Metro Detroit Bloggers Mind The Gap

“You really need to define ‘blog’ here.”

It seems like an odd request, directed from an interviewee to the interviewer, particularly when the subject is a blogger being interviewed about her own blogging. Odd, but fair.

“Does ‘blog’ simply refer to content produced for the web?” Nicole Rupersburg, author of the foodie blog Eat It Detroit continues, pointing out that Metromode fits cleanly within that definition. “And if so, then blogs are as varied as print in that regard -- for every Wall Street Journal there's a dozen Stars. Except multiply that into the thousands, because anyone can start a blog, and boy do they.”

Indeed, they do. Even by a more narrow, traditional definition of a blog -- that is, subtracting both your younger brother’s Tumblr account and online media outlets with paid reporters and editors -- there are still dozens of well-known blogs in Metro Detroit with legions of dedicated readers.

You might not even realize how many local blogs you already know, until someone starts rattling off a list: Supergay Detroit, People of Detroit, LookUpDetroit, Sweet Juniper, Positive Detroit and Night Train just begin to kick off the list.

“There is an incredibly tight network of Metro Detroit writers,” says Courtney Velasquez, who began her Detroit Mommies when she moved to Rochester from California in 2008 and couldn’t find a reliable online resource for local family friendly events and activities. “I have yet to experience anything like it in any city I have lived in.  They are passionate about Detroit and incredibly supportive of each other.”

The question of how this growing community of bloggers are different than other forms on online media outlets is an important one because it gets to the heart of why so many of them started blogging the first place.

“Ypsi doesn’t have a local paper anymore,” says Ypsilanti blogger Mark Maynard. “But it’s important for people to have an outlet for sharing information.”

The need to give his community such a place led to the launch of his self-titled blog, MarkMaynard.com, a decade ago. Not too far down US-12, former Detroit News reporter Said Deep’s DeepSaidWhat has a nearly identical origin story.

“It’s been out of love of journalism and the city of Dearborn,” he says of his seven-year-old blog. “I thought it was a way to bring attention to some of the issues that that the local papers, simply because of staff constraints, can’t really do that.”

Technically, the “staff constraints” of these local bloggers don’t support their own efforts either. Maynard, Deep, Velasquez and Rupersburg, like nearly all other area bloggers, have day jobs. That’s right: where newspapers’ budgets end, volunteer journalism begins.

“It’s one of the bigger problems facing our country right now,” says Maynard. “How do you make journalism work? I just do it because I’m nuts. I work on my blog three, four hours every night, and there is no money in it.”

But it’s not all about insanity or self-sacrifice. Author of the popular Detroit Moxie blog with the tagline, “Celebrating the City We Love,” Becks Davis says that maintaining a blog on the side of a regular career has its own benefits.  

“It’s certainly made me more active in the community and it instills a sense of responsibility to the city,” Davis says. “The whole point of Detroit Moxie is to share cool and interesting places and events. If people read about something on the blog and then go check it out, that’s a win.”

Melissa Damaschke and Julie Funke created their blog for two other non-monetary reasons: personal motivation and advocacy. Two Women Four Wheels about their adventures biking and busing through Metro Detroit, with the promise of utilizing public transportation at least once a week. They write both about their own adventures and local transportation issues.

“It’s a really interesting way to spur advocacy in an informal way,” says Funke. “It’s interesting to see how this information can spread in such a grassroots, but powerful ways.”

“And how we can learn from each other,” adds Damaschke. “We have learned more about different routes to take or a better way to bike in a skirt, or whatever it is, because we’re creating a dialogue with this online community.”

What they’re also doing is play a role that Deep says, in addition to local news itself, is also missing from mainstream journalism: analysis.

“I’m not a daily news source,” he says, “but I can at least provide perspective on the news. They’re too busy feeding the beast to do any analysis and ask, ‘What does this mean?’”

That’s no small piece of the journalism “void,” a concept mentioned by nearly every blogger interviewed for this piece. And letting people know what’s happening in their community and what it means to them is of no small importance.

“Democracy doesn’t work unless there are people out there asking questions and talking about things people in power don’t want you to be talking about,” says Maynard.

The overabundance of bloggers, Rupersburg notes, can create a related issue. That is, there’s so much white noise that no one makes an impact at all. With about 20,000 page views per month, however, hers is clearly one making itself heard, as are a few others.

“News-driven blogs are reshaping journalism as we know it,” she says, “and are taking risks that traditional media is too scared to take.”

For the best of Metro Detroit’s bloggers, those risks are paying off. They may technically be volunteer journalists, but Maynard’s blogs have been picked up by CNN, Jezebel and Rachel Maddow. Deep knows from his website analytics that he has readers inside Dearborn City Hall. Damaschke and Funke were surprised to find national transportation organizations among their followers.

It’s both surprising and not: if traditional journalism is leaving a gap in local coverage, where else would these high profile sources find out about local issues?

“There are some amazing influencers in the Detroit area that have become social celebrities in the city,” says Velasquez. “People trust these bloggers and this new way of producing media.”

How long that trust in local, volunteer journalists -- or Metro Detroit bloggers’ willingness to carry the torch -- will last, only time will tell. For now, they’re busy filling the local news, analysis and human-interest voids left by an industry struggling to define itself in the information age

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.