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Can your local government really be involved in reporting local news?

Streams of public funding have always been available to create media. Now’s the time to think about how it can better serve communities.

Aaron Foley
Mar 7 · 7 min read

In 2017, I did something absolutely crazy: I left a stable position as a magazine editor-in-chief, a job I’ve had on my wish list since I was in my teens, to go work for the government in a job that had never been done before.

It’s a story I’ve told time and time and time again, but here it is again. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was concerned that messaging from the city government wasn’t reaching residents, and after a thorough audit of every city department, he made the decision to not hire any additional press secretaries but to expand the city’s Department of Media Services, a crew of talented videographers and other audio/visual technicians who produce the city’s public access programming. The department had an opportunity to move further into the digital space, and needed someone to lead them there.

In March 2017, when I was named chief storyteller, a first for city government, I came in with a few goals of my own: Expand the city’s messaging, yes, but also take the opportunity to fill in gaps in Detroit’s narrative that no media, local or otherwise, could fill. The Department of Media Services was already producing video content, but it was only airing on the cable channels. My thought was to — please, don’t groan — pivot to video, in the sense that we’d ramp up online consumption of the video the staff was creating by moving it directly to the city’s social accounts, promoting it, and scheduling the videos to keep them in step with what Detroiters were talking about at the moment.

That was just step one.

Steps two through (well, I’ve stopped counting) was the launch of an all-new news site housed within the Department of Media Services but having an identity all its own. In August 2017, we launched The Neighborhoods, where — now with its own staff of two writers, two videographers and a photographer, all of whom I’d requested a budget to hire — we’d post every day something about Detroit that Detroiters didn’t know. I mapped out a strategy that incorporated the kind of content you’d see in my old magazine, the community news lost from newspaper pages after years of industry decline, documentary-style video with smart editing, and photographs that depicted native Detroiters and not the transplants that have swarmed the city in the last half-decade.

And then we’d do podcasts. And then we’d do photography exhibits. And then we’d do community conversations. And then we’d do social videos that weren’t intended to go viral, but they absolutely did. And then we’d do Spotify playlists, and pop-up storytelling events, and then do partnerships with other organizations in town. I wanted us to think like a digital media startup, and, if our page views were any indication, we actually were one.

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Photo by Jovaughn Stephens on Unsplash

Who gets to make media?

Despite the volume and quality of content we were putting out, some people couldn’t shake that it was still just government programming. I reminded people frequently that not only has Detroit done public programming for years, so have other cities. The City of Warren, just north of Detroit, puts out an entire newscast on its channel and there are likely several broadcasters working in the Detroit market who may have worked at HOM-TV, the — famous to Michigan State University journalism students — news station operated wholly by the Meridian Township government. We just did ours differently, and refashioned what government programming looked like by making it look a lot less like government and a lot more like the digital startup I’d imagined.

The question of just who should be producing media and how it should be funded is something I’ve wrestled with for the two years I served as Detroit’s chief storyteller. I came to Stanford to take some time to draw a blueprint for my old job, which I hadn’t had any time to write while I was actually doing it, and see if that blueprint could be taken elsewhere. But I also wanted to figure out if something like The Neighborhoods, which at the end of the day may not have mayoral input, but still has mayoral oversight, be spun off from the City of Detroit while still maintaining its funding source, which is public, educational and governmental (PEG) funding.

Other cities have incorporated storytelling into their municipal duties. Denver was the first city to name a chief storyteller, another longtime journalist, after Detroit. The City of Atlanta hired a “chief content officer” with very similar job duties to mine. There are other cities flirting with the idea, or at the very least looking at Detroit’s model and taking some bits and pieces and adding it to other folks’ job descriptions. And even though I’m not the first to hold it, the job title “chief storyteller” has exploded, albeit into marketing and public relations. I’m still in the mindset of media, and job one for me still remains amplifying underrepresented voices while creating content reflective of the community I’m serving.

When proposing a project for my John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship here at Stanford, I thought about several of Detroit’s public entities, like Detroit Public Schools Community District, Detroit Public Libraries and the Detroit Institute of Arts, that have public funding and the same capabilities of producing media, but wondered why they hadn’t entered into the storytelling space yet. All three of the aforementioned routinely ask the public for incremental millage increases, so I wondered out loud: Could a small millage be asked of the public for public media?

PEG fees, which are essentially a millage anyway, vary from government to government. In the case of Detroit, the PEG fees were a small fee paid by cable subscribers, which have been paid since the days when Don Barden, a pioneering black entrepreneur, cornered the market on cable TV in Detroit. (In other words, the people who wondered about The Neighborhoods’ funding now should have been wondering about it when we all had those gray boxes on top of our TVs back in the ’90s.) But it’s a fee that, as I talked more and more with city governments in the last few years, seems to be widely underutilized.

There is a growing drumbeat for additional public funding to support journalism. Margaret Sullivan posited in The Washington Post recently if we could go in a more “European direction” with consideration for “indirect public funding for local journalism.” Victor Pickard in The Guardian, also recently: “Ideally, we’d massively increase federal support for public media. Whether we expand or replace the PBS model is an open question, but this new system must provide for information needs across all types of digital media and platforms. Maintaining public media infrastructure should be non-negotiable for a democratic society. Short of paying directly out of the treasury, government could help facilitate multiple revenue streams into one large fund.”

It would be easy to say this is a left-leaning position. But Howard Husock, of the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, has argued for the same: “The time has come for a successor to the 1964 Carnegie Commission to reimagine the outdated Public Broadcasting Act and the role of government funding in the media. The goal should be not more funding but a major redirection, toward support of local journalism by freeing funds that currently go toward purposes that the private media market now provides.”

We’re still very much in the early stages of this conversation but to continue it, we have to take a long, hard look at the relationship between government and media, and understand that if done the right way, there can be publicly funded media at every level, whether in a municipality or something as widespread as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Here’s the thing, though: We have to broaden our definition of “publicly funded,” and not look at government as being the boogeyman in this scenario.

I’ve had discussions recently with two organizations that may be in positions to lead the charge for — well, that’s another thing. There’s still no set terminology for what I’ve done in Detroit, and what each of these organizations want to accomplish. I’ve, at times, referred to my position as “civic storytelling,” making it clear that there’s government involvement. The Community Info Coop leads research in public funding innovation to create “info districts,” which it describes as “a public policy solution to the local news crisis.” The IC2 Institute at the University of Texas at Austin is innovating “community storytelling,” inviting a handful of public employees from cities from around the world to test a model of storytelling that helps these cities reclaim their identities — something that drove a lot of my work in Detroit.

These are uncharted waters, but I’m buoyed by successes large and small in the public-funding arena, including the State of New Jersey investing millions into the newly created Civic Information Consortium, and the Longmont (Colorado) Observer winning control of PEG fees to fund a nonprofit newsroom. What’s next are more difficult conversations, but I’m ready to have them if anyone wants to talk. I can be reached at akfoley@stanford.edu.

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S.

Aaron Foley

Written by

Black Media Initiative @ Newmark J-School, Detroiter in NYC, author, JSK Fellow, “This American Life” contributor, wearer of several other hats and D-fitteds

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

Aaron Foley

Written by

Black Media Initiative @ Newmark J-School, Detroiter in NYC, author, JSK Fellow, “This American Life” contributor, wearer of several other hats and D-fitteds

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

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