For Detroiters by Detroiters: How BridgeDetroit is building a community-centered newsroom

Over the past couple of weeks, Solution Set has partnered with both Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab and Engaged Journalism Lab to showcase Black-led local news organizations that  are using engaged journalism strategies to identify and meet community information needs while building sustainable business models. 

Today, we’re profiling BridgeDetroit, a new Detroit-based newsroom that is centering its audience in its coverage by creating what it calls a Community Priorities Model, which it uses to plan coverage around topic areas that most resonate with local residents. 

‘[We’re] not just guessing what’s important to Detroiters but trying to find out what’s really important to Detroiters,” executive ditor Stephen Henderson told me when we spoke in August. 

Together with our colleagues at Democracy Fund, The Lenfest Institute recognizes the importance of calling attention to the outlets doing this essential engagement work, especially those led by Black publishers and journalists. Engaged Journalism Lab covered how Flint Beat built a new newsroom from scratch and Local News Lab reported on The Triibe’s deep commitment to building community in Chicago.

In Solution Set, my colleague Elise Goldstein reported on Madison365’s path to business sustainability by focusing on serving communities of color in Wisconsin. 

We hope these reports will provide you with an understanding of the work these publishers have poured into their communities and provide actionable insights you can apply in your newsroom. For more insights on how diverse publishers are transforming the industry, subscribe to Local News Lab’s Local Fix newsletter and follow Engaged Journalism Lab on Medium.


 

Now, here’s the TLDR on BridgeDetroit:


TLDR

The Challenge: BridgeDetroit was founded as a new type of news organization putting community voices at the center of its coverage, but the pandemic forced it to change its strategies.

• The Strategy: BridgeDetroit is developing a Community Priorities Model that invites residents to help shape coverage and decide what is most important. 

• The Numbers: Since launching in May, BridgeDetroit has held 10 virtual focus groups and is planning its first in-person socially distant gathering.

• The Lessons: By creating a newsroom entirely made up of journalists of color, BridgeDetroit is taking an important step to ensuring representation while also questioning traditional assessments of journalistic objectivity. 

• The Future: The site is working to build a membership model that is inclusive, but still generates revenue. 

• Want to know more?: Scroll down for additional coverage of BridgeDetroit and other ways of thinking about meeting community needs. 

• Anything to add?: Join us for the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network’s Membership 101 Training Course. Scroll down for more. 


The Challenge

Orlando Bailey joined BridgeDetroit as engagement editor in mid-March as one of the first hires for the news site. 

BridgeDetroit was created to cover Detroit in a new way – by putting the city’s residents at the heart of its coverage. That’s why Bailey’s role was critical. He had plans to hold community meetings and to collaborate with other community groups to better understand residents’ information needs. 

And then, of course, those plans went out the window. 

When BridgeDetroit was building its plans to launch in spring 2020, it did not expect to begin publishing amid a historic social justice movement and a global pandemic, especially not a pandemic where Detroit was one of the earliest and hardest hit locations in the country. 

Despite COVID-19, BridgeDetroit began publishing in May. Founded by the parent organization of the nonprofit statewide news site Bridge Michigan, BridgeDetroit was created to build a community-focused approach to journalism that was representative of the city it served.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, who hosts a show on the local public radio station and is the former Detroit Free Press editorial page editor, is leading the project. 

BridgeDetroit’s creation was preceded by the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, a collaborative reporting project that was created during the city’s municipal bankruptcy to take a “grass-roots” approach to reporting on the city. 

Funded by Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative was an ambitious effort, but Henderson said ultimately much of the reporting focused on municipal finances or statewide issues. (Both foundations are now funding BridgeDetroit.)

“We started talking about if we were going to do this again, how would we change it and intensify that focus on Detroiters themselves,” Henderson told me. “So this idea on creating a news organization and a newsroom that was focused on that kind of responsive journalism – the idea of not just guessing what’s important to Detroiters but trying to find out what’s really important to Detroiters really took hold. And here, we owe an incredible amount of deference to one of our partners, Outlier Media, who are really practiced at this idea of responsive information dissemination.” 

Outlier Media is the Detroit-based service journalism outlet that aims to provide residents with actionable information. (More on this in The Strategy.)

That’s why Bailey, the engagement editor, was one of the first hires. BridgeDetroit wanted to build out a newsroom driven by its engagement strategy, which it called a Community Priorities Model

I’ll explain more below, but with the Community Priorities Model, BridgeDetroit would like to regularly identify and prioritize coverage that is  relevant to the lives of Detroiters. It is enacting a number of strategies to identify those topics, including the creation of a Community Advisory Committee of local leaders. 

BridgeDetroit’s plan was to spend the spring further developing these frameworks in advance of its launch date, but then the pandemic hit, and it began publishing earlier than it had planned. 

“All of these ideas around how we were going to do that, and how it would be implemented — and how it can flip the script in terms of journalism and engagement, and then COVID happened,” Bailey said. “We had to figure out what that looks like in a virtual space.” 


The Strategy

BridgeDetroit’s Community Priorities Model was created to take data and insights from multiple sources to help the site’s journalists identify and prioritize areas of needed coverage. 

The site has pledged to publish quarterly reports with updated findings as a way to let the community know that its reporting will evolve to continue to meet changing news needs. 

Collaboration is essential to that work. Since its conception, the site knew it wanted to partner with other outlets, including Outlier. 

Outlier has developed a text message-based system that allows Detroiters to ask questions about key issues. The organization started its coverage around challenges related to property in the city, and it has since expanded to coverage of COVID-19 and voting rights. 

BridgeDetroit wants to similarly use that type of one-on-one engagement to better get to know Detroiters. 

“We are still talking about what role that will all play in BridgeDetroit,” Henderson said. “Certainly the technology they’re using to collect and catalog and archive all of the interactions that they had is going to be at the heart of what we’re doing, but we are also wrapping a lot of other kinds of interactions around it.”  

Those other types of interactions include the community meetings Bailey is leading across the city in partnership with existing community groups and neighborhood associations — though plans have had to change due to the pandemic. 

The focus groups tend to have eight to 12 participants, and it’s a way for Bailey to start to learn about Detroiters’ experiences so that he can better understand the issues they care about and share those findings with BridgeDetroit’s teams of reporters.

“[We’re] letting folks know that this interaction that you’re having with this new journalism organization isn’t transactional, and that we’ll be back. Orlando will be back, and Orlando wants to make sure that we hear you and hear you right. If you’re going to be a source for the story, we’ll get your take right and treat you and cast a narrative that has the utmost respect for you and your narrative.” 

Bailey has already gone back to those groups to confirm that they correctly understood their priorities and to report back on progress that’s been made to date. 

In addition to these meetings, BridgeDetroit has created a Community Advisory Committee made up of local business, philanthropic, and labor leaders to help provide guidance and input on the site’s coverage. BridgeDetroit has said that the committee will publish an annual report “assessing the project’s overall performance, with particular attention on key success metrics of audience reach and growth, community engagement, trust and satisfaction, and media collaborations.”

The committee was created, Henderson said, to give the community a “real stake in holding us accountable to the mission that we have.” 

All those inputs comprise Bridge’s Community Priorities Model. Though it has yet to publish its first quarterly report to the community, BridgeDetroit intended for this model to be ever-changing and evolving as the community needs change. 

Due to the pandemic, BridgeDetroit actually launched prior to completing its initial research, so it is focusing on eight essential “Community Critical Information Needs” that were outlined in a 2012 Federal Communications Commission report on the basic information that individuals need to navigate their lives. You can read more about the categories here

“It’s harder than any of us thought it would be,” Henderson said. “Partially because of the pandemic and this ridiculous idea that we can’t ever be in physical spaces, which is antithetical to the idea of trying to interact with Detroiters at this level. They’re accustomed to face-to-face kinds of interactions, and the inability to do that has challenged us. But even beyond that: Trying to build a model that is focused on…collecting data and using that data in a methodical way is not a light undertaking.” 

For example, using this model, one of the early gaps BridgeDetroit decided to emphasize in its coverage was health disparities that were emerging as a result of the pandemic. Many of the essential workers are part-time employees that don’t have health insurance, but they’re still going to work. 

“What happens if you get exposed and you don’t have health insurance? That was something that was brought to us to pay attention to very early on,” Bailey said.


The Numbers

BridgeDetroit has a team of eight journalists covering the city. Managing Editor Catherine Kelly, former publisher of The Michigan Citizen, leads day-to-day coverage. And staffers have backgrounds from outlets such as The Detroit News, Michigan Radio, and Gannett. 

BridgeDetroit lists 27 organizations as partners on its website, and the collaborations have materialized in different ways. It worked with the local PBS affiliate to create a special series, “Do Black Lives Matter in America?” which aired recently on Detroit Public TV. BridgeDetroit is also partnering with The Detroit Free Press to host a Report for America journalist, Nushrat Rahman, who is covering economic mobility in Detroit. The site also lists partnerships with local neighborhood groups and centers at area universities focused on civil rights and poverty solutions. 

Since its launch, BridgeDetroit held about 10 community gatherings in partnership with various civic and community groups. Most have been online, but it held its first in-person gathering in late September. 

Bailey told me that the community organization wanted to meet in person – so he figured out a way to make it happen safely.

“These are folks who are not trying to get on Zoom, who pushed back against that idea,” he said. “They said: If you want to talk to us, if you want to build relationships with us, come to where we are. That’s the old-school way of community organizing. I come from that field. I love to walk the streets, knock on doors, and sit on porches. Porch culture in Detroit is a thing, and being able to get back to that and figure out how to do that in the pandemic in a safe and secure way is something I’m willing to figure out.” 

To become sustainable, the site’s primary goal, Bailey told me via email, is to grow its email subscription list and, in turn, build out its membership program — turning its core audience into monetary supporters. 

This is a model that BridgeDetroit’s sister organization, Bridge Michigan, has utilized successfully. The two sites share back-end systems and business operations. One of the key reasons BridgeDetroit was able to launch so quickly was that it was able to piggyback on Bridge Michigan’s infrastructure. 

BridgeDetroit has a five-year $5.5 million budget, according to the Detroit Free Press. It launched with an initial $2.25 million in support from Knight Foundation, and it used that funding to “leverage interest from other national and local foundations, paving a workable path to sustainability,” Henderson wrote in Poynter earlier this year. (A quick disclosure: The journalism funding world is quite small, and the Lenfest Institute also works closely with Knight, including through the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund.)

In addition to Knight, BridgeDetroit lists 11 other funders who have contributed $5,000 or more on its website, including local and national foundations as well as one corporate sponsor. 


The Lessons

Representation matters: Detroit’s population is 78% Black, and it was essential that BridgeDetroit’s newsroom look like the city it was planning to serve. 

As a result, journalists of color make up the entire BridgeDetroit newsroom. Detroiters have long been mistrustful of outsiders and of the media that regularly misrepresents what’s happening in the city. 

“One of the antidotes to that is to create more representative media and to show that you can do it this way,” Henderson said. “The people we hired for this organization, we’ve put together a team of rock stars. It’s not like I needed to settle for anybody who was not quite up to snuff here. We got people whose work so far and whose potential is just at the highest level. I think that says something as well. It’s representative, but it’s also representative of excellence. And that’s going to matter just as much in the long-run.” 

The role of diversity in newsrooms has become an increasingly urgent topic of discussion in news circles, but BridgeDetroit is a reminder that representation really does matter, and news organizations not only need to ensure that their staffs are diverse and representative, but also that they’re equitable. 

And while representation is the first step, it’s not the only step — you still need to produce excellent work and build trust with community members. 

• Re-define objectivity: BridgeDetroit is not a neutral observer. It wants Detroit and its residents to thrive, and it’s committed to using journalism to reach those goals. 

An example of this is the site’s coverage of the U.S. Census. In September, the city had just a 50% response rate. The decennial count is critical for setting representation in congress and a key metric for federal funding of programs.  

Through its reporting and community engagement events, BridgeDetroit is not only covering efforts that are underway to promote the census, but it’s actively working with community organizations to encourage Detroiters to complete the census through a project supported by the Erb Foundation. 

“I think what we have done is embraced a mission that includes the idea that information improves the lives of Detroiters. Better information, truer information, more information — all of those things should make things better for people who live here,” Henderson said. “Then, the idea that billions that won’t come to Detroit and specifically to Detroit neighborhoods to improve those lives, is an obvious impediment to that mission. We don’t talk about it in terms of is it advocacy or is it journalism, but is it within the mission of the organization?”

Local journalists are residents of where they live and they can use their reporting to showcase solutions and work to make it a better place to live. This approach to reporting can help build trust with communities and showcase how local journalism can be a tool to improve outcomes. 

• Look outside of news: Bailey’s most recent job wasn’t as a journalist. Before joining BridgeDetroit he spent the previous eight years in community organizing and economic development in Detroit. 

“He’s bringing a whole different dimension of discussion and ideas to this community priorities model that we have started with,” Henderson said. “His experience building many of these systems on the community organization side is being adapted to journalism and the idea of doing that as a journalistic endeavor.” 

Bailey’s background is in journalism, though when he wasn’t able to get a full-time reporting job after graduating college, he went into community organizing. He told me he considers himself an activist, and he’s using those skills to build BridgeDetroit’s engagement efforts. 

He told me he recognizes that it takes time to build trust, and he wants to create “a circular relationship where we’re in constant communication” in a way that recognizes the expertise that exists in the city’s communities. 

“I can go to University of Michigan and get an academic source; I can approach any of the traditional credentialed experts to source a story, but residents are experts of their own experience and should be valued as such,” Bailey said. “Honoring that expertise in our engagement, and in our sourcing of stories is crucial for me. That’s one of the main things I’m taking with me into this role.”


The Future

Last month, BridgeDetroit celebrated its 100th day of publishing. 

“We could never have anticipated what would unfold over the first 100 days of our existence,” it said on a special page on its website. “And we certainly don’t know what’s coming — for Detroit, or the world. But our aim has stayed true, and we have been building, piece by piece, an organization that’s ready for whatever is next.” 

BridgeDetroit is going to continue to refine and tweak its model. It’s planning on publishing its first Community Priorities Model in the coming weeks. But as it’s just a few months into publishing, it still has to prove that this approach to journalism is sustainable. 

It is also committed to continuing to build out its revenue streams. The site is aiming to build a mix of philanthropy, individual membership, and corporate support. 

Just as its reporting is designed to be representative of the city, BridgeDetroit wants to make sure that its membership model and revenue streams are representative of Detroit as well. 

Many of BridgeDetroit’s initial supporters love the idea of the site and want it to exist, but aren’t city residents or aren’t its target audience. BridgeDetroit wants to ensure that its membership program is inclusive of Detroiters, but that can be a challenge in a city with a median household income of $29,481, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (For comparison, suburban Oakland County has a median household income of $76,387.) 

BridgeDetroit, Henderson said, is looking to grow support while ensuring that the site never loses its focus on serving Detroiters. For example, it’s continuing to think about non-monetary ways people can support the site and feel a sense of ownership over the work. 

“Our goal is to get numbers up. You want as many members as you can get, you want as many donors as you can get. We’ve got our first corporate sponsors in the door,” Henderson explained. “Pretty soon we need to turn that attention to: What is the relationship between Bridge Detroit and Detroiters? It will go beyond the Community Priorities Model and to this idea of who belongs and who owns the brand and the ideas. We’ve got to be sensitive to those economic realities to do that.” 


Want to know more?

• For more insight into the thinking behind BridgeDetroit, here’s an introduction Henderson wrote for Poynter in June.

• Editor and Publisher also recently profiled BridgeDetroit.

• Thinking of undertaking your own Community Priorities Model? Here’s the FCC report BridgeDetroit used to define its model.

• Another great resource is this post from City Bureau’s Harry Backlund on the idea of an “Information Hierarchy of Needs” as publishers think about what types of coverage to prioritize.


Anything to add?

If your newsroom is thinking about launching your own membership program, I hope you’ll join us for Membership 101, a new course from the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network taught by The Texas Tribune’s RevLab and the Membership Puzzle Project.

If you’d like to learn more about the course, we’re holding an informational virtual discussion this Thursday at 1pm EDT. You can register for the webinar and apply for the course here.

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