Time Magazine and other outlets, including CNN Money, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, have launched Assignment Detroit. They've purchased a house where reporters will live for a year as they cover the city. Steven Gray, the writer behind The Detroit Blog and journalist and Detroit native Dan Okrent describe the project and how it will document the struggles of this once great American city.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Assignment Detroit could be seen as a corrective to the criticisms of Thomas Morton. It’s a year-long project of Time Magazine and a half dozen other outlets, including Fortune, Sports Illustrated and CNN Money. Time Magazine bought a six-bedroom house that will act as the command center for the journalists, and also Time correspondent Steven Gray, who will live there for the next year and anchor the coverage. Steven, welcome to the show.
STEVEN GRAY: Thanks for having me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what are you going to do with the six bedrooms? Is Fortune staying in one -
STEVEN GRAY: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and Sports Illustrated in another? It sounds like a sitcom.
STEVEN GRAY: Basically here’s how it works: I mean, I am the guy who pretty much, I manage the house in terms of making sure that there’s adequate food in the house for the different correspondents or editors who'll be rotating in, in addition to doing the job of simply covering the region, right, keep the main journals. So it’s kind of juggling both hats, almost like a bureau chief –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - in the old-school journalism days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've parachuted into Detroit for one- or two-day assignments in the past.
STEVEN GRAY: Yeah, I'd been here once to do a story on Kwame Kilpatrick back in September of 2007, and then the following month I came back to do a story on an Arab-American conference in the run-up to the presidential primaries. In the case of the Kwame Kilpatrick profile I was here for less than six hours. In the case of the Arab-American conference I was here for, you know, a day and a half. It’s really hard to even understand what makes a region or a community tick in that short timeframe. I think that having the house near downtown Detroit gives us a much more nuanced perspective about what makes Detroit, Michigan and the region tick, and that’s partly because we're interacting. We hear tidbits of information from neighbors. We're able to go out and talk with city officials and city business leaders and a range of other community residents in a way that you could not in a six-hour timeframe where you’re rushing to get back from the airport to talk to your sources and then get back to the airport only to hop to the next story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your blog you say that some of your key questions will be what will it take for Detroit and the region to rebound and who’s developing the ideas that are best positioned to make that turnaround succeed. What happens if you don't find answers to those questions over the course of this year?
STEVEN GRAY: Well, I think we already have. There are people here who are actively engaged in turning this region around. And we will call it as we see it. We can't run away from the region’s problems in writing about some of those problems, but I'm far more interested, and I think our audience - in fact, I'm certain that our audience is far more interested in hearing about problem solvers and solutions than they are hearing about the same sort of stories you've heard in the last, you know, 40 to 50 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven, thank you very much.
STEVEN GRAY: Thanks very much, Brooke, a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Gray is a correspondent for Time Magazine. Daniel Okrent is also writing for Time Magazine right now. He’s a longtime journalist and author, and a visiting lecturer at the Shorenstein Center for the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. His cover story on Detroit for Time hits the stands this week. He says that year-long reporting projects are rare indeed.
DANIEL OKRENT: We respond to the thing that happened today or that is going to happen tomorrow. It’s very rare that the American news media get into long considerations of stories that have unrolled or in this case, unraveled over a long period of time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s something called narrative bias in journalism, a desire to see an arc to a story, maybe look for a happy ending. Once you have devoted a year to a project like this, do you worry about narrative bias, if you know what I mean?
DANIEL OKRENT: Yeah, I do know what you mean. I think that in this case the likelihood of that setting in is slighter than it usually is because so many different sensibilities and different magazines are involved in it. If it were just me going to Detroit and then working a story out over time, spinning it forward, yeah, I could see how I or any reporter would risk the narrative bias. But you’re going to have probably 20 different writers representing four different magazines and four different websites, and we're going to contradict each other, if we're doing our jobs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know someone who covers Afghanistan for a website. He writes about a wide variety of subjects, but when he writes about Afghanistan the number of readers really drops. My question is, by flooding the zone in Detroit, the way that Time intends to, do you think you can make America pay attention, not just by quality but by volume?
DANIEL OKRENT: No, no, I don't think so. There is no question that there can be reader fatigue on any subject. But, if you start with 10 million readers and you end up with only a million, you've done still done pretty damn well. The other thing is, I think, there are different approaches, different stories in Detroit, so if you look at this week’s Sports Illustrated, the cover story about the Detroit Tigers, which has nothing do with what I'm writing about and nothing to do with the cover story in Fortune about General Motors. So there are many different ways for the reader, as well as for these magazines and reporters, to come at it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if we're only interested in the Tigers or if we're only interested in the auto industry and we read those stories, can we still learn something about the larger Detroit?
DANIEL OKRENT: I certainly hope so, and I would hope that we all do our jobs well enough so that there is a, a larger truth to be discovered in covering the various pieces of the story. Now, can that be applied to cities that have suffered a similar industrial and economic decline? I don't know, but if we do our jobs well, we may find out. And if we do find out, maybe there are lessons to be drawn that can halt this decline in those places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel, thank you very much.
DANIEL OKRENT: You’re very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Okrent is a visiting lecturer at the Shorenstein Center’s John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and his cover story on Detroit for Time Magazine is on newsstands this week.