united states project

How the Detroit Free Press won a Pulitzer for commentary

The paper put columns at the forefront of its coverage of the city's bankruptcy
April 18, 2014

DETROIT, MI — This might just be the newsiest city in America–and Stephen Henderson’s job is to make sense of all that news. 2013 spun Detroit through a landmark bankruptcy, emergency management, and a soap opera of a mayoral election, and Henderson, the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, delivered columns that sharpened the news morass with a fierce and engaging point-of-view.

On Monday, those columns were recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, the 10th Pulitzer in the paper’s history. “My head is still sort of spinning” at the news, Henderson told CJR. “I am trying to be present to it all so I can remember it later, but it’s difficult.” (Disclosure: I contribute occasional articles about literature for the Freep, but I have never been on staff and have never worked with Henderson or the editorial page.)

Henderson worked at The Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Lexington Herald-Leader and the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau before becoming the Free Press’ editorial page editor in 2009. But he’s got deep roots in Detroit–the city is his hometown and he is now raising his family here–and that shows in his columns, which explore the roots of the city’s fiscal crisis, argue about the most productive ways for activists to shape current policy, and probe Detroit’s complex racial politics. The Pulitzer citation describes his work, aptly, as “written with passion and a stirring sense of place, sparing no one in their critique.”

I spoke with Henderson about the Pulitzer, the role of newspaper commentary, and his hopes for Detroit–and for journalism–Friday morning. This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

Why was this set of columns chosen to submit to the Pulitzer committee?

Every year we try to do work at the Free Press, and particularly at the editorial page, that is deserving of big national recognition. This last year was a particularly obvious candidate given the nature of the news. So [publisher] Paul Anger and I started talking about whether we would submit me as a columnist, and if we did, how we would do it. The first package [of columns] I put together had a lot of Detroit stuff in it, but also other things–national and state stuff. He looked at it and said it was good, but he wondered what an all-Detroit entry would look like. At first I thought, not a good idea because it might seem too provincial for a Pulitzer committee. It seems like, particularly in commentary, the prize usually goes to national columnist. I mean, the [Washington] Post and [New York] Times have won it more than any other paper. So I was skeptical about it. But I put together a set of Detroit columns, and he sent a note that this is what we were doing. I thought [the package] was good, very strong, but in the back of my mind, I still thought if it had the national pieces, it had a better chance. But he’s the publisher, so we sent it.

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What is the purpose of commentary, and the editorial page more broadly, in modern-day newspapers?

I always have said the editorial page is the voice of the newspaper. If you think about it, the Free Press is more than 150 years old–it’s older than state of Michigan–and it has spent every day of its existence right here in downtown Detroit. If that’s not citizenship, I don’t know what is. My job as editorial page editor is to give a face and a voice to that citizen. The role the paper is supposed to play is to be a protector of the city and particularly the citizens here. To give voice to people who live here. We do that in a number of ways. I try to do that in my columns where I feel more freedom to do so because of my personal connection to city.

A lot of newspapers are turning away from commentary. If anything, I’d say we’re embracing it more at the Free Press. If you look through the Pulitzer entry, certainly more than a quarter of them ran on the front page and not the edit page. And that reflects how important Paul Anger sees the role of commentary. When big things happen in the bankruptcy, the first thing he says is, “We need a column to go along with that story.”

That’s really interesting–shifting the role of commentary to be in direct juxtaposition with news reporting.

Columns–and it’s not just my columns that run on front page–I think add perspective and depth to the news. Here’s what happened in the story, and then we’re trying to tell you here what it means. Or here’s how you ought to think about this, or here are some things you might miss in the big story.

I have not worked at another newspaper where we do it this way. Not in Chicago, not in Baltimore, not in Washington. Everybody else seems to want to separate news and opinion and make it clear that’s it’s just another part of paper, it has nothing to do with news, and they do it to an extreme. I think Paul’s approach is to say, “Yeah, they’re separate, but they are all part of the Free Press.”

You’re very blunt in your work–the recent line to Detroit’s creditors about the art collection, “Hands off our stuff, you soulless, greedy, scavenging vultures,” comes to mind. Does this ever affect the access the Free Press’ news reporters have to sources–particularly given the elevated place of commentary at the paper?

I was in a bad mood that day!

No, it hasn’t really come up. I haven’t heard about reporters having any trouble, at least. I think people get that there’s a difference between what we think and what we’re reporting. I have nothing to do with telling reporters what they should do and how they should do it. I personally run into problems with creditors, though, and all kinds of people. The governor. The governor and I are not really speaking anymore. Actually, that’s not unusual. [Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer] Granholm didn’t talk to me her whole last year in office.

That’s sort of my job, to take positions and deal with consequences. I spend 80 to 85 percent of my time talking to people, during the day, at night. My approach has always been that the best commentary is informed commentary. I can’t just read the story and decide where the institution ought to come down. I go read all the bankruptcy motions and rulings, and I talk to [Emergency Manager] Kevyn Orr all the time, and the mayor. I know lots of regular Detroiters, too. I see the impact of what’s going on on people who live here. There’s not much difference in the process of reporting and commentary. It’s what we do with the information once we have it. They report it. My job is bring a point of view to it.

Journalism about a city in a fiscal emergency gets right at the heart of the need for open records and transparency laws. How do you see transparency–or the lack thereof–affecting the editorial page?

We are not fans of the laws here in Michigan dealing with open record or public officials having to do their business in public. I actually think that’s one of the biggest problems we have. There are all kinds of things you can’t do in other states than you can do in Michigan. And we seem to be moving in wrong direction. One reason the governor and I are at cross-ways right now is because he signed a bill that says you can continue to hide massive campaign contributions through nonprofits. It’s inexcusable. It’s our government, not theirs. I’m mystified by the idea that you can’t see what’s going on or know how they’re making decisions. Michigan gets a D nationally in transparency laws, I believe. D as in dog.

What is your greatest hope for Detroit?

My greatest hope for Detroit is very easily summed up in the two children I’m raising. What I hope for them is that when they get to be adults, they have a very easy choice about whether to live in Detroit. They don’t feel like have to sacrifice something to live here, that they won’t be safe or have lots of schools to choose from to send their kids to. All of the things that make it tough for me to stay here year after year, and wonder if they have to make sacrifices based on my principles–that they don’t have same issue to worry about it. I don’t think that will be the case. I think it will be better and a little easier. But we’re so far from that now. Really, I see the bankruptcy as a massive move in positive direction that no one else has had guts to do before.

And what about journalism in Detroit, and Michigan more broadly? What is your greatest hope for that?

More. Every journalist in an institution, we are just running on a shoestring. It’s so sad. We are really desperate to find a business model that will support us in the future. When I was a young reporter at the Free Press, the Lansing bureau had I think four, maybe five, people. Now there are two. The City-County building here [in Detroit] used to have a gigantic media room; now it’s basically a closet. We need more, because so much goes on here. This is such an active place. There’s just not enough people to watchdog it all. The job the constitutions assigns to the press is be a check on government. Particularly with government accountability, you cannot do that without people, without resources.

I feel like the journalism we’ve done on the bankruptcy as a whole was just remarkable. This is the biggest story in history of the city, and it’s been covered in very sophisticated and smart way. But what wakes me up in the middle of the night is the stuff we couldn’t get to, that we didn’t have the people or resources to really uncover. I’m not holding my breath for a solution to that. This is a big, big-picture problem, with lots of people really working full time to solve it. But that’s my greatest hope: more people, more watchdogging.

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Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.