Detroit’s newspapers may be struggling, but the city’s many online sources for news and colorful commentary are flourishing.
Blogs, those online sites for everything from stream-of-consciousness personal reflections to incisive political editorializing, have become go-to sources for alternative news and views in metro Detroit. And while the region’s media outlets host their own worthwhile blogs, many of the best local bloggers are independent.
“Think back to the day of the underground newspapers. They were edgy, covering things others weren’t covering,” says Don Tanner, partner at the communications firm of Tanner Friedman. “These blogs kind of carry on this mantle of discovery. But now you have a legion of people covering the stuff instead of one or two.
“Anyone can blog; it gives the common man or woman a voice,” he says. “You don’t need a printing press or a broadcast tower to potentially reach millions.”
Detroit’s leading blogs may not yet have a readership that vast, but their sharp commentary and thoughtful storytelling have earned many a devoted following. Blogs like Dyspathy, Detroitblog, Sweet-Juniper, Supergay Detroit, March of the Platypi, and The People of Detroit can draw thousands of readers a month. Many of the blogs’ writers say they’re filling a void in the city’s media coverage and sharing slices of life unique to Detroit.
“I do feel like there’s a gap in local media,” says the blogger behind Dyspathy, who goes by the moniker Woodward’s Friend (many bloggers write anonymously). “There’s some really good beat reporting going on in the city. But the punditry is kind of lacking. Detroit is such a small town, there’s a closeness between pundits and the people they write about, so they hedge a lot. I’m in a position where I don’t have to do that.”
One might think of Dyspathy as a Detroit-focused print version of The Daily Show. The blog tilts left, but is known for its laugh-out-loud, take-no-prisoners observations on Detroit media and politicians from across the spectrum. Its frequent targets include the Detroit Public Schools, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the op-ed pages of Detroit’s two major dailies, and the city’s religious leaders.
“Dyspathy brings a uniquely sarcastic and snarky view of politics that nobody else does,” says Detroitblogger John, who writes Detroitblog. “The newspapers have such a staid, straitjacket way of writing, and he makes it funny and lively and says things people think but that never make it into print.”
Blogs got their start in the late 1990s and were originally a form of online journaling, with writers chronicling the interesting (or, too often, not-so-interesting) details of their daily lives. The form soon evolved, with many of the most widely read versions focused on politics and giving traditional media a run for its readership. Today, Technorati, a blog search engine, tracks nearly 73,000 English-language blogs, a fraction of what’s available on the Web.
Many of Detroit’s best bloggers focus on the realities of life in a city where poverty and unemployment are rampant, bringing an empathetic eye and humorous insights to the lives of those trying to get by — including themselves.
“Detroit is a free-for-all,” Detroitblogger John says of the deep well of compelling stories. “There’s been such a collapse of order. You can have a farm in your front yard if you want.”
Detroitblog first appeared as the ruminations of a local reporter who enjoyed exploring and photographing abandoned buildings. In 2006, it morphed into journalistic storytelling and the Metro Times picked it up. Several of Detroitblogger John’s stories have gained notoriety, including a March post about a man who runs a strip club out of the wood-paneled basement of his east-side home and another about a Detroiter who kills raccoons for meat. Although Detroitblog’s approach is the antithesis of salacious (its writer captures his subjects with clear-eyed compassion), the raccoon story was quickly glommed onto by less-sympathetic news outlets, including Chris Hansen’s infamous Dateline episode on Detroit.
“I mean, g**d***, Chris Hansen,” says photographer Noah Stephens, who launched his blog, The People of Detroit, in April in an attempt to counter media coverage that pigeonholes Detroit as a wasteland. “Here’s a guy who sells raccoons. It’s factual, but it’s not representative. I don’t eat raccoons; I don’t know anybody who eats raccoons. Like that’s actually a food group.”
Stephens’ blog posts offer vivid portraits of city dwellers and visitors accompanied by short narratives on them.
“I wanted to focus on aspects of life I was familiar with that outsiders might not be aware of,” Stephens says. “If you watch national coverage of the city, you might think it’s all tumbleweed, but life is still led here.”
The city’s blogs can also serve as guides to some of Detroit’s vibrant subcultures. Supergay Detroit, the creation of Ann Arbor transplant Joe Posch (proprietor of design stores Mezzanine and Hugh), started his blog in 2007 as part of his quest to unearth gay culture in the city.
“I was trying to figure out where the gay people were, and not just in an incidental way,” he says. “I thought what I was going to create was a resource (if you’re gay, on Saturday night you go here), except it changed so quickly. Since the scene was changing, I decided to write about it as I discovered it.”
Supergay Detroit evolved to become part of the city’s gay culture, helping to publicize parties and spotlight interesting tidbits of gay-Detroit history.
“Writing this blog has opened so many doors, and it’s been an incredible opportunity to meet so many people,” Posch says. “I learned the best way to learn where gay Detroit is, is to start a gay blog.”
Sweet-Juniper and March of the Platypi offer a first-person perspective on life in the city — albeit very different slices of that life. Sweet-Juniper gained widespread notoriety for its striking July 2009 photo essay post on “feral houses,” abandoned Detroit dwellings that have been almost entirely consumed by nature. But the blog’s chief focus is the life and times of a stay-at-home father named Jim, whose wife is an attorney. (She occasionally contributes to the blog.)
March of the Platypi focuses on the observations of an emergency-room nurse in a metro Detroit hospital who goes by the name Platy. Although any emergency room is fertile ground for outlandish anecdotes, Platy says the incidents and people his blog describes are Detroit-specific.
“Detroit is a different world, just socially and behaviorally,” he says. “The blog is a window into a world most people really don’t experience. It’s an effort to give an inside view into what things are really like in the ER. People have interesting stories and interesting behaviors.”
Gauging the impact Detroit blogs have on the media or culture at large is difficult. But sometimes blogs and real-world events intersect. Last spring, Dyspathy received an “incomprehensible” cease-and-desist e-mail from Kwame Kilpatrick’s lawyer, which promptly got turned into a blog post that was picked up by Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business and MLive.
“I hesitate to say people are reading what I write and that it’s shifting the conversation,” Woodward’s Friend says. “It’s so hard to prove. I know a lot of reporters read it, so I assume at the staff level of elected officials someone must see it, but I don’t know how much of an impact it has.
“I would love to get the angry letter,” he adds. “I would love for Frank Beckmann to lose his mind over this horrible blog.”