Meet the National Press

While trends show that news budgets and bureaus are steadily shrinking, Detroit, as it has for decades, remains a vibrant news town.
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Following the introduction of the 2009 Dodge Ram pickup truck at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January, Chrysler Chairman Bob Nardelli was the center of national attention. Photo by Jim Bourg

DETROIT – It was April 5, 2007, the week before Easter, and John Stoll, Detroit Bureau Chief for Dow Jones Newswires, was in New York to meet with his editors and other bosses. While he was in town, Stoll hoped to catch up with some of his Wall Street sources and hopefully go away with some useful news tips on the automotive industry. He had also scored a couple of seats to watch the Yankees play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — again, with a source. Of course, the news didn’t stop while Stoll was out of town (Ford Motor Co. announced in its proxy statement that day that new CEO Alan Mulally had been paid $28 million after four months on the job), but he was confident his office back in Detroit had that situation well in hand. He was looking forward to a productive, relatively uneventful week in the Big Apple. Little did he know how productive — or how eventful — it would turn out to be.

Around midday, Stoll left the Dow Jones Newswires headquarters in the Harborside Financial Center in Jersey City and walked three blocks to the Flamingo diner for a quick lunch with a colleague. He had just ordered soup and salad when his BlackBerry buzzed. Stoll ignored it at first, hoping to steal a break from the pressure of his job and enjoy some time with his friend. But the BlackBerry persisted, erupting with calls and e-mails. Stoll relented and answered his phone. It was one of his most trusted sources from the financial world.

“They told me that Kirk Kerkorian was going to make a $4.5-billion cash offer for Chrysler,” he recalls. “They had copies of documents that Kerkorian was going to file with the SEC and a copy of a letter from [Kerkorian aide] Jerry York to Dieter [Zetsche, DaimlerChrysler chairman] saying the offer was contingent upon Chrysler signing a favorable labor contract with the UAW.” Flush with adrenaline, Stoll excused himself just as his soup arrived. “Like a surgeon being called to deliver a baby, you have to drop everything,” he says. Stoll immediately called his editor in Chicago to tell him about the tip. After agreeing that the source’s reliability and the authenticity of the leaked documents were sufficient to confirm the story, a headline moved on the Dow Jones newswire at 12:43 p.m., before Stoll even got back to his Harborside office. Within moments, a frenzy of trading erupted in the markets across the Hudson River from where Stoll had answered his BlackBerry.

“We beat our competitors by at least 10 minutes,” Stoll says, “and in the amount of time we had that story and our competitors didn’t, more than $3 billion in market capitalization was added to the value of DaimlerChrysler. Meaning that our readers at the Dow Jones Newswires, The Wall Street Journal, and CNBC (with whom Dow Jones has a content-sharing agreement) were able to enjoy a $3 billion market that every other reader of every other publication was locked out of for that 10 minutes.”

Stoll says the last thing on his mind that day was how the market was going to react. Indeed, another bit of breaking news could’ve easily sent the market reeling in the opposite direction. The important thing to him was to have been able to get the news out first, fast and accurately — simply, to achieve his journalistic raison d’être. “Scoops are the lifeline of a reporter,” he says. “It’s what you live for.” And a scoop in the world of wire services is even sweeter, considering the ferocity of the competition.

“I’ve played plenty of sports in my life,” Stoll says, “[but] I’ve never had anything come close to matching the competitive nature of working for a wire. Wire services live and die by their ability to update stories with pertinent information. My job is to make sure my readers are armed and equipped with the information they need, when they need it. … Even though Kirk Kerkorian didn’t end up buying Chrysler, his interest legitimized the deal and added value.”

Seizing on the significance of Stoll’s story, the Dow Jones promotions machine went into high gear, running a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal the following week with the headline “Dow Jones — Privileged Information Can Be Turned Into a Profit.” In the financial news business, a 10-minute edge clearly qualifies you for bragging rights.

As dramatic as it was, John Stoll’s scoop was not an isolated incident. Stories regularly come out of Detroit whose impact is felt around the country, and around the word. And it’s for this reason so many national news organizations have bureaus in town. With the Detroit Three automakers and other major corporations, major sports teams and sporting events, a diverse population, and an impressive pop-culture heritage, Detroit has, for decades, been a magnet for big-name media organizations that explain and expose the city to national — and often global — audiences. Today, Detroit is home to bureaus and correspondents for The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and Newsweek, as well as the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, and Reuters wire services.

This relatively vibrant news environment is rather at odds with national trends that show news budgets, staffs, and bureaus shrinking. At the end of 2006, there were 1,437 daily newspapers in the United States with a combined circulation of 52.3 million, down from 1,688 papers with a circulation of 63.3 million in 1984, according to the Newspaper Association of America. In 2007, Time Inc., announced that it was cutting 289 people, closing Time magazine bureaus in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, and even cutting seven jobs in Time’s Washington, D.C. bureau. BusinessWeek in past years has shuttered its bureaus in Dallas and Pittsburgh. Newspapers are feeling the pinch from San Jose to Florida to Michigan, where dozens of Detroit Free Press and Detroit News editorial employees accepted voluntary buyouts in the last three years, according to Local 34022, the Newspaper Guild of Detroit.

“In almost every aspect of the news industry … the ongoing trend has been a retrenchment of personnel and a cutback of jobs that are no longer seen as essential,” says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C.

Given the number of correspondents in Detroit, it’s clear that news executives still regard coverage here as essential. Not surprisingly, the auto industry is the main draw. “For all the warts the auto industry has right now, it’s still one of the most vibrant industries in the world,” says Jason Vines, senior vice president of Compuware 2.0 and former vice president of communications for Chrysler LLC. “It’s an industry that every country cherishes to have on their own, and it still represents 4.5 percent of the gross domestic product. It’s huge, so you’re wise, as a news organization, to have people on the ground in Detroit.” Longtime General Motors Corp. communications executive Bill O’Neill knows the business well. “The auto industry,” he says, “is one of the last industries that has a full-time press corps that follows them around.”

National Media

Micheline Maynard’s job may not always have been as heart-pounding as John Stoll’s, but the former New York Times Detroit bureau chief (she’s moving to the Times’ Washington, D.C. bureau this spring) has seen her share of big stories. Maynard says her main assignment has been to cover the auto industry, but 20 percent of the bureau’s output involves other topics, including politics, sports, and food. “We approach coverage in Detroit on a very strategic basis,” she says. “We’re more enterprise- or feature-driven. A good New York Times story has a 50,000-foot view.

“With features, we try to zig while other people zag,” Maynard says, “so if there are 20 stories on Toyota beating Ford, we would have the story on the pickup truck market falling apart — and that’s deliberate. You can get basic news anywhere. It’s the stories that aren’t basic that set the tone of our coverage, whether [it’s] automotive or politics or fashion.”

Maynard knows that many Detroiters are often suspicious of the way the national media depicts their city. “There’s a sensitivity in Detroit to the picture that’s painted by the national media,” she says. “There’s a tendency to say we all get it wrong, [that] it’s not really like that. I’d flip that around to say, ‘What are you seeing that we’re missing?’ Is there something the national media is missing about Detroit, or is it that we’re seeing things that people don’t want to look at? We try to be as sensitive as possible, but we also have to tell it like it is.”

Over at the rival Wall Street Journal, correspondents sometimes get a chance to write non-automotive features, like the one about the $1 million-plus condos at the Westin-Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit. But the primary mission of the six-person bureau is to be the epicenter of the newspaper’s coverage of the global auto industry. “We take the auto industry very seriously, and we write a lot of stories and devote a lot of space and attention to the car business,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning former Detroit bureau chief Joseph B. White. “We cover these companies from a bunch of dimensions — from a consumer dimension, but also from the perspective that they’re big consumers of capital that’s provided by Wall Street, so the readers in the financial community are interested in how the car companies are doing.”

In today’s online world where seconds count toward bragging rights, the Journal’s first outlet is the WSJ Online Edition, which goes to subscribers’ desktops and PDAs worldwide. “Getting out first online with breaking news is important to us,” White says. “Coming along the next day with insight as to what may be behind the piece of news we broke online is [equally important].” Referring to a recent Page 1 feature that quoted Chrysler Chairman Robert Nardelli telling staff members that the automaker was “operationally bankrupt,” White says the news “caused quite a flurry on Wall Street and everywhere else. These are the kind of stories we’re out to break.”

White says his editors in New York are “enormously” interested in what’s going on in the auto industry and on its impact on the Midwest. “In New York, there’s a great interest in [how] a region that’s so dependent on one industry [copes] with the trouble this industry is having right now — and has been having for the past 20 years.”

After 10 years in Detroit, White is moving on to the Journal’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where, as senior editor, he’ll oversee the paper’s coverage of regulatory issues. He’s following in auspicious footsteps. Over the years, a number of top Journal editors have spent time in Detroit and cut their teeth on the Detroit bureau. “Detroit was, and is, seen as a place where reporters and editors of The Wall Street Journal can go to really get their arms around a big story and demonstrate that they can handle a story that has a lot of moving parts and a lot of dimensions,” White says.

Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, after locking up the Democratic nomination, faces the media in Detroit during the heat of the 1992 presidential campaign. Photo by Jim Bourg

Other media outlets take a different tack. With 2.5 million circulation, USA Today is the largest newspaper in the country. Auto reviewer Jim Healy is based in Washington, D.C., Chris Woodyard covers Asian automakers and industry trends from Los Angeles, and Sharon Carty reports on just about everything else from her office in Ann Arbor.

“There’s just so much news that happens here,” Carty says. “The auto industry is not necessarily the sexiest industry to cover, but it’s incredibly important. What happens here, people talk about all across the country.” Carty relishes the freedom she has to write about whatever she thinks will interest her readers. “My editors let me drive what I do out here,” she says. “I like to think we’re writing for a huge range of people — people who have these stocks in their investment portfolios, people who do business with these companies, and for people who are just interested in cars. If you want to be covering the auto industry and covering it well,” she says, “you have to be here.”

BusinessWeek has lost bureaus in Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami, and Pittsburgh in recent years, but its office in Detroit has been going strong since the early 1940s. Bureau chief David Welch thinks he knows why. “Detroit is a terrific news town,” he says. “You’ve got this huge industry — three large, important companies, and they’re in this tremendous transition right now.”

Welch and Senior Correspondent David Kiley, formerly of USA Today, share the workload that has produced a continual steam of stories from health care to green technology. Welch is probably most proud of a cover story about General Motors he penned in 2005. “A lot of what we identified and what [GM] said they’d have to do to bring change to labor and how they make cars — it really ended up unfolding mostly that way,” Welch says. “Not everything we said has come to pass; some might still yet. It was a fairly prescient piece.”

BusinessWeek’s Detroit bureau has also produced stories about the dangers involved with importing Chinese tires and about Toyota’s public outreach and lobbying strategies, as it continues to grab market share from the domestic industry. Welch also broke the story that Indian manufacturer Tata was in the lead to purchase Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford.

Welch says he occasionally gets a chance to write about something other than cars. His rare interview with Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch resulted in a September 2007 story about how Ilitch and Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski turned the team around in recent years. “Sports Illustrated [referenced] BusinessWeek in their story about the Tigers,” Welch says proudly.

Biweekly Forbes magazine still uses the unabashed “Capitalist Tool” advertising slogan, and it sees itself in a much different light from other news-oriented magazines and newspapers. “We’re not trying to be the primary source of news for our readers because we know they get their news in other places,” says Detroit Bureau Chief Joann Muller. “What we try to do is provide a Forbes spin — or take — on the news of the day. On a breaking news story, we won’t necessarily give the who, what, where, when, and why, but instead, we’ll provide some Forbes analysis on that story.”

Like her colleagues, Muller focuses  mainly on the auto industry. “Private equity is dramatically changing the industry,” she says. “There’s a lot of money going in from these private equity funds, and none of them is more under the microscope than [Cerberus].” In a recent ForbesBusinessWeek cover story titled “Chrysler’s Last Stand,” Muller examined Cerberus’s $7.4 billion Chrysler deal in detail. “It’s very early in the game — too early to say whether or not what Cerberus is doing will work out,” she says, “but what we did try to convey in that story was just how quickly things are changing.”

Muller says that with the new perspective Cerberus brings, the status quo at Chrysler is under attack. “We were able to dive deep into some of the inner workings of the company and provide some real insight as to how different it is there just in the last few months,” she says. “One of the benefits of having a bureau in Detroit is that I have a lot of sources at Chrysler — people who I’ve been talking to for years and years. Those people are on the front lines and are seeing how things are changing. So while Cerberus is a little quiet about their operations, there are plenty of people inside the company who are feeling the changes, [and they’re] plenty willing to talk about them.”

Like the eponymous Forbes magazine, Bloomberg News was named for its founder. In Forbes’ case, that was Scottish financial journalist Bertie Forbes and the year was 1917; Bloomberg L.P. was formed in 1981 by former Salomon Brothers general partner and current New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The privately held information services, news, and media company (Bloomberg owns 80 percent; Merrill Lynch 20 percent) employs 8,200 people and operates 135 bureaus around the world, including one in Detroit.

Detroit Bureau Chief Jeff Green says the Bloomberg business model is different from that of other services in that it targets its content mainly to financial clients who pay $1,500 a month for dedicated Bloomberg terminals. “This cash flow supports our operations,” he says. Green says that although 476 newspapers and magazines with a total circulation of 84.5 million subscribe to Bloomberg’s news service, the company’s primary clients are “traders and corporate executives and treasury departments — the people who buy and sell and trade things.”

Like his fellow bureau chiefs, Green says Detroit is a great news town. “I just can’t think of anywhere else where you have this concentration of news bureaus and newsmakers in one place.” He says Bloomberg’s Detroit office was the first to report the timing of the GMAC sales to Cerberus Capital Management, and that General Motors was planning to build as many as 60,000 electric Chevrolet Volt cars.

Detroit’s Bloomberg office has its own television studio, where Green and his colleagues can conduct interviews with executives and other newsmakers. Those interviews are then broadcast on Bloomberg Television via cable and satellite systems around the world. “We’re completely integrated between TV and radio and print,” Green says.

Farmington native Keith Naughton joined Newsweek’s Detroit bureau in 1999. He’s now the magazine’s Midwest bureau chief, responsible for managing the Detroit and Chicago bureaus, as well as Newsweek’s network of stringers and freelance writers throughout the Midwest. “My primary mission here is to cover the auto industry because that’s still a very vital, important part of the economy,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of business reporters at Newsweek, but [we] do have one devoted to covering autos because we see that as … very important.”

Naughton is proud of Newsweek’s commitment to the Midwest, and he sees his office as providing a kind of regional reality-check. “Too often,” he says, “New York-based publications tend to be a little East Coast-centric.

I think Newsweek has shown an admirable dedication to having bureaus throughout the country, including the Midwest.”

A lot of the national media, Naughton asserts, had given Detroit up for dead and were writing the American auto industry’s obituary. But Newsweek never did that. “You can’t cover America,” Naughton says, “if you’re not in the Midwest.” And with the Detroit Three’s tremendous struggles in recent years, Newsweek feels even more obligated to be here. “From a journalism standpoint,” Naughton says, “[it’s] a very interesting, dramatic, and compelling story.”

Some of Naughton’s notable automotive stories include the first joint interview with Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford and President and CEO Alan Mulally that shed light on how the two powerful executives work together; a profile of charismatic Nissan-Renault President and CEO Carlos Ghosn; and a year-long, behind-the-scenes look at the development of the Cadillac Sixteen concept car, which included doing doughnuts in a snowy GM Tech Center parking lot with Bob Lutz behind the wheel of an SUV fitted with the Sixteen’s 1,000-hp V-16 engine. “That,” Naughton recalls, “was a very cool experience.”

Naughton says his mission at Newsweek is broader than that of magazines that strictly cover business, and that gives him the freedom to write about many things. His first cover story, “Murder in the First Grade,” was about the 6-year-old Mount Morris Township boy who shot and killed one of his classmates in 2000. Newsweek’s story about U.S. Senator Larry Craig, when he was arrested for allegedly soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport, carried a Keith Naughton byline.

For Kevin Krolicki, Reuters’ Detroit bureau chief, the Motor City is the jumping-off point for a world of stories. His five-person office, one of 196 Reuters bureaus around the world, serves as a base from which the United Kingdom-based news agency covers the Midwest and Canada. “Our mission is to cover topics that resonate nationally and internationally,” he says, and those can range from concept cars to the real-estate crisis to federal court cases. “On an ongoing basis, it’s a great hub for covering Arab-America,” Krolicki adds, noting the advantage his bureau enjoys with an Arabic-speaking reporter. “When the Iraqi national soccer team won the 2007 Asian Cup, it’s a half a world away, but you have [people] dancing in the streets in Dearborn. It’s an interesting example of how interconnected things are and how close we are to that part of the world.”

Krolicki says when people outside of Detroit think about the city, they see the auto industry and the Motown culture, but they also wonder how Detroit arrived at its current state of depression and decay. “It’s extraordinary to see a city depopulate the way Detroit has and to struggle with all the related problems,” he says. “So when we do stories that touch on those themes, they’re received with interest because the rest of the world looks at that and wonders how it happened — what happened to the industrial base, the loss of a tax base, how do you maintain social services, how do you deal with abandonment?

When Reuters covers business news in Detroit, it’s the car business that takes the front seat. “The auto industry [is] the biggest thing going here,” Krolicki says. “There’s a lot of access to newsmakers in this industry. It tends to be relatively open about its business … and makes for a pretty hyper-competitive dynamic.” He says Reuters was the first to report last summer’s United Auto Workers strike against General Motors. “That’s a headline we were ahead on,” he says. “It meant a lot. The first confirmation of a strike came on Sept. 24. Because the UAW never issued a press release, the workers just started to walk off the job. You actually had to be at the factory gates and talking to the shop stewards. We brought in reporters from outside the bureau to help us with that. We were ahead of our nearest competitor by three minutes with the headline that GM workers were walking out. On the news of the strike, from the time that first headline moved, GM shares dropped 4 percent. For investors and traders … minutes and seconds matter a lot.”

The one segment of the journalistic population that hasn’t shared recently in the competitive zeal of covering Detroit for a national audience is television. Voices from Michigan Radio and WDET-FM can be heard reporting about local issues on National Public Radio, and CBS-owned and -operated WWJ Newsradio 950 says its reporters feed the CBS Radio Network with more news than any city outside New York. But Detroit’s only network TV presence is the two-person CBS Newspath bureau located at WXYZ, Channel 7 in Southfield. Newspath is the affiliate news service of CBS News that provides news video, custom reporting, and other services for CBS affiliates around the country, as well as for numerous international broadcasters.

“Primarily, we service the affiliates,” says New York-based CBS Newspath news director Bill Mondora. “But we also gather material for The CBS Evening News and The Early Show. We coordinate the satellite news-gathering for the division, as well. We have permanent leases on satellite space that we use to get video back to New York.”

Mondora says Newspath’s Detroit-based satellite truck was busy in January covering the North American International Auto Show, the Michigan Presidential Primary, and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s text message scandal. “There’s plenty of interesting news for the state and region and the nation that comes out of Detroit,” he says, “and we make sure it gets covered.”

The glory days of network TV in Detroit can be traced in large part to the basement of the old Channel 56 Building in Detroit’s New Center, where CNN opened its bureau in 1983. Ed Garsten, manager of electronic communications at Chrysler LLC, was Detroit bureau chief from 1989 to 2001, and he’s proud of the mark CNN made on Detroit. “Ted Turner, the owner of CNN at the time, knew very well that the automotive industry was the most important industry in the world and that … the world’s only 24-hour news network should certainly be close to it and follow it,” Garsten says. “Turner [purposefully] put the bureau about two blocks from the old GM Building. He wanted us to be close to the biggest company in the biggest industry in the world.

Tim Kiska, WWJ Radio producer and journalism professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, says Turner’s commitment to Detroit was cemented after he visited Ford Motor Co.’s headquarters. “Turner said there’s so much going on in the auto industry, but you’d never know it by watching the network newscasts [at the time],” Kiska recalls. “He said the programs looked like they were being edited by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Garsten agrees with Turner that the auto industry was the big draw for CNN. “The auto industry is a real barometer of the national economy, and that, in itself, makes it important,” he says. “The fact that cars are a part of the lifestyle here in America makes it a social story, as well. The third part of that is it’s an important labor and union city. So when you put those three things together, that made it viable. Stories always seemed to have some kind of Michigan connection, so by us having the bureau here, it made it easy to cover.”

Garsten says that over time, economics forced capital-intensive television networks to drastically cut costs. No more flying first-class, no more competing to see how much expense money correspondents could wring from the network … and no more CNN Detroit bureau. He was one of about 1,000 people laid off in the wake of then-CNN owner Time Warner’s merger with AOL at the beginning of 2001. The Detroit bureau closed its doors completely later that year.

Like so many other enterprises in Detroit and southeastern Michigan, the news business owes its existence to cars and trucks, and as long as the auto industry is here in one form or another, the news it generates will keep keyboards tapping. For all of Detroit’s problems, journalists truly seem to thrive on working here and covering the many facets of one of the world’s most important and complex industries. Detroit may not be perceived as a glamorous destination city by young reporters just out of journalism school, but if a writer thrives on boardroom drama and social and cultural diversity, it can be very satisfying.

Naughton says that Newsweek Chairman Richard M. Smith, a native Detroiter, has an intriguing take on his hometown’s ironic reporting situation: “Detroit is the hardest town to get people to move to,” Smith says, “and the hardest town to get people to move out of.”

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