Six months ago, Detroit was barely on Steven Gray’s radar. “I had been here twice, once to write about Kwame [Kilpatrick], the other time to write about an Arab-American conference,” the 32-year-old Howard University grad says. “Not even three days in total.” Gray was living then in Chicago, covering the Midwest for Time magazine. It was a coveted assignment he’d earned after stints with the The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, where he covered companies including McDonald’s and earned a Pulitzer nomination for coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
But everything changed just before the Fourth of July, when Gray received an e-mail from his boss that said, as Gray recalls:
“ ‘Can we talk? We’ve got this project in Detroit, and we think you’d be great for it.’ ”
Gray says he replied, “ ‘Why Detroit? Why now?’ ” As his questions were answered, Gray realized this was, in many ways, the type of assignment he had longed for after covering Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in his hometown of New Orleans. (His childhood home was destroyed by 18 feet of water.) “That experience made me realize that … my passion is writing about social issues, and I had to find a place to do the journalism that is most meaningful to me.”
Time was that place. And, with that midsummer phone call, the magazine presented Gray with an audacious new way to pursue his goal. For one year, Time Inc. would commit its top outlets (including Time, Fortune, Money, Sports Illustrated, Essence, and related Web sites) to cover the city — from social issues to the auto industry. The project would be called “Assignment Detroit,” and Gray would be in charge.
What else did your boss say to sell you on this assignment?
He also mentioned I’d get this great house, this five, six-bedroom house. And my response was, ‘OK, all by myself?’ And he said, ‘Yeah … and if I were in your shoes, I’d take it.’ So I said, ‘OK, I guess I’ll take it.’ It is a great opportunity.
How does that work exactly, taking possession of a house you’ve never seen, in another city?
They gave me the address and we started Googling the house and got all this history on it. … [The managing editor] FedEx-ed me an envelope and inside was a note saying, ‘All Yours.’ And taped to the note were keys to the house.
For the $99,000 Time paid, they could have bought anywhere in town. Why West Village?
I think we wanted something that was fairly close to downtown that would give us a real chance to feel the city in a way that we could not if I was living in an apartment some place and had an office. Also, this house is a meeting place … [and a place] for reporters, videographers, editors, photographers of other Time units [to stay]. … It does feel like a frat house sometimes.
So it’s a home, conference center, hotel, and office — all in one. That’s unusual.
It’s also an experiment to see if this kind of bureau [works], where folks are reporting from one house for all the different Time units.
This may have been a great opportunity, but how did you feel about moving to Detroit?
I had some apprehension, because I was very comfortable in Chicago. … The gym was two blocks from my house. Starbucks was two blocks from my house. I didn’t have a car. My grocery store was two blocks. … There also was concern about Detroit. There were real issues like security and quality of life, certainly compared to Chicago — and that’s just realistic.
Hang on. You said yes to the Motor City without a car?
I didn’t have a car for the last five, six years. And so I knew that I was coming to Detroit where historically you had this ‘Buy American’ thing. I get it. Support it. Got it. But, I also had to look at what I could afford and what fits my own sensibility. I looked at a bunch of traditional American cars and, you know what, a used Volvo fit the bill. … I’ve been called a ‘Half’ [because] technically, Ford still owns Volvo.
How’d the move go?
I put much of my stuff in storage, put my main clothes in my Volvo, packed it up, and drove the four-and-a-half or so hours to Detroit. Moved here on Aug. 18.
Did “Assignment Detroit” unfold as you expected?
Not so much. … Pretty much the first six weeks were spent setting up, more event planner than journalist, actually. [Trips to] Home Depot and Linens ’n’ Things. … We had Mayor Bing over for dinner. The next night, all the top editors from all the key magazines came in. That’s when it was clear this was not going to be just reporting. It’s a much bigger project.
Other teams from the Time, Inc. family drop in, but you’re the only one who’s here full time. How does one guy even begin to cover a city, and state?
It takes a lot of reading. I start off every day by reading the papers online and watching TV news online and I look for themes in news stories. I’ve got two or three folders that I call story files with just small clippings, things I find interesting. … [Stories] also come from finding people that have a pulse on different parts of life in the region.
No doubt you’ve discovered it’s a region full of people with opinions.
Everybody wants to talk and share their take on what is Detroit. And there are so many different Detroits, depending on where someone’s coming from in the world. It can be very daunting sometimes, vetting some of that stuff and setting priorities. There are so many things that should be at the top of the list.
What’s at the top of Time’s priority list?
In the last year to 18 months, the auto industry has been on the radar in a way that it has not been in the last 30 to 40 years. That’s a key part of our coverage, especially in Fortune. But [Time Inc. editor-in-chief, John Huey] has a strong sense of social justice, and I think he came here and saw there were a lot of stories that we should be doing and we haven’t had a chance to do for a while. … The state is facing the highest unemployment rate in the country. The City of Detroit is really on the brink of financial collapse. You have a school system that is in shambles and a crime problem that frankly is another war that we should be thinking about. Why not cast some attention to those issues and stimulate, hopefully, some national discussion?Everything you write generates discussion around here. How are you handling the local critics?
You have to know when to listen to the market, listen to your audience. But you also have to know when to shut it out and simply do your job, and let people know that you need to do your job.
But I hear there can be real benefits to readers following your every word.
When I first got here, I wrote something about how I couldn’t find affordable fruits and vegetables. People came by with fruits, vegetables, jam. … The most surprising was [a store owner] showed up at the house with a huge box of popcorn. … People have been great.
What can people expect you to write in the months ahead?
I’m not interested in doing stories about ‘Detroit’s dying! Detroit’s dying!’ I think it’s much more interesting that we are honestly acknowledging what some of the problems are … and what’s being done to fix some of these problems. In terms of specific themes, I’m really interested in class. I am interested in the race issue, but it’s certainly not the focus of my coverage. [Another issue is] education and class mobility and how and why Detroit, and also much of the country, doesn’t view education as being a true passport to class mobility.
Any favorite Detroit spots yet?
I haven’t been out enough. I like Slows Bar BQ. I think I went there three times in one week. Small Plates is pretty good. I joined a gym.
This is Motown, so I have to ask … what’s the soundtrack around here?
Lot of Michael Jackson, some of my favorites. Lot of Diana Ross. Lot of Aretha Franklin.
Has Aretha stopped by the house yet?
Are you expecting she will?
[Smiles] She probably will. Stay tuned.