Growing up in Ann Arbor, Detroit was never far from home for journalist Jennifer Conlin. But it would take nearly 50 years of her life --20 of them spent overseas--before she fell in love with the city for the first time.
"In college, I'd go to Greektown or have fun at a jazz club, but I didn't really spend much time in Detroit," Conlin says. "My whole love affair with Detroit really kind of happened when I got back."
That was in 2010, when Conlin returned from Cairo after hopping through a series of stomping grounds in Europe and the Middle East. She left the States in 1990 to follow her husband, Daniel Rivkin, in his work with the A.P. news service. The two lived in London, Brussels and Paris, having one of their three children in each city. Throughout the years abroad, Conlin found steady work as a freelance journalist for publications including Time Europe, Working Woman and the New York Times (her primary client since 2002).
But increasing political unrest in Cairo motivated Conlin and Rivkin to move their family to her childhood home. And when assignments from the Times began sending Conlin to Detroit on a regular basis, she found her time abroad had given her a fresh appreciation for the city.
"Maybe I'd become such an urban person because I'd lived in all these cities," she says. "So when I went into Detroit and saw this amazing city, I think I was just drawn to it. It was all intoxicating."
Shortly after Conlin returned to Michigan, she and colleague Dan Shaw began spitballing ideas for a proposal to the Knight Foundation's Community Arts Journalism Challenge
, which funds arts journalism projects in eight communities nationwide. Shaw suggested a Detroit-oriented spin on a unique attraction he'd seen outside a theater in Pittsfield, Mass.
"This theater had put up a photo booth, but it was like a video booth," Conlin says. "And when people came out of performances at this theater, they would just go in and leave a review."
Conlin and Shaw submitted a proposal to the Knight Foundation for their spin on the idea, dubbed CriticCar Detroit: a mobile journalism operation that would travel to events across the Detroit area, gathering audience members' event reviews and broadcasting them online. Conlin says the idea was partly motivated by a desire to provide more positive and diverse local media coverage.
"You can't even watch television in Detroit any more, especially with the bankruptcy now, because it focuses on crime so much," she says. "You just see black kids in hoodies who have robbed a bank or broken into a car. But there are these fantastic young men and women who are talking about having their first experience in theater, or seeing their brother or sister at Mosaic
, or seeing a dance performance for the first time."
The CriticCar proposal was one of five challenge semi-finalists in October 2011. After the submission of an initial business plan, it became one of three finalists receiving a total grant of $100,000 in April 2012. Since grants are awarded only to organizations, not individuals, Conlin found herself with the entirely new challenge of starting a nonprofit. Fortunately, she found an ideal partner in that process: Deb Polich, president of Artrain
, an Ann Arbor nonprofit specializing in mobile art programs.
"[Conlin] is a very good journalist, but as far as I know she's never been on the management side of journalism," Polich says. "That doesn't mean that she wouldn't have figured it out, because she's very bright. But I'm always constantly on the lookout for projects that are a good fit for our mission, so I told Jennifer we might be able to produce it for her."
Conlin worked on developing the project with Artrain staff through the fall of 2012, purchasing an iPad for filming, starting a CriticCar YouTube channel
and creating an app to quickly publish finished reviews to YouTube. The project first hit the streets at this year's North American International Auto Show and has since accumulated 450 video reviews of events at over 60 venues. Making the rounds approximately every 10 days, Conlin's role among a crew of three to four is to seek out audience members willing to review an event on camera. Artrain program director and CriticCar producer Shoshana Hurand says Conlin's "warm, welcoming" manner is essential to the endeavor.
"People aren't necessarily expecting to be asked their opinion," Hurand says. "Jennifer has that gift of being a journalist who can enter spaces and really be interested in what people have to say."
In a field that often seems threatened by the massive rise of citizen journalism and criticism, Conlin is a rather unusual case: a traditional career journalist openly and enthusiastically engaging with the new wave. Michael Hodges, who has written about CriticCar as a fine arts writer for the Detroit News, says he was "a little skeptical" of the project before talking to Conlin, but she soon changed his mind.
"I'm enough of a cheerleader for the arts in Detroit that I would rather there was more fun and appealing information getting out there," Hodges says. "I think people might be interested in a newspaper account of a play or a movie, but they might also be interested in what an average Joe has to say. And I think people are able to differentiate between those two different things."
Conlin says CriticCar is "not a replacement" for traditional journalism.
"We need to have proper arts criticism out there," she says. "I'm a traditional journalist myself and still am, so it's not that I would ever want to replace that on a technological level. I'm 51, so we're kind of bad with this kind of stuff, but I think we have to embrace this new technology."
The CriticCar team is currently developing a public version of its own internal app, essentially making it possible for reviewers to, in Conlin's words, "do a selfie" and post it to CriticCar's channel. Conlin envisions CriticCar as a model that could work with a production team in other Rust Belt areas like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, but also as a DIY app that could be used by anyone anywhere. She says one of the greatest surprises of the project has been finding interviewees are enthusiastic to participate in CriticCar not just out of passion for the arts, but out of a city pride equivalent to her own.
"If I interviewed someone coming out of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you wouldn't have anyone saying, 'You should come see this exhibit and I really liked it, but also you should really come here and visit New York,'" she says. "They just wouldn't say that. Here people all say, ‘I liked this exhibit, and Detroit is safe and people should come down.' They all shout out for the city, nearly all of them. I didn't anticipate that, and that's great."
Jennifer Conlin photos by Doug Coombe