Editor of the Year Q&A: Anger’s High-Road Approach to Coverage of the Mayor and Detroit’s New Distribution Modelnd Detroit’s New Distribution Model
Detroit Free Press Vice President and Editor Paul Anger was named Gannett’s Editor of the Year for his work in 2008. For its exceptional overall performance, the Free Press won Gannett’s Outstanding Achievement Award for Best News Performance by a Newspaper. Paul is cited for his leadership of major investigative and FOI work and strategic efforts that resulted in a new model for delivering content to multiple audiences. NEWS WATCH asked Paul a series of questions on how he — and his newspaper — achieve excellence.
Q. Let’s start with the mayor. The Detroit Free Press coverage of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick quickly drew national attention. Your team kept the focus on coverage each day for more than a year. How did this story start and how did you develop your strategy for coverage? When did you have a sense it would be so big?
A. This story came to light because of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting that had gone on for years by reporters Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick. We had a history of exposing the mayor’s questionable conduct from his early days in office. He used city credit cards for personal gain and city cash for lavish staff parties. He also charged the city for his wife’s Lincoln Navigator and got rid of city employees he didn’t trust. We closely covered a whistleblower lawsuit brought by police officers who claimed they had been dismissed for knowing too much about the mayor’s conduct, including extra-marital shenanigans. We wondered why the officers’ lawyer tried to subpoena text messages exchanged by the mayor and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty. The messages never did get introduced at the trial, but when the jury awarded millions to the police officers and then the mayor suddenly settled for a higher amount, we went to court to try to get all documents that could shed light on the settlement. All that shoe-leather reporting paid off. Schaefer ended up getting the text messages — 14,000 of them — from sources who were familiar with our aggressive, accurate reporting and who trusted us. The messages showed that the mayor and Beatty had lied under oath about whether they’d fired the officers and whether they’d been intimate. There were thousands of personal exchanges and lots of steamy language.
Q. How did you decide to frame the original story?
A. We decided it was not about sex. It was about wasting huge sums of taxpayer money. It was about lies that destroyed good cops’ careers. It was about false testimony by top city officials that exposed them to perjury charges. We resisted the urge to publish — in print or on freep.com — language that could have shown up on T-shirts around the world. That would have detracted from the real substance of the story — that Detroit had a corrupt mayor who had committed perjury.
Q. When journalists study the Kilpatrick coverage and get a sense of how the story developed over time, invariably they talk about the discipline that was shown in the reporting and editing. How did you develop that approach and why was it so important?
A. We decided we had to take the high road from the start and stay on it. There was too much at stake. Any mistakes in fact or context would be seized upon by the mayor and his supporters. We would publish only enough messages to show perjury, not cause unnecessary embarrassment to innocent bystanders mentioned in the messages, or humiliation to family members. At the same time, we had to dig up everything the public needed to know about the mayor. So we were relentless in both our reporting and our determination to stay on that high road. We had a talented, multi-layered, diverse team of editors vetting what we did — David Zeman, Caesar Andrews, Jeff Taylor, Julie Topping, Ritu Sehgal and Nancy Laughlin.
Q. Your reporting over the course of the year went far beyond the original text-message story. Can you summarize other findings?
A. We reported that Kilpatrick and Beatty used public funds for out-of-town trysts; that they gave one of the mayor’s friends inside information on city contracts; that the mayor packed his administration with friends and family (including some who lacked qualifications for their city-paid jobs) and paid them exorbitantly; and that when he was a state legislator, Kilpatrick contrived to steer public grant money to his wife, Carlita, their pastor, and a close friend. We kept up our investigation while we covered the fallout from the scandal. We ended up doing more than 700 stories, columns or editorials — and on freep.com we did 131 video reports, 8 live-streams from breaking news, several hundred pages’ worth of public documents and 70-plus photo galleries.
Q. There had to be pressure on the Free Press from the mayor’s friends and colleagues and from city leaders not to continue with this coverage. How did you handle it personally and how did you help your reporters handle it?
A. We came under direct and indirect pressure. We were accused publicly by the mayor, his supporters and his lawyers of taking the messages out of context. The mayor said we broke laws in getting the text messages. He said they might have been stolen. He accused the media — us and others who joined the coverage — of a “lynch-mob mentality.” Our reporters heard they should be concerned for their safety, and Publisher Dave Hunke was cautioned by a city council member to “watch your back.” Dave offered to provide 24-hour security for the reporters. It never came to that, and a big reason was because of the high road we took. We went to great lengths to report word-for-word everything the mayor said in his own defense, including an hour-long taped interview with a local radio host friendly to him. Our stories were bullet-proof, and even most of our detractors sensed that we could have published much more graphic messages. Events unfolded quickly. Within days of our first story, the county prosecutor launched an investigation, and within two months she came back with 15 felony charges against Kilpatrick and Beatty. She also said at a press conference that her investigation started because of the Free Press’ reporting and that “an independent press is vitally important to our society.”
Q. This work required multiple pushes to get public records. How hard was that effort?
A. After the mayor’s sudden settlement with the police officers, we filed a Freedom of Information request that produced nothing of substance from the city. We then had to sue the city, and eventually found out that the mayor and his lawyers conspired to hide documents related to the text messages from the public and the city council. Those documents proved a massive cover-up and fraud by the mayor. We went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court and won every step of the way. We had tremendous legal firepower — our own local counsel Herschel Fink and the full backing and input from Barbara Wall, Gannett Vice President and Associate General Counsel. The legal maneuvering and strategizing was time-consuming and costly, but neither Barbara nor Dave Hunke flinched for a second. We just kept grinding through the courts; we did what we had to do.
Q. This story risked tearing apart the community. How did you consider that possibility? And how did you take steps to help the city heal and move forward?
A. This story was a tragedy for the city of Detroit. The metro area here is polarized to a large degree. About 85% of Detroit is black and about 85% of the suburbs are white. That kind of racial division can bring tensions, and we knew that we could stir up negative cross-currents and old animosities. We were determined to keep that to a minimum. Before our first story, we let the governor and key black leaders in the city know what we were about to publish. We assigned extra staff to watch the comments posted on our stories. We solicited and published op-ed columns from people supportive of the mayor. We invited the mayor or his representatives to meet us at the Free Press (they declined). We were restrained when we were interviewed, locally and by national media, in what we said about the mayor and Detroit. We pointed out that Detroit has made many great strides as a city including vibrant downtown development. We held off calling for the mayor’s resignation on our editorial pages until he was charged with felonies. We stepped up our visibility in the community at public events. We wanted to be part of the community conversation and not be seen as another polarizing agent.
Q. What kinds of things did you hear from readers in response to the coverage?
A. We had an outpouring of response. We published more than 300 letters to the editor in 2008 and more than 100,000 reader comments on freep.com. But the best feedback came from phone calls, e-mails and hand-written letters. Many readers said the work had restored their faith in journalism or reminded them of the critical role we play in our democracy. One man wrote: “I’d like to send a donation of $100 … as appreciation and … to help defray these costs that are no longer supported by advertising and sales.” Our high road approach was visible to readers and appreciated by many. Another reader wrote: “This was the story you trained for but never wanted to do.”
Q. Now that you are at this stage of the story, what lessons would you share with others?
A. There are several convictions just burned into us. I’ll mention a few:
(1) Journalism is alive and well on the Web. We all know that the daily printed newspaper is in trouble, and some of us worry about the demise of journalism. But our experience in Detroit underscores that people will find and read great journalism on the Web. On the day the mayor pleaded guilty, we had almost four million page views on freep.com. The Web enhances our information and makes it transparent and believable for the public. For example, we live-streamed video from the courtroom onto freep.com so people could decide for themselves whether to believe the mayor. We had reporters using hand-held devices and laptops in court to send updates to the Web. We also used freep.com to post hundreds of documents related to the case. We were able to let people see how the text messages appeared on the documents we obtained.
(2) We must be able to protect our sources. Some courts are less sympathetic than others, and our sources in the mayor’s case never would have come forward if they could not count on anonymity. Our responsibility is to use anonymous sources rarely and to verify their information.
(3) The press must absolutely be above board. We knew the Free Press would be accused of acting unethically, and our editors took great pains to do what we call prosecuting the stories — looking for problems with our information, how we got it, how we were presenting it. We were determined never to have to apologize for anything. Three weeks after we broke the story, I was able to write a column that included this passage: The Free Press did not break into any computers or locked cabinets or offices or trick or bribe anyone into giving the messages to us.
(4) There’s no substitute for superb reporters who are known in the community and build sources. We had many staff members contribute mightily to our enterprise and our year-long coverage, but none of this would have happened without Schaefer and Elrick. They know their stuff, people know them, and their connections paid off.
Q. Switching to another project for which you were cited, you launched on March 30 a new distribution model for the Free Press. Can you walk us through that?
A. We’ve gone to a model where we’re home-delivering the Free Press — and the Detroit News under our JOA — on Thursdays, Fridays and the Free Press on Sundays only. On the other days, we are still publishing both newspapers for single copy sales at 18,000 outlets throughout Michigan. There’s been a lot of misinformation out there about us abandoning print, but we’re still publishing every day. We’re also offering same-day mail service on non-home-delivery days in the metro area, and we’re providing paid subscribers with electronic editions that reproduce the newspaper pages online exactly as they appear in print — headlines, coupons, stories, photos, comics, everything — every day of the week. These e-Editions are different from freep.com, which remains free to anyone.
Q. Why did you go to this strategy?
A. In a word, survival. To continue to publish and to continue to do great journalism, we had to cut back, as Publisher Dave Hunke puts it, on our paper, ink and fuel costs. We were driving to the moon and back in a week’s time delivering newspapers. That’s a massive cost when the world is going digital. We picked Thursday, Friday and Sunday to continue home-delivery because those are the highest readership days and the most desired by advertisers. So, our plan is intended to keep our print revenues substantially intact, slash our manufacturing and distribution costs and keep serving our community with great digital and print products that include strong news reports.
Q. Has the print product changed much?
A. It’s more compact on the days we’re not home-delivering, with a redesigned, fast-reading, one-section Free Press of 28 to 36 pages — including Sports as a pullout in the middle. Those papers are dense with news. They are organized by chapters for Metro news, Business, Life, Opinion, and they are edited especially tightly with more emphasize on alternative story forms — charts, graphics and at-a-glance material. The Thursday, Friday and Sunday newspapers have more separate sections with deeper coverage and more advertising, and the Sunday Free Press is a richer product than before, with the same tight editing and fast reading, but more newshole than we had previously. We’ve emphasized Sunday as the flagship to attract subscribers to the rest of the week, including the electronic editions. (Readers can’t purchase Sunday only.)
Q. How are readers responding?
A. It’s early, but we’re off to a very, very strong start. Our challenge is the economy and the trends in advertising revenue, but our new distribution model is ahead of projections in almost every way. We’ve lost only about 4% of our subscribers to this point because of our new plan. The e-Editions, as we call them, are proving to be a big hit. The traffic on the e-Editions has boosted overall freep.com traffic, especially on days that we don’t home-deliver. We’ve raised our single-copy sales projections, and we’re up to almost 8,000 signed up for same-day mail. It’s been gratifying how people are sticking with us. They see how important a strong news report is to them, and they don’t want it to go away. They see what’s happening around the country. This e-mail message is not atypical: “I have been buying the paper on the off delivery days as I like to sit elsewhere than here to read it. I am so glad to have you do everything you can to keep going. We need journalists and newspapers for the good of this country.”
Last Modified: April 2009