Chapter 3

How the Detroit Free Press partnered to engage underserved communities

The Detroit Free Press is the largest daily newspaper covering Detroit, Michigan. At 189 years old, it is the local paper of record. The Free Press’ website, Freep.com, attracted 8.8 million monthly visitors in 2019. That same year, the newspaper had a daily print circulation of 131,000 and a Sunday circulation of 925,000, both down from 2018 levels.

Goal

The Free Press wants to improve its relationships with and coverage of underserved communities in Detroit through audience engagement.

Key Learnings

  • Legacy media outlets should partner with community-driven journalism organizations to help them fill in gaps in coverage.
  • Consistency and authenticity are essential to regaining the trust of underserved communities, so newsrooms should create an inclusive work environment that affords respect to their own journalists from these groups.
  • Some audience engagement efforts will succeed, and others will fail, but journalists should persevere to develop strong relationships with underserved communities in the long term.

Strengths

The Free Press’ Executive Editor Peter Bhatia is committed to expanding the audiences it serves, according to community engagement director Jewel Gopwani, making it much easier to integrate audience engagement practices into the newspaper’s editorial process.

“At the Free Press now for three years, [my boss] made it a priority to expand [our] audience to underserved audiences and people we weren’t reaching before. And that’s taken various iterations,” she explains, adding that having the support of management increases the likelihood that Free Press journalists across the board will adopt these practices, which are uncommon in a legacy newsroom environment.

In addition, Gopwani says the paper’s journalists are already comfortable with outreach and interacting with the public to some degree, so engagement shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them. “The fact that a lot of Free Press reporters and editors are viewed as experts in their field and in their coverage areas has made people really comfortable about representing the organization and talking to people and, in some cases, bring people together for conversation.”

As Detroit’s longstanding newspaper of record, the Free Press has both state-wide and national name recognition. This reputation enables it to more easily form partnerships with other local organizations, including community-driven media outlets that focus on topics or communities where the Free Press doesn’t have as much capacity; and together, they can collaborate to better serve all of Detroit.

Case in point: This year, the Free Press is partnering with Outlier Media and BridgeDetroit. Outlier runs an SMS service to take questions about audience needs, adapting it for COVID-19 questions, and now for questions about the election. BridgeDetroit, a new nonprofit journalism and engagement organization that collaborates with Detroiters to cover issues that matter most to them, is building a model to continually gauge reader priorities.

The relationships with nonprofits help the Free Press “address issues that in some cases have been on our radar — but this helped us get to it faster — and in other cases, weren’t on our radar, but we’re covering things that people are finding important,” Gopwani says. “We know that we’re actually meeting audience needs.”

Over the past few years, the Free Press has methodically built a solid foundation for reporting on underserved communities that eventually led to the BridgeDetroit partnership, according to Gopwani. It started by launching beats that focused on Metro Detroit, including poverty, opioid addiction through a “human” lens and how former inmates are reintegrating into society. Also, a new Report for America fellow is focusing on economic mobility, as well as who’s included and excluded in Detroit’s post-pandemic recovery. Gopwani calls these steps “building blocks” that formed the foundation of the BridgeDetroit partnership and moved the Free Press team toward more fulsome coverage of Detroit and its many different communities.

Challenges

Like many legacy media outlets, the Free Press is contending with dwindling resources and traditional perspectives that pose challenges to the newsroom’s desire to expand its coverage areas.

The consequence? Over the past 30 years, Gopwani says, “News coverage has migrated out of the city and into the suburbs.” The city of Detroit is 80 percent Black, while its suburbs are largely white.

This major gap is “something we’ve lived with, but it’s something we’re trying to change,” Gopwani, who’s worked at the Free Press for more than 17 years, explains. She says major metropolitan newspapers in general need to get better at reflecting the communities they serve in their entirety. “Everybody needs to work at that.”

Decades of overlooking underserved groups has hurt the Free Press’ relationships with Detroiters from these communities. During a listening event in December 2019, local small business owners told the Free Press team that they “just don’t see themselves in the paper, and they don’t think they’re gonna see themselves in the paper,” Gopwani adds.

A shrinking staff means Free Press journalists are taking on more work and don’t have a lot of capacity to engage community members outside of their regular reporting duties. That has been exacerbated by the paper’s mandated furloughs due to COVID-19, with news staffers taking week-long furloughs every month since April. “It’s hard to get everybody rowing in the same boat. Especially right now when everybody’s working incredible hours, and they’re so stressed out trying to hit deadlines,” Gopwani says. “The thing is that we just have to try to do it as much as we can. And it may not be every single person, but we know that this is important and we need to keep at it.”

Consultant’s recommendations

  • Audit news coverage for diversity and representation.
  • Improve communication between newsroom staff by addressing any internal equity-related conflicts.
  • Brainstorm ways that Free Press journalists can better serve underrepresented communities, so they can rebuild trust before reporting there.
  • Invite community members from underserved groups to listening events; ask them questions like, “How would you describe how you’re portrayed in the Free Press?” and “How would you like to be portrayed in the Free Press?”
  • Create an open work environment that empowers all journalists, especially those from underserved communities, to speak out whenever they feel coverage is inadequate.

What they looked like in practice

API consultant Letrell Crittenden helped the Free Press host a listening session for around 20 small business owners in Detroit, which Gopwani says could easily become the Free Press’ template for how it approaches audience engagement. (Crittenden is a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and co-published a piece earlier this year about how to make news in small towns more inclusive.)

After receiving negative feedback from the group about the paper’s lack of representation, Gopwani visited a coffee shop owned by one of the attendees, chatted with the owner and bought a strudel. That marked the start of a meaningful relationship, she says, and the coffee shop eventually hosted a Free Press listening group that met regularly at local businesses before COVID-19 hit.

One of Crittenden’s key points is that “this isn’t transactional and people need to feel that,” Gopwani continues. In other words, Free Press staff shouldn’t enter listening sessions already thinking they know what needs to be covered; instead, they should have a dialogue with community members.

One barrier that the Free Press had to overcome was psychological. Given its strained relationships with underserved communities, some staff were intimidated by the prospect of engaging audiences that may not trust the newspaper. “That, for us, is difficult — probably one of the hardest things,” Gopwani says.

Crittenden reassured the team by acknowledging that not all of the Free Press’ engagement efforts would be successful, but that its journalists should still forge ahead and be confident in their follow-through.

The Free Press team also has to do some self-reflection, according to Crittenden, and listen to each other before going out to listen to underserved communities. If they don’t walk the walk internally and ignore staff who flag problematic coverage of these communities, their engagement efforts will likely fail.

Crittenden said it’s important for the Free Press to empower its journalists to approach management when they think the paper is making a misstep, according to Gopwani. “It’s making sure that reporters and editors across the board feel comfortable speaking up, and knowing that they can privately — or not necessarily privately, but with their colleagues — have these conversations, and that they’ll be listened to and taken seriously,” she explains.

Results

  • Over the past few months, the Free Press has been investing in producing stories about “everyday life” in Detroit, particularly in the context of the pandemic, which have helped it begin to connect and build trust with underrepresented communities. Editors have intentionally kept most of these stories outside of the paywall so that they have more of a chance to reach people who normally wouldn’t rely on the Free Press for news. Doing that allows the Free Press to create a track record of better representing communities of color before asking them to subscribe. Some results: