How Detroit’s ‘chief storyteller’ is crafting a new narrative for his city

Aaron Foley is Detroit’s “chief storyteller,” an unusual title for a job in local government.

As a journalist and Detroit native, Aaron Foley is tired of the two dominant portrayals of his hometown. One is about poverty, crime, and ruins of the great city that was. The other is about newcomers launching coffee shops and hipster bars, mostly downtown.

So last year, when Mayor Mike Duggan approached Foley about shaping a new narrative focused around the spirit of the people living and working in Detroit’s neighborhoods, he jumped at the chance. Foley became Detroit’s first “chief storyteller” — an unusual title for a job in local government.

Foley shines a light on artists, small business owners, doctors, nonprofit groups, and many others who each, in their own way, are making Detroit a little bit stronger. He’s particularly focused on telling stories from the African-American, LGBT, and immigrant communities — stories he says aren’t always reflected in mainstream media.

Using city funds from a fee on cable TV providers, Foley manages a staff of two videographers, two writers, and a photographer, who are housed within the city’s Department of Media Services. Their stories appear on a website called The Neighborhoods, and a city-owned cable TV channel.

We caught up with Foley last week in New York, where he spoke at a convening of city communications officers hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Bloomberg Cities: Why did Detroit create a position of chief storyteller?

Aaron Foley: It was an idea the mayor had for a couple of years that finally came to fruition. There are two extreme narratives about Detroit. There is the comeback narrative that largely exists downtown. And then there is the narrative around disenfranchised residents, as far as challenges in communities, poverty, unemployment, crime, illiteracy and things of that nature.

Nobody denies that there are challenges in Detroit and that there are problems that need to be solved. However, in between these two extreme narratives, you have neighborhoods that have persevered, residents who opened businesses, started new block clubs and community organizations, and continue to make Detroit their home. You have born-and-raised Detroiters who have never left the city during these hard times. They don’t get the same amplification that these two extreme narratives are getting.

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There’s an idea we call “psychological gentrification.” It’s the idea that if I live in Detroit, have a home and am doing quite well for myself, or even just maintaining, and I don’t see myself in the media, then I start to question if I’m part of the ongoing narrative of Detroit. So we’re trying to give people a platform where they can see themselves, and start to fill in these gaps.

What’s going on in local media that leaves these gaps?

The journalism industry has lost a lot of bodies, and when you lose a lot of bodies, you lose a lot of coverage of these neighborhoods. There used to be a community weekly that was an insert in the daily paper. And now the daily paper is so thin — it’s a lot of wire stuff, a lot of sports stuff. It’s never a knock on the journalists who are working in those newsrooms, because they do good work. There’s just fewer of them.

We’re not trying to overtake or supplant local media. But we do see an opportunity where we can support coverage of Detroit. We already had public-access cable channels, so we already had people doing this to some degree. Now we’re just taking it to another level.

Did the mayor have a sense of what he wanted this to be?

He had a sense. We do have some obligations of what we have to do. Our media services department is funded by PEG funding — public, educational, and governmental grants — that come through cable and internet fees. So everything has to be tied to something that serves the public, is educational, or is a reflection of the city government. We couldn’t just do a fashion shoot. Or if we did, it would have to have one of those three components around it.

We have to have video on the website, because the video goes on the cable channel. Everything ties back to the cable channel, as it’s a large source of our funding.

What audiences are you aiming to reach?

It’s geared toward two different audiences. One is people who are trying to retain a residence in Detroit — there’s more people leaving than staying in Detroit. But we’re also trying to attract people back to Detroit. So when we do stories about kids doing great things, that’s a reflection of the schools getting better. When we do stories about people buying houses, that’s a reflection of a neighborhood getting better.

We’re not trying to put lipstick on a pig, for lack of a better term, because everyone knows Detroit has a long way to go. But there are hundreds of thousands of people in Detroit and they all have different stories to tell. So the idea is to really uplift and amplify the stories of Detroiters who are doing good things. We talk to a lot of small-business owners, we talk to a lot of people who are starting something new in Detroit.

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We also have a challenge because of the digital divide. About 40 percent of people in Detroit don’t have internet at home or a phone with a data plan. We’re in the middle of crafting a quarterly print product that we can mail out to all residents.

Is there a guiding force in the narrative you want to try and get out there?

I wouldn’t say there’s one singular guiding force, but I make it my mission to spotlight a lot of different communities that don’t normally get mainstream media coverage. So we’re talking about our LGBT communities — I try to go outside of just Pride month, as far as exploring what our gay and lesbian residents in Detroit are doing. Same with our Muslim communities, and our immigrant communities — we have Bangladeshi, Yemeni, Salvadoran, Venezuelan, Mexican, some West African, some West Indian — all of these different communities are starting to grow in Detroit, so we need to tell their stories as well.

And also, people of color, period. We’re a majority-black city but sometimes our media coverage isn’t reflective of that. You see lots of stories about crime that don’t necessarily put us in a good light. And when you constantly have that it does create an impression that Detroit is just this. Again, we’re not saying crime doesn’t happen, but there’s nothing wrong in my opinion in flourishing the narrative by highlighting everything else that’s going on.

You wrote in Columbia Journalism Review that every city could have a role like this. Why?

One thing is the time we’re in, where we’re losing a lot of local journalism. I’m clear that a city shouldn’t supplant or try to take over local journalism — that’s not what a city government should do. But city governments do have media departments, they do have communication departments, they do have people who have the skills and talents to write, or produce, or film, or photograph, or create, and they can do it in a way that tells their hometown story.

There’s also the impact we are making on the people featured in our stories. When we first started, we had a story of a young woman who bought a house for $2,500, and fixed it up herself as a means of getting out of a very abusive relationship. So she went on YouTube, and learned how to plaster a wall or fix a downspout. After we published our story, she was invited to a lot of the local women’s groups in the area to speak on behalf of domestic violence survivors.

Do you have editorial independence?

I have autonomy over what we produce. I don’t have to go to the mayor and ask his permission, I don’t have to go to the chief of staff and ask permission to publish stuff. Sometimes we try to tie stuff to some of the mayor’s initiatives — say, profiling a person who’s gone through a workforce development program. Not in the sense of branding it Detroit at Work, or whatever the name of the program is, but showing that this person did it, here’s how she did it, and we can point you in the right direction, too.

There were a lot of skeptics at first, particularly among journalists. I was hired in an election year, and some thought I was going to finesse the narrative of Detroit in favor of the mayor for the election. And I was like, no, that’s not what I’m going to do. Dealing with the skeptics is going to be a big part of it for any city that wants to do this.

But for the most part, people understand. I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes or step into anyone’s lane. We’re re just writing stories about Detroit because we’re in Detroit.

What does success look like for this role?

The mayor says he wants to be able to go to a meeting, and when he asks people if they’ve heard of the website or the cable channel and the content we’re producing, they say yes. We’re a long way from that. We’ve only been live since August, and haven’t done a whole lot of promotion or marketing in the physical sense yet.

When I was a journalist, the end goal was always to make an impact on the reader, or an impact on the subject. You can do the same thing on the government side. And I consider that a public service. Because if we inspire the next person to open a restaurant because they read about someone else doing it, that adds to the overall revenue the city is getting. We’re showing what Detroit is capable of.

It’s a new model of civic engagement. It’s very experimental. We don’t have all the answers, and to be honest, I’m not sure if we’re doing everything the right way because we have no benchmark to go off of. But by my calculations, it seems to be working.