re there,” says Miles, who is white. “The biggest challenge we face, to be honest, is that the past decade has been a time of very low hiring throughout the industry.”

Mike Murri is station manager of WXYZ-TV, where 11 out of 30 newscasters are journalists of color. “What we try to do in order to be in-tune with the community is we listen,” Murri, who is white, says. “At the end of the day, that helps us do our job better. We’ve been very deliberate about going into the communities and cities, doing informal town hall meetings throughout the year, and talking about topics that impact the neighborhoods without a real agenda other than us listening.”

Newer efforts by Detroit journalists, in addition to publications such as the longstanding BLAC magazine, have achieved a diversity of perspectives that better reflect the city. Guzmán says journalists of color in Detroit are starting their own outlets, and cites magazines such as Riverwise and Tostada. “They have given up waiting for white editors to do the right thing,” she says of local journalists of color. “I think there’s a fountain of incredible freelancers right now for this reason. The stories that they want aren’t being told, so they decided to start writing the stories that they want to know about.” In 2017, the City of Detroit’s communications department formed The Neighborhoods—an all-Black, all Detroit-raised, six-person team that aims to paint a fuller picture of city news by gathering responses to developments regarding businesses, school opportunities, and affordable housing options from those people most likely to be affected by them.  

Branden Hunter, a staff writer for the Michigan Chronicle, an all-Black weekly, grew up on Detroit’s east side. In order to tell the story of the city, a journalist has to be from the city, Hunter says. But it can be hard to funnel people into the pipeline of legacy media. “In my neighborhood, nobody ever wanted to be anything because we didn’t know that we could,” Hunter says. “The only time we were in the newspaper is if we played sports. You’re gonna have the haves and have-nots wherever you go, but you can’t keep throwing that notion that there aren’t two Detroits, or that ‘Detroit is back.’ Detroit won’t be back until everybody is benefitting from it.”

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Megan Frye is a writer and translator from Michigan living in Mexico City. She has a history of newsroom reporting and nonprofit administration. An independent journalist, her work has appeared in New York magazine, BBC, Devex, and The Guardian, among others.