How three women saw gaps in Detroit media and started their own publications

When Serena Maria Daniels was working as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, she pitched a story to her editor about a new television show, produced by a Spanish-language network, about a search for the best youth soccer player in America. Because they wanted to find "off-the-radar" talent, a lot of the youth would come from immigrant communities. 

"I thought this could be a 'Hoop Dreams'-style story, but for the Latino community," Daniels says. "I thought I could find one or two kids, follow their struggles, and learn about how they dealt with the obstacles in their life. I was so excited about it."

Her editor, however, was less excited. The story never ran, at least not in the way Daniels envisioned it. An editor at another paper once told Daniels not to pursue immigrant stories because she'd be labeled an activist and "not taken seriously." 

Experiences like these convinced Daniels that mainstream media doesn't cover minority perspectives with enough nuance. That's one reason why she started Tostada Magazine, a publication that elevates community voice in Detroit through food journalism.

Daniels covers some restaurant and coffee shop openings, but also writes about Mexican fine dining and how chain restaurants cater to Muslim diners during Ramadan

"If you're a person of color, there are certain experiences that we can relate to and I try to address that in my writing," says Daniels. "It's a feeling of wanting to be seen and heard, but in a way that's not fetishizing our experience."

Daniels isn't the only woman journalist in Detroit who spotted gaps in traditional coverage and decided to strike out on her own—in the last few years, several have founded their own media companies. And while they all cover Detroit through their own unique lenses and angles, they do have one thing in common: uplifting voices that didn't have one in mainstream media. 

Information is power
Sarah Alvarez - photo by J. Lindsey
For five years, Sarah Alvarez was a reporter and producer for Michigan Radio, eventually with the show "State of Opportunity." But during her time with the NPR affiliate, she became dissatisfied with a certain aspect of its coverage. 

"As much as I love Michigan Radio, I was frustrated with the model of appealing to a base of consumers that have a lot of money—give people who can become members news to make them loyal to you," Alvarez says. "They weren't really interested in reaching a bigger base and providing things of value to folks who don't have much money."

In other words, Alvarez saw a major information gap in media—stories of interest and useful to low-income people—and sought to fill it. With $75,000 in pilot funding from the Kellogg Foundation, she started Outlier Media, one of the more unique media outlets in America. (She and Daniels also received grants last year from the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, sponsored by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.)

First she needed to discover what low-income Detroiters wanted to know and how to best deliver it. By analyzing the database of 2-1-1 United Way calls, Alvarez found that the biggest issue for her target audience was housing insecurity, especially among renters. But many of her readers don't consume online news, so to make sure they get the information they want, she texts them. That's right: she sends text messages by cell phone. 

Readers either text Outlier directly or get a mass message from it (users can opt-out at any time). They then inquire about an address and an automated system replies with information about the property, such its owner, whether it's subject to tax foreclosure, and if or when it will be in the county's tax auction. 

Alvarez says the traditional model of journalism is to highlight an issue so people with power—watchdogs, lawmakers, consumers—can fix it. Outlier gives that information directly to Detroiters so they can use it. For example, a landlord may be collecting rent or trying to evict someone while not paying taxes. Knowing this gives the renter more power. 

"I want to get high-value info to individuals that they can use to hold people accountable themselves," she says. "Instead of just waiting for one watchdog to step in, here's hundreds of watchdogs each taking a little bite."

After the first interaction, users are then asked if they have more questions about their property and would like a journalist to follow up—40 percent say yes. 

"I'm making sure to close the loop," Alvarez says. "That means I can keep everyone accountable. If a program isn't working, then I want consumers to tell me so I can write about it. I talk to more news consumer every week than most newsrooms."

Those interactions have resulted in more traditionally reported stories, like one for Bridge Magazine last year about how speculators continue to buy properties at the tax foreclosure auction despite owing money in taxes themselves. And she's able to closely track new laws and programs, like the city's rental property ordinance, through her network of readers. 

More media startups might do well to emulate the ways in which Alvarez found both a passion and target audience in one. "I didn't start Outlier because I wanted to run a media organization," she says, "but because I wanted to be able to reach news consumers that I care about."

Taking a detour
Ashley Woods
Ashley Woods has been involved in almost every aspect of producing the news—freelancer, reporter, editor, even content experience director—at some of the city's most important outlets, like the Detroit Free Press, MLive, and the Huffington Post Detroit Bureau. 

Now, she's the founder her own media company, Detour Detroit. And she's bringing all her varied experience to her new role. 

"My career path has allowed me to see the many different elements that go into creating the news," Woods says. "I didn't know that's what I was doing at the time, but I wouldn't have been able to start Detour without it. Many people are better reporters than I am, but one thing that sets me apart is I've got a broad understanding of how media works."

Woods, during her last stop at the Free Press, became despondent at how reliant media was on Facebook for traffic—it had become an intermediary between the paper and readers. "I was thinking about what would be a way to make something small and local that has a direct relationship with the reader," she says. "Just the two of you, week after week."

Currently in newsletter form, Detour Detroit is a curated selection of important, thought-provoking, and interesting reads from about topics relevant to Detroiters. Detour produces its own original content as well, like a recent essay by teaching artist Cambrey Thomas about unconventional ways to inspire kids. 

"The vision for Detour is create a news product that's more reflective of the community I live in," says Woods. "[Thomas' essay] is an example of the kind of writing that wouldn't have had place in my previous career, but it's the kind of writing I wanted to put out in world."

The difficulty, as with any media company today, is figuring out how to make it sustainable. But that's actually one reason why Detour was founded. Woods won a $25,000 grant through The Information Accelerator, which supports publications with original business models. 

Detour Detour is still in its beta phase, having started in March this year, but Woods says they already have almost 1,000 subscribers. She's playing with various ways to monetize, some of which will roll-out this summer, that will potentially include a subscription plan, sponsorships, and events related to content. 

Woods also started Detour because the city is a constant inspiration to her. "There's a really amazing group of people here who I describe as builders, doers, and dreamers," she says. "They're a mix of entrepreneurs and activists, and they're thoughtful and neighborly. I've never quite seen that anywhere else."

Photo of Serena Maria Daniels by Maria Eugenia Manzanares-Bobadilla.
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.