With the distribution of our December issue each year I set aside some time for review and reflection on what those of us who bring you Downtown Newsmagazine have accomplished in the prior 12 months, and so I am sharing some thoughts with our followers.
Mid-November as we went to press with the issue you now hold in your hands marked our first full year at our new office on East Maple Road in Birmingham, just on the edge of the downtown area where we had office space for 12 years over what used to be the retail space for Astrein’s Jewelry. The Astrein brothers – Richard and Gary – sold their downtown buildings around Thanksgiving of last year in anticipation of retiring in the spring of this year. With the new owner’s plans not meshing with our needs for the future, we had to hustle finding new space for our office.
Like other second-story office businesses in Birmingham and elsewhere in the country, we had spent the first two years of the COVID pandemic transitioning to a remote operation. We certainly had no need for the added space which stood empty most weeks and we certainly had no idea the basics of our business would never return to what they were.
The floor space was cut in half at our new office which was really envisioned as a meeting place when necessary for staff and outside visitors, with the majority of the floor plan dedicated as a production space in which we create anywhere from 72-120 pages for a monthly issue, along with designated personal office space which I occupy most weekdays and some weekend days.
Our switch to a remote operation was certainly made much easier by the fact that founding members Lisa Brody, news editor, and Chris Grammer, manager of production and IT, and I worked together years prior to launching Downtown Newsmagazine and share the same passionate drive to produce a quality product. We all embrace the notion that journalism has a special role/responsibility in society. Thanks to Zoom meeting capabilities, an office phone system that now resides in the Cloud, cellphones and the internet, we are still communicating on a daily basis, often multiple times in a day. On the ad sales end, Mark Grablowski and I meet three mornings of the week but then communicate as we always have via cell phones and online during the course of the week and each day.
I never worried about any impact on productivity during the pandemic or today – we are a group of seasoned professionals who understand what it takes to produce a publication for local residents each month, which is critical because we do important journalism.
Take the longform stories you see in each issues, which generally run from 4,000-5,000 words. We start planning those pieces months in advance. For example, we started in October of this year for what you will see in our January issue. We do considerable hours of research in advance of even determining what longform feature will be assigned to a reporter, then we communicate or meet via Zoom sessions for weeks as the work on a story progresses with the writer talking to dozens of sources, often times across the country.
Our efforts have been recognized by journalism professionals across the country who judge our work in contests sponsored by the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), who have awarded us for a number of longform pieces just in the last two years in the writing categories of environment, education, social justice, etc. These same professionals have also selected us for recognition for cover and interior publication design, portrait photography and personal opinion columns.
This past year we have focused our longform storytelling on a variety of topics, among them: gang activity in Oakland County; school safety efforts in local districts; the quality of your drinking water supplied by regional authorities; the attempts to tame Woodward Avenue traffic; and the threat from lead particulate matter in the air from the three airports owned by Oakland County. On this last longform piece, we take great pride of having beat The Washington Post by a couple of months on this same story, which happens more frequently than you may realize. Among my personal favorites, if you will, our publication over the last decade was the first to unveil efforts by Canada to bury nuclear waste along the shores of the Great Lakes from which we take our drinking water; detailing the existence of militia groups operating in Michigan; the toxic legacy of power plants with the coal ash left behind as the state moves to a carbon neutral future; the warming waters of the Great Lakes; the billions of gallons of water wasted in the region due to leaks from an aging pipe system, just to name a handful of instances where we beat both local and national daily publications.
I often share with others that we are fortunate because we serve what census numbers show is one of the most educated communities in the state so we know our work gets read. We describe Downtown as a hybrid publication, mixing longform storytelling with hard news coverage, of local government, political news/gossip, personality profiles, dining information and editorial opinion.
But our monthly print product is just one part of our effort here. We like to think of ourselves as a multi-platform news organization, of which our monthly print issue is certainly a crucial part. But we also are working to develop further our presence online, anchored by our website (downtownpublications.com), which on an average month brings about 18,000 visitors, although some months that number spikes to as high as 30,000.
Along with current and all past issues hosted on our site in a flipbook format, we post news at least weekly to our website and then provide a weekly email update newsletter every Friday morning. Our Friday update newsletter goes out to over 2,000 people who have signed up to receive it. We also provide breaking news updates to the website when events dictate.
Along with our weekly update newsletter, we send out newsletters for Metro Intelligencer (1.4K) with monthly news and gossip from the restaurant scene; bi-weekly Threatened Planet (2.1K) environment information newsletter; and Oakland Confidential (3.1K), our monthly political news and gossip newsletter. We also have a presence on Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), Threads and Instagram.
Despite the growing importance of social media platforms, we continue to resist falling prey to what others do – ‘click bait journalism’ – the overriding logic in many newsrooms which concern themselves more with how many online ‘clicks’ a story can generate as opposed to providing all information that the public may need to know.
Sure, we can tell you that when we broke the recent story about the Palestine/Israel controversy that erupted at the Cranbrook Art Academy, as one example, we tracked thousands of views in the first couple days, and we know the on-line origin of those who came to our website, where they reside, and on what type of device they read the story. But that is not what drives us to pursue a story to begin with. We hew to the traditional role of journalism by supplying essential information to keep our readership informed and leave the ‘click’ chasing to others.
I feel generally satisfied with what we have accomplished this past year and look forward to where we go in 2024. As always, feel free to let me know what else we can provide or where we can do better.