What We Learned in Detroit

Assignment Detroit: From a house in the city, Time Inc. magazines covered Detroit's struggle to survive. The moral: the city brims with tales of shock, inspiration and hope

  • Joe Vaughn for TIME

    You may recall that a year ago, we, the editors of TIME and other Time Inc. magazines, purchased a house in Detroit and announced that it would become the hub for a year of journalistic focus on America's most challenged large city. At the time, I said in this space that we aimed to bring "a sense of surprise, discovery, enlightenment, horror, joy, inspiration and fun to the reality of Detroit."

    Ultimately, you'll have to be the judge of how we performed, but I can tell you that from our perspective, it was a tremendous experience — fascinating, energizing, challenging, enduring and indeed fun. In all, we ran about 55 stories in our print magazines, including covers of TIME, Fortune and Sports Illustrated and articles in People , Essence , All You , Real Simple and Golf . We published nearly 200 stories online and presented 46 video stories on CNNMoney.com alone. The Detroit Blog on TIME.com produced more than 750 posts and recorded more than 1.5 million page views. The most popular post was by one of our 11 high school bloggers, Taylor Trammell, who wrote about being teased for her proper grammar in a piece called "I Don't 'Speak White,'" which had nearly 40,000 page views. (Welcome to mass media, Taylor.)

    We featured 10 Questions with Elmore Leonard, Aretha Franklin and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. From the real moms of Grosse Pointe to the Arab Americans of Dearborn, from car czar Steven Rattner's exclusive first-person account of the auto bailout to Dan Okrent's elegiac lament on the state of his hometown, we tried to cover all things Detroit: education, technology, grandmothers, urban farming and, of course, politics.

    We also used the D-Shack, as Detroit-area native Kid Rock dubbed our house, to host more than 20 events, from a backyard Coney Island hot-dog party for our neighbors to more formal affairs with such guests as Ford's Alan Mulally and Mayor Dave Bing.

    For some of us, the experience was immersive. TIME correspondent Steven Gray, a New Orleans native who lived full time in the D-Shack (and co-wrote with Okrent the story in the Nov. 22 issue), came to the post with a keen interest in urban policy. He now has an even keener sense of urban reality, which should stand him in good stead as he moves to his new assignment as a correspondent for TIME in Washington. For others the Detroit experience was more episodic but just as enlightening. Golf discovered an inspiring urban golf program for youth, and Sports Illustrated profiled an autoworker turned champion bowler. Money sent in experts to assess questions like whether a $6,900 house in Detroit is a bargain.

    Our reportorial assault on the city was met by locals with both enthusiasm and skepticism. Some of our competitors viewed the whole thing as a stunt. But if so, it was a damned effective one, exposing audiences across the U.S. to a broad view of issues and lessons that matter not just in Detroit but to all Americans.

    We're not abandoning Detroit as a subject for coverage in our magazines. But we are, as planned, closing down the D-Shack and returning to a more conventional approach. We've put the house on the market for what we paid for it ($99,000), and we are guaranteeing a donation of $100,000, divided equally among four nonprofit organizations with big stakes in the future of the city's youth.

    I would be remiss not to thank a few folks who were instrumental in pulling off this project: Rick Tetzeli, who helped conceive and launch it; Steve Koepp, who ably took the reins from him midcourse; and Kristy Erdodi, who ran the D-Shack and is now reporting from Detroit for People . I would also like to thank our 11 student bloggers for their enthusiasm, hard work and talent. Most of them are off to college, and we hope their experience with us gave them a sense of accomplishment and confidence.

    John Huey is the editor-in-chief of Time Inc.