That Place Is A Hole: Why Journalism Needs A Big Geographic Consciousness-Raising


312 Watson St. in DetroitAmerican journalism needs a big geographic consciousness-raising. And I say this on behalf of the Detroiters, Clevelanders, Buffalonians, Des Moinesians, etc., everywhere – current and former.

Detroit pullquote

Here’s my rationale.

It would be nearly unthinkable for journalists to characterize entire ethnic groups in broad-brush terms. Yet why does there seem to be free license to refer to entire metro regions — each with their hundreds of thousands, even millions of people and their dozens and dozens of neighborhoods — using singular descriptions like down-and-out Detroit, exciting Las Vegas, dowdy Buffalo and glamorous Los Angeles?

Or even more grossly, to call entire regions the “Rust Belt,” the “Sun Belt,” the “Left Coast”?

Travel, as they say, broadens. And anyone who has done so at all knows there are downright gritty areas of LA and Miami and quite beautiful parts of Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo.

But those are just words. Images can be even more powerful. And there has long been a body of thought that photography can conceal just as much as it communicates simply by editing out of a picture that which doesn’t neatly fit the narrative.

All this came to mind recently when the Wall Street Journal ran a story on how a house at 312 Watson St. in Detroit (photo above) has become the media’s “poster child of the city’s decay.” I don’t blame the photographer here, really. A resident of nearby Bowling Green, OH (as, once, was I), he had been dispatched to Detroit by Getty Images and found this striking dichotomy of dilapidated neighborhood housing vs. gleaming corporate aloofness (symbolized by the towers of General Motors’ headquarters on the horizon, middle right).

What a great image; I might have shot the same thing. But then the photo “appeared on the front page of newspapers and show[ed] up in prime-time TV dramas,” coming to “symbolize the abandonment that helped push this city into the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy.”

But what is driving a lot of Detroiters crazy is that the image doesn’t (surprise) tell the whole story.  As the WSJ reports:

“Across the street from 312 Watson is a carefully restored, 100-year-old home with a mansard roof owned by an emergency-room doctor. To the north, a new Whole Foods store is busy with shoppers. Several blocks south, near the Comerica Park baseball stadium, a single-family house is listed at more than $400,000.”

And sure enough, a check of Google Maps’ current street view for the house shows, if not a thriving neighborhood, then certainly that the lot around the house has been trimmed, the streets are well-paved, newer buildings are in the background and the surrounding area is potentially on the cusp of a re-urbanizing turnaround:

Detroit house 2

The WSJ piece concludes with a quote from a neighbor who, himself in the midst of a house restoration project three blocks away, says of the photo of 312 Watson: “It looks like it should be in a horror movie. Those of us who live here are not living in a horror movie.”

Which suggests that reality has been warped. Which suggests that a full truth has not been conveyed. Which means that sole use of this photo to convey the current condition of Detroit is decidely unjournalistic.

Perhaps I’m a bit more sensitive to this topic than many, being from and living still in ClevelandA few weeks ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a striking front-page photo of the city’s new Global Center for Health Innovation. Looking at the photo, I thought: Wow. This does not fit the narrative of what most Americans probably think of Cleveland:

Medical MartDoes it conceal as much as it conveys? I don’t think so. And not just because it paints a positive picture. As a lifelong resident I can attest that this is what the immediate area around the Center looks like and that it’s one of the most beautiful parts of Cleveland — a reserve of open space and classic architecture from the city’s glory days. Now…get in a car and drive just a mile or two from this point and you’ll see a much different Cleveland…

And that’s precisely the point. Having lived through Cleveland’s worst press (1960s) as well as its best (1990s), I have said that the city is neither as bad nor as good as you may have heard. Nor is Detroit, which is both financially stricken at its urban core and spectacularly wealthy in its distant suburbs. Nor is Las Vegas, which is “Sin City” along the Boulevard but has nagging housing and unemployment problems. Nor is Los Angeles, which is glamorous and superficial and cultured and troubled all at once.

Journalists probably know better than anyone: There’s a good and a bad to everything, places as well as people. Let’s show it.


Dispatch from Columbus: It’s What’s Inside That Counts



A personal vignette about old media and the next generation.

Last night Eldest Child was squired back to the campus of The Ohio State University for the beginning of her winter quarter and a trip to the bustling (Barnes & Noble) college bookstore. Girls in Uggs and boys in ballcaps – some of the best and brightest of the world’s first wired generation – glided agilely among coffeehouse scents and the bounty of twenty-first-century distractions.

Everybody in the store was in motion, save for one. Stationed strategically between the registers and the store’s exit was a lone, still sentinel – a middle-aged man on a stool, behind a small table festooned with two simple, Gothic-lettered words: “Columbus Dispatch.”

Would you like a discounted subscription to the paper?, the gentleman asked as my daughter slipped towards the store exit.

She smiled quickly and firmly, but with not a whit of deliberation between request and response.

No thanks, she said.

Back out on the street, Eldest Child, simpatico to my chosen profession, wanted to know why the newspaper just couldn’t have offered her something online – either the come-on, or the product itself.

Good question. If newspapers don’t gin up the right answers, and soon, a recent cartoon from Ted Rall will be as prophetic as it is funny. For in the lobby of my daughter’s Honors College dormitory there are not discounted newspapers but FREE newspapers, all for the betterment (and hoped-for addiction) of tomorrow’s leaders, colorfully displayed in an all-you-can-read-for-nothing banquet of Columbus Dispatches, Cleveland Plain Dealers, New York Timeses, and USA Todays – and all about as untouched as Xbox 360 controllers in a senior citizens center.

Why must this be so? Are the Millennials just not as interested as the Baby Boomers or Gen Xers have been in news, in statistical information, in colorful life stories?

Hardly! The problem, I believe, is that the Internet generation just isn’t that wedded to paper. And as journalists, we shouldn’t be either. Which isn’t to say our content won’t need to evolve to suit the online medium. It will. And how we present our content online will be every bit as important as what content we choose to present. But we must resist the urge to equate the next generation’s rejection of the medium with a wholesale rejection of content itself.

I agree with an article written for the World Association of Newspapers that papers (and for that matter, print magazines) must become not just publications anymore but “valued members of larger networks that enable their communities to gather, share, and make sense of the news they need.” In fact, I recently talked at a meeting of the American Society of Business Publication Editors about the long history of business media as “community” – that it’s more about the brand, the community, and the conversation than it is about the medium.

How will we conjure this new vision of mediated community? We need to put on our collective virtual reality helmet and – as Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab describes it – “imagine what media consumption will look like in one, five, 10 years.”

Which sounds like way more fun than pouting like rejected suitors, sitting on the fringes of the media ball and offering our phone number to anyone who happens by.