Blogging away the blight
Journalist starts a movement to remake Detroit neighborhood
When Michael Happy of The Detroit News returned to his old City Airport neighborhood to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 race riots, he was heartbroken. The once well-kept neighborhood was now one of most devastated areas on the city's east side.
The slideshow he created snowballed into a regular blog, after an overwhelming response from former residents.
Photo: Mark Lewis
More photos (click to enlarge)
At The Detroit News, a blog is making a real difference in one pocket of Detroit.
“Going Home: A journal on Detroit’s neighborhoods” is about the City Airport neighborhood, one of the poorest, most drug-infested and devastated areas on the city’s east side. It’s also where Michael Happy, The News’ online news editor and the blog’s main writer, grew up in the 1960s and early ’70s, when it was a close-knit, blue-collar community.
Since then, the 1967 race riots, white flight, a crumbling economy, Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport’s development woes and a growing drug trade have decimated Happy’s old home community.
But over the past almost two years, the Going Home blog has pumped new life into the neighborhood by connecting and energizing hundreds of former black and white residents. It also has helped heal racial tensions and build bridges between the city and the suburbs.
The blog is an example of how news organizations can use social media to build community, empower citizens and bring journalists closer to their sources. As with any blog, Going Home connects people who have common interests. Ordinary folks air their opinions and influence news coverage by contributing comments and writing for the blog, as well as talking to Happy. For the News, the popular blog attracts online readers, boosting page views and ad revenue.
In July 2007, Happy returned to his old neighborhood for an audio slideshow to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 race riots. He contrasted old snapshots of children playing on neatly kept lawns of modest, well-maintained homes, with images of himself walking among abandoned homes with boarded windows and littered lawns.
Happy, now 44, openly expressed his heartbreak. And when the slideshow was posted online, there was an overwhelming response from suburbanites who had moved away but shared his sadness.
“I wondered if people could be proactive and make a difference in the neighborhood,” he said. That’s when he decided to reach out to current and former residents, community organizations and local business people through the Going Home blog.
Happy’s friend and coworker Jonathan Morgan, multiplatform editor at The News, began contributing, as did Edith Floyd, 50, president of the Mt. Olivet Neighborhood CB Patrol; Imogene Johnson, a minister at Shield of Faith International Ministries, a local church; some suburban transplants; and a Michigan State University journalism student.
Many others offer comments.
Forgotten park is reborn
In September 2007, hundreds of former neighborhood residents joined locals to clean up Fletcher Park, mowing grass, painting and repairing playground equipment and park benches, then enjoying a barbecue and a baseball game. Two area businesses, Mt. Olivet Cemetery of Detroit and Gilbert's Trucking Inc. of Utica, paid contractors to rebuild the baseball diamond. A $7,500 grant from Chrysler L.L.C. financed construction of a basketball court.
In March 2008, an interfaith service at Shield of Faith jammed the pews, uniting the black members of today’s nondenominational church and the mostly Polish Catholics who attended when it was Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church until 1989. Happy made an audio slideshow on the service and posted a link next to the blog.
“Come and see what people of purpose can do when people have a mind to work,” roared the Rev. Dr. James Jennings, Jr., in his homily, “when we forget about what color we are and we forget about what side of 8 Mile that we’re from and remember that we all have the red crimson blood of Jesus who washed away our sins, and that at the foot of the cross, all ground is level.”
Since Going Home launched, Happy, Morgan and a team of community leaders have mobilized those with ties to the neighborhood to form an advocacy group called Friends of Fletcher Field.
Business owners and local residents have gone before committees of the Detroit City Council to voice local concerns. Floyd and Mt. Olivet Cemetery have worked out an agreement to share the job of mowing the grass at Fletcher Field. Community members clean up trash illegally dumped in the neighborhood and work together in urban gardens.
Now there are organized reunions, Sundays at the park, tree and flower plantings at Fletcher and annual barbeques.
Happy wants to use the success of Fletcher Field to tackle eyesores all over Detroit. Next up is Belle Isle.
“It’s community building,” said Happy, who lives in Grosse Pointe Woods but, thanks to the blog, returns to his home community with his wife and children on Sundays. “It’s like what Obama did: using the Internet to create communities that can get things done.
“There’s so much heart in this city. It doesn’t take much. It just takes an opening.”
The blog is personal. Happy told the community that he received an e-mail from someone who’s afraid to plant flowers at Fletcher.
“I’m afraid of a lot of things: The dark … high places … giant squids … But I’m not afraid of being in the old neighborhood anymore,” he wrote. “Guess we have more work to do, more pictures to show, more things to prove.”
On Memorial Day, Johnson of Shield of Faith talked about how thankful she was to see children laughing and playing in her neighborhood.
“(Friends of Fletcher Field) stepped up to the plate and hit a home run at that park,” she wrote.
Happy isn’t an objective journalist reporting on the neighborhood. He’s actively advocating for change and helping to organize the agents.
“Jonathan (Morgan) and Michael (Happy) have forced some of us in journalism circles to look beyond what we’re familiar with,” said Tom Stanton, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Detroit Mercy. “Journalists may think this presents a conflict of interest getting so involved in a community they’re covering, but I think it’s admirable what they’re doing.”
Although The News would like to expand the Going Home concept to other neighborhoods, it’s unlikely to happen because resources are too tight, said Walter Middlebrook, assistant managing editor on the metro desk. Happy does the blog on top of his full-time job as online news editor.
“I do think it’s a viable idea,” Middlebrook said. “I just don’t know where we’ll get the bodies to pull it off. We’re barely keeping bodies on the street covering what we have to cover.”
Blogging on the block
Neighborhood blogs and social media are particularly important at a time when daily and weekly papers are cutting just about everything to stay afloat, Morgan said. Consider Gannett Co. Inc.’s recent decisions to close the Birmingham, West Bloomfield, Troy, Southfield and Rochester editions of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers; and replace the Ann Arbor News with a smaller news organization, annarbor.com, with print editions only twice a week.
"The neighborhood blog is an attempt to use social networks and citizen journalism, not just to find new ways to publish news, but to find new ways to report stories and include the broader community in creating news," Morgan told Tapestry, UD Mercy’s alumni newsletter.
"(Students) need to learn the potential for reporting that blogs and social networks provide reporters. You have to get out and talk to people, but if you can pull the people you talk to into an online community where it is more efficient to keep interacting with them, then you have the benefits of ongoing contact with less footwork, and you have a more accessible body of potential information sources."
Neighborhood blogs are growing in popularity. Using “if you can’t beat them, join them” thinking, traditional journalists who have lost their jobs are using the blog format to start hyperlocal news sites with advertising.
Former Ann Arbor News opinions editor Mary Morgan is tapping into social media to help cover what’s happening in the community for the annarborchronicle.com, a news site she and husband, David Atkins, founded in September 2008.
In a feature called “Stopped. Watched,” community members report on malfunctioning streetlights, roadwork and even hopscotch games. The only rule — a takeoff on Twitter — is that observations must be 140 characters or fewer. Tips come in via texts, e-mails, Twitter and phone calls. Community members also can file reports online. Occasionally, tips lead to stories.
“We wanted a place to capture the kinds of things that didn’t necessarily warrant a big story, but make you feel part of a city because you noticed that, too,” said Mary Morgan, publisher of the site.
The primary source of revenue at the annarborchronicle.com is display ads. Site content is free.
Revenue and readership are growing, Morgan said. The site gets more than 300,000 page views a month — 28,000 from unique visitors. Readership has doubled since the first of the year. People see stories and post them on Facebook or send links to friends. Morgan also does some public speaking. She declined to share revenue.
Blogs add “stickiness” to news sites, making viewers spend more time, opening more pages and seeing more ads, said John Jackson, vice president of digital advertising for Detroit Media Partnership, which manages the business operations of the Detroit Free Press and The News. The Going Home blog has become the most popular on detnews.com, topping even sports blogs with 25,000 to 40,000 page views a month.
More page views translate into more ad revenue because ad rates are based on page views or, more precisely, ad impressions.
Detnews.com and freep.com have 80 million page views each month, Jackson said. Each page carries three or four display or banner ads. In addition, clients may purchase other types of ads, including text and rich media ads. The rate for run-of-site banner ads on the news channel is $12 to $16 per thousand ad impressions. Advertisers do not buy space specifically on the blogs; rather, blogs are treated as part of the news channel, and ads on those pages are run-of-site ads, Jackson said.
The City Airport neighborhood and its supporters aren’t the only ones benefiting from the Going Home blog. The advertising department at Detroit Media Partnership smiles on the blog, too.
“The more people are reading the Web site, the more impactful the advertising is to advertisers,” Jackson said.