Sustaining Framed by WDET
How Courtney Hurtt is exploring new funding models for engaged journalism projects
If you find yourself in Detroit’s east side on a Sunday in the summer, you’ll likely hear the blues being played somewhere nearby. You’ll also likely smell some ribs, chicken, or fish cooking on the grill. You’d be lucky to find your way to St. Aubin Street where John’s Carpet House, a 20-year-old Detroit institution, is located. John’s Carpet House is less of a venue and more of a gathering place with a homemade stage in an abandoned lot. Every summer Sunday folks gather to listen to live music and fire up their grills.
John’s Carpet House isn’t just a meeting of neighbors, it’s a meeting of cultures. In the last century, millions of people left the Deep South for manufacturing jobs in northern cities like New York and Detroit. The blending of the South and the North in the Midwest is on full display at the Carpet House. One attendee said, “It’s like a mixing bowl of all that. You’re in the urban city but all these folks down here is really country folks.”
The story of this unique Detroit culture is one of ten different communities that have been covered as part of Framed by WDET. Over the last four years, local photographers and storytellers have been paired together to elevate and reflect the stories of a diverse Detroit. Each installment focuses on a different local community — from the underground dance scene to Middle Eastern food culture — and photos and audio stories are presented in public exhibitions that travel around the city. Since Framed by WDET’s inception, 160 printed photographs and the voices of nearly 100 individuals have been featured in 20 different art galleries across Detroit.
Framed by WDET is led by Courtney Hurtt, the Associate Director of Product Development and Business Operations at 101.9 WDET. In 2014, Hurtt collaborated with local photographer Kenny “Karpov” Corbin to present images and stories of Bangladeshi dress shop owners in Hamtramck, Michigan. Through an arts grant from the Knight Foundation, Hurtt was able to expand this audio-visual collaboration into the Framed by WDET project.
Hurtt has seen first hand the value that this type of work produces. These stories are reaching audiences that WDET typically doesn’t engage. The events and the reporting lead to important collaborations with community organizations and they are diversifying the voices heard on air. But Hurtt wants to dig deeper into the value of engaged journalism projects like Framed by WDET.
“We know these projects have value, but how can we make them sustainable and how can they garner funding?” These are the questions that are guiding Hurtt and the rest of WDET as they launch their Engagement Pipeline Project, made possible with grant support from the Democracy Fund. The goal of the project is to explore ways that WDET can integrate revenue driving activities into engaged journalism projects, beginning with Framed by WDET. Hurtt and the rest of the team will develop strategies to increase contributions that allow engaged journalism initiatives to become self-sustaining.
“We’re trying to prove that these [engagement projects] not only have value for your community but they diversify your stakeholders,” says Hurtt. Diversifying stakeholders is key to the sustainability of these projects, but so is redefining what support means.
“This project has a different spirit,” she says. “How do we reach the people that this project is actually about and figure out what they value and what they could contribute? To put them through a membership process doesn’t necessarily make sense. The most effective giving experience could be different.”
Local businesses who aren’t ideal underwriting candidates might introduce a kick-back campaign where 10 percent of proceeds fund a Framed by WDET exhibition in the neighborhood. Or, they might offer up space for an event. This was the case with a Bosnian-owned coffee shop that hosted an event as part of a Framed by WDET series called “Beyond Balkanization.” Hurtt says that the coffee shop “brought a validity and authenticity to the event because they invited their friends and family. It created an experience that WDET hosting at the studio could never have generated.” This, according to Hurtt, is a perfect example of a new form of support beyond direct financial contributions.
Still, Hurtt says WDET needs to do more to bring folks who attend these events and the stakeholders who host them into the fold and generate revenue to sustain engagement work. To start with, that may look like a combination of crowdfunding and event sponsorship for businesses of various sizes. Hurtt says the goal of the pipeline project is not necessarily to convert community members into WDET listeners, but rather to find innovative ways to work with these communities to sustain WDET projects they find valuable. In partnership with The Work Department, a Detroit-based design and strategy studio, WDET will be rigorously tracking their experiences and methodology to share with other public and non-profit news organizations who want to build sustainable engaged journalism projects.
Courtney Hurtt is a member of the Listening Post Collective Advisory Group. This article is part of our newsletter series highlighting the amazing work and experiences of our LPC Advisors. Check out our first feature in the series with Adriana Gallardo here. Stay tuned for more!
The Listening Post Collective is a project of Internews. We provide journalists, newsroom leaders, and non-profits tools and advice to create meaningful conversations with their communities. We believe responsible reporting begins with listening. From there, media outlets and community organizations can create news stories that respond to people’s informational needs, reflect their lives, and enable them to make informed decisions.