Why the media don’t get Detroit–and why it matters

Coverage of declining cities is too often simplistic and lacking historical context
March 2, 2015

The ashes Part of the old Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit, one of the city’s thousands of abandoned buildings that have been left to scavengers and graffiti artists. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

In Detroit, the American Dream has become an American Paradox: Corporate-backed revitalization downtown belies the continued deterioration of sprawling neighborhoods of single-family homes; a fledgling creative class masks the ongoing plight of what was once a massive working class; white newcomers trickle in by choice, just as many black natives have no choice but to stay where they are.

What’s that? It doesn’t sound like the up-from-the-ashes, post-industrial renaissance Detroit you’ve been hearing about of late? “The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit,” as The New York Times Magazine described it last July.

For that matter, whatever happened to the bombed-out, font-of-ruin porn Detroit that the media endlessly eulogized just a few short years ago as a harbinger of American decline? The once-promising mayor sacked for corruption; the once-vaunted auto industry falling flat; the once-crowded metropolis given over to vacant lots and urban farms; a once-prosperous city now broke. (Several outlets, including Bloomberg, wrote about 50,000 stray dogs “replacing residents, menacing humans who remain and overwhelming the city’s ability to find them homes or peaceful deaths.” A study eventually found fewer than 3,000 canines throughout Detroit’s 139 square miles. Oh well.)

‘Trend pieces about revitalization or startups or cool hipster breweries are very popular to write,’ says Belt Magazine’s Anne Trubek. ‘And then there’s the ruins.’

The fact is, Detroit has been in decline for 60 years, and the many and varied reasons for that decline stretch back 100. As it emerges now from bankruptcy, there are indeed positive signs, though a lot of them have been attributed to the local billionaires who’ve bought up much of downtown. Yet the media narrative about Detroit has never really captured the full story–of either urban suffering or post-industrial promise. “We have a tendency in journalism of trying to see things too black and white,” said Ron Fournier, a National Journal columnist and Motown native whose daughter works for The Detroit News. “The Republicans are evil, or the Republicans are great. Detroit is undergoing a rebirth, or Detroit will never come back. Life is all about the gray, and journalism is all about the gray. I’ve always seen Detroit just like I try to see politics: It never was as bad as people told me it was. And it’s not as good as they say it is now.”

I’ve long grappled with the contradictions at the heart of Detroit’s story, and not only because I spent the better part of the past year writing about struggling American cities for The Guardian. My Italian grandfather came to Detroit as a POW in World War II, and my father still works there as a physician. I grew up in a suburb 10 miles west of city limits, and I recently had a yearlong fellowship at Columbia Journalism School reporting on the city’s efforts to save its neighborhoods.

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Motown isn’t alone, of course. There are plenty of American cities similarly in decline–economically, demographically, infrastructurally–or suffering from its aftereffects. They span the country, from Camden, NJ, to Flint, MI, to Stockton, CA. Atlantic City is the latest to be put on “deathwatch”–The Washington Post declared as much last July–as a spate of casino closures has drawn swarms of out-of-town reporters (including me).

None of their stories can be easily fitted into the media’s need for unambiguous winners and losers that Fournier described. As in Detroit, hope and despair stand shoulder to shoulder in these cities. What’s more, few newsrooms have the mandate–to say nothing of the resources–to really understand what went wrong in the first place, to excavate how local circumstances interacted with larger political and socioeconomic forces over the course of decades.

More important, this tale of decline is not a story that Americans want to hear, or have ever really encountered before. America doesn’t decline; it rises toward its destiny. But increasingly, this story is one we can’t afford to ignore. More than 80 percent of the US population now lives in urban areas. Healthy cities are engines of economic growth, innovation, and creativity. The media have marveled at the downfall of places like Detroit, but whether these declining cities will ever regain the vitality that we once associated with them remains an open question.

Deathwatch A spate of casino closings has prompted the media to declare Atlantic City, and its famous boardwalk, the latest American city headed for ruin.(Jewel Samad / Getty Images)

Struggling cities are often found in the Rust Belt, far removed from national media concentrated along the coasts. Coverage tends to be sporadic, and centers on their most glaring failures. The narratives that emerge are of ghost towns and zombie subdivisions. These stories are compelling and based on real hardships. But they typically do little to explain how the cities got that way, let alone what’s possible in terms of reversing their fortunes.

In some larger cities such as Buffalo and Cleveland, meanwhile, the idea of renewal has begun to drive more of the media storyline. Such rosy analyses typically lack historical or geographical context, focusing on one neighborhood or one segment of the population at a time. Micro-developers may have bought up a handful of vacant homes, and new businesses may be sprouting in downtown areas. But such developments are happening amid a large, diverse metro area; their impact is easily overstated. They are not typically the indicators of wholesale resurrection that they become in a news story.

‘Population loss, poverty, isolation–all these things are happening simultaneously,’ says Stephen Henderson. ‘It’s really difficult to just pop in and grasp that complexity.’

“Trend pieces and roundup pieces about revitalization or startups or cool hipster breweries are very popular to write,” said Anne Trubek, founder of the Cleveland-based Belt Magazine, which publishes level-headed longform on the Rust Belt. “And then there’s the ruins, though people are less interested in the ruins nowadays. Both these things are happening and both these things are true. But we try to integrate both into the same story as opposed to bouncing between poles.”

Those poles are indeed seductive, both for parachuting reporters who need a narrative that can be distilled into a 1,500-word feature or a 90-second spot, and for faraway editors on tight budgets. Local media can sometimes do a better job of dissecting their cities’ complicated realities–Motown’s period of urban crisis produced some excellent work–but those takes rarely shape the national conversation. When it comes to how we think about huge problems like urban decline, the narrative that matters is the one adopted by the national media. In Detroit, for instance, only The New York Times has consistently devoted the resources and the time necessary to really begin to digest the city’s story. “There are many versions of this story all over the place,” said Alison Mitchell, the Times’ national editor. “In a way, Detroit is the best way to tell that story.”

Startups like Belt have created new opportunities for journalists in depressed areas to reach audiences elsewhere. And some venerable brands have funneled more resources toward coverage of cities, though not just American cities and with a greater focus on innovation than on decline. The Atlantic has brought its big-idea analysis into the urban arena with CityLab, while The Nation examines grassroots progressivism in its “Cities Rising” project. The Guardian‘s “Cities” vertical, for which I write occasional features, gives reporters the time and space to flesh out their analyses. Politico’s “What Works” project has spotlighted urban reinvention, and its nascent magazine has given local writers a chance to dissect the politics of decline for a Beltway audience.

Most news organizations, however, face inherent challenges in reporting on faraway cities. Travel budgets are tight, and the demands of the nonstop news cycle make long stretches of on-the-ground reporting a hard sell. Then, of course, there is the pack effect. If everyone else is saying Detroit is dying, who wants to be the one to argue otherwise? When Time opened a bureau in Detroit in 2009, it was a valiant stab by a fading newsweekly to win the ruin-porn sweepstakes. It lasted a year.

Even absent the limitations of daily journalism, covering cities in decline is exceedingly difficult. In early fall, I spent six weeks on a feature about Atlantic City for The Guardian–enough time to read multiple books, peruse academic literature, and interview experts and leaders before even setting foot in town. But I worked the story on a freelance basis, in addition to my full-time job at CJR, meaning I crammed reporting into off-hours. Though The Guardian covered my travel expenses, I spent only two weekends within city limits. Any additional time in transit or on the ground simply wouldn’t have made financial sense for me, and likely not for my editor, either. I attempted to compensate for that by focusing on the historical arc of the seaside resort–not just the most recent casino closure. But there’s no doubt that the piece I wrote failed to fully capture what is happening in Atlantic City.

It is telling that national coverage of the legal aspects of Detroit’s bankruptcy, which began in December 2013 and ended late last year, was solid. A story confined to finance, courtrooms, and political maneuvering is familiar–and one that plays to journalism’s strengths. The city’s larger autopsy has proven more difficult, especially so given that much of its huge metropolitan area remains vibrant. Parsing these intricacies requires deep knowledge of local history and a grasp of public policy.

The city’s intersecting culture of cars and single-family homeownership, for example, led to the development of seemingly endless inner-city suburbs, an expansive geography that overstretched public infrastructure. Racist housing policies, from the New Deal onward, helped create a black underclass just as white Detroiters amassed wealth and then skipped town with it. The ensuing population decline hurt doubly, since speculative real-estate development a century ago–namely the rampant subdivision of lots–left many emptied neighborhoods with an indecipherable web of property ownership and a patchwork of undevelopable land.

“Population loss, poverty, isolation–all these things are happening simultaneously,” said Stephen Henderson, editorial-page editor of the Detroit Free Press, whose columns on Detroit were awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Poverty is fundamentally different in shrinking cities like Detroit than it is in New York or Washington, he added. “It’s hard to understand how big the city is and how that wreaks havoc on economic opportunity, especially for poor people. It’s really difficult to just pop in and grasp that complexity.”

Recent coverage has showcased Detroit’s “booming bike industry” and a luxury watch company, among other vibrant, if relatively small, businesses. Motown was described as a “culinary oasis” and “the Bar City of the Year.” Such monolithic descriptions of Detroit are similar to reporters’ characterization of Brooklyn, where the artisanal doings in a handful of neighborhoods in a borough of 2.6 million people drive the media’s narrative. “When you go to Slows Bar BQ”–a popular spot in the Corktown neighborhood–“and then make Pollyanna statements about how Detroit is a food oasis, that’s almost as unhelpful as all those jokes for all those years,” said Michael Jackman, managing editor of the Detroit weekly Metro Times. “It’s like a pat on the head for being a plucky little city.”

The way stories spread online only accentuates this black-white treatment, as social media generally reward extremes. My own Guardian feature on Detroit, in which I profiled an urban planner grappling with whether to move elsewhere, was eventually titled, “The death of a great American city: Why does anybody live in Detroit?” I was proud of the piece’s depth; I was also proud that it garnered nearly 700 comments and 10,000 social shares. While that exposure wouldn’t have been possible without a sensational headline, I can’t say what readers took away–the headline or my reporting.

A similar example can be gleaned from the popular website Business Insider, where a straight-laced Associated Press story about United Airlines ending service to Atlantic City ran beneath a particularly loud headline: “Here’s Another Sign That Atlantic City Is Dying.” That line of thinking, which has dominated coverage of the New Jersey town this year, doesn’t sit well with Kris Worrell, executive editor of The Press of Atlantic City.

“As a breed, [journalists] have a healthy dose of skepticism,” she told me. “And certainly if government officials argued that a place or company or any institution were perfect and happy, we would question that. My issue is that we don’t apply that same level scrutiny to the opposite extreme, when something is painted in negative terms. We know, when we think about it, neither of those extremes is true.”

That goes for any place that faces decline, from Atlantic City to Detroit. The reason the latter hasn’t died is that countless people who love the city have fought like hell to save it. Their victories are real, but so are the massive challenges that remain. Understanding and respecting such contradictions is crucial for reporters who set out to explain what went wrong–as well as what’s going right.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.