Fast Company reporter finds a middle ground on reporting about Detroit

Fast Company magazine senior reporter Chuck Salter married into Detroit.

He’s been visiting his in-laws in the city for nearly 20 years and became intensely interested in how Detroit worked — and how it didn’t. Therefore, he said his story on a community of young entrepreneurs trying to rebuild the city was a little bit different.

“In the neighborhood where my in-laws grew up in Detroit, there are these beautiful, old houses that have been abandoned,” he said. “But there are much deeper problems. Those experiences put Detroit on my radar for years.”

Salter’s story explores Detroit through the eyes of seven entrepreneurs trying to do their part to help a city that needs quite a bit of it. The story’s structure is interesting in that it includes large quotes, explanations, transitions, and then the process repeats. And though Fast Company is a business magazine, Salter’s story is not a business piece in the traditional sense of the word.

“This story was supposed to run in the September issue, but because it’s not the kind of story we typically run in the magazine — it’s not about a company, it’s not about a startup — this is one of those features — it’s kind of like a bonus feature. Basically, it gets moved around on the schedule to figure out where it’s going to fit. And so as my story got moved, a couple things happened: I kept going to Detroit and things kept happening to my characters.”

The process

Salter’s story began as a profile on Dan Gilbert, the founder and owner of Quicken Loans and the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team. Salter knew Gilbert as LeBron James’ boss who wrote a letter about the star that became an object of ridicule. Salter knew Gilbert was also investing in downtown Detroit.

The executive ran a training program for young entrepreneurs and had moved several thousand employees in Detroit. Salter thought he’d write about Detroit through Gilbert’s experience.

Salter

Salter

He was inspired by other Detroit coverage, in particular Time Magazine’s “Assignment Detroit” project, in which the organization purchased a house in Detroit and brought reporters from various titles there throughout the year. In fact, Fast Company executive editor Rick Tetzeli had helped conceive of that project.

After working with editors, Salter decided he had a great topic, but thought there was “a lot more than Dan Gilbert.” Tetzeli encouraged him to “go and get lost in all of the things happening there.”

So he spent a week in Detroit and contacted various people who had lived in the city for some time. Longtime Detroiters put Salter in touch with other longtime Detroiters. He asked about the changes in Detroit, the differences in the city now, and “where are we in the Detroit narrative?”

Though Salter had called about Gilbert’s training program two to three years earlier, it never rose to the level of a story. Then the larger Detroit idea emerged, and he started reporting last spring. It took him months to get an interview with Gilbert.

Salter said he explained what he was doing and wanted to understand what was happening in Detroit.  He followed up “like crazy” and eventually got the opportunity to sit down with him for an hour.

“I, of course, at the time thought, ‘Oh, this is great,’ ” Salter said. “You go in with certain ideas about reporting. I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be my first interview with him and it will lead to other interviews.”

Gilbert told Salter about how one of his big motivations was growing up in Detroit, where his father owned a bar. He would hang out at the bar.

“I thought, ‘Oh, you know what I want to do? I want each person who’s a main character to give me a tour of their Detroit,’ ” he said. “I was already thinking, ‘I’m not going to have a main character in this story.’ I knew that was a problem.”

Salter’s first idea was to have each character give him a tour of Detroit. It didn’t work. He couldn’t get the follow-up interview with Gilbert.

“You could tell from the beginning that I was already aware this was going to be a hard story because, unlike a lot of the other ones we do, where you know you’re going to have a protagonist, and it’s just cleaner in terms of the narrative, this is going to be a lot more complicated. It’s more of a mosaic.”

Ultimately, Salter didn’t even begin his story with Gilbert, instead choosing what he felt was the best story — the fire that destroyed Jerry Paffendorf’s Imagination Station. Further, Gilbert popped up in other coverage about Detroit Salter saw.

“Instead, I was looking for a better way into the story. Honestly, it was when I heard the story, it was, metaphorically, more powerful. It was Jerry Paffendorf, one of these outsiders, drawn to Detroit. He’s from San Franscisco. So it’s the ultimate example of someone leaving a really appealing destination city and moving to Detroit, choosing Detroit. That is a really powerful idea … His reaction to being bullied by Detroit — that was the image I had in my mind … The city is pushing back on a guy showing up to help and do his part there. I was really intrigued by that notion.”

Salter said he looked for people who represent what is happening in Detroit.

Rather than finding a set number of sources and focusing intently on that small number, Salter said he used a large group of people and, more or less, was “basically casting” for the characters in his story.

“I just started to hear and identify these different roles for people,” he said. “I kept just interviewing people. It was both when I was in person out there and  it was on the phone. I would come back with a list of names and I would set up phone calls and email them. And then, when I was out there, I would meet more people. You focus on who you’re drawn to. Who are the compelling characters? Who has the most at stake? Who is going to bring this idea to life?”

In preparing for and making choices about this story, Salter said he noticed two main reporting narratives already in the press. The first was about the city falling apart and dying. Those stories said the mayor is inept and doesn’t know how to save the city. Some wrote about how Detroit was lost. Others, he said, would write about how “Detroit’s back” and the city has “turned the corner.” That narrative was so far ahead of reality, Salter said.

One source even told Salter he would go back to his editor, who would ask “Is Detroit back or not?”

“He’s right. That’s exactly what we do. We’re often just, ‘OK, you’re the judge, you’re writing the story, you decide: Yay or nay — is Detroit back?’ ” Salter said. “I didn’t want to write that story. From the very beginning, I wasn’t interested in writing that story because that was too simplistic. Cities are really complicated systems. You can’t just declare that the city’s back. It’s not like deciding whether someone’s alive or dead or pregnant or not pregnant.”

Salter said he “stumbled into” his unique structure. He initially knew he wanted to write in blocks around his main characters. In an early draft, he felt he could write with authority from their point of view. It worked OK, and the story could have run, but a different type of reporting drove  the story’s format.

The new type of reporting — which Salter refers to as a “radio-magazine mashup” — basically includes a performance. Fast Company planned to hold a seminar in San Francisco around the time the magazine was going to publish Salter’s story. Salter and his editors decided they would fly his story subjects to the seminar, where they’d “perform” the story of Detroit for the audience. This involved Salter reading aloud a narrative to set up the perspectives. Then, the subjects spoke, in their own words, about their experiences and thoughts. Salter used a similar technique on a piece he did about New York City’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

“So in the process of doing that event,  those people told their stories really well. And it was first person,” he said. “And my editor and I talked about this and looked at this and it just became apparent that there was something so powerful in having it in their own voices instead of having me writing in their voice. So that’s how we made the decision — let’s go with first-person monologues. It’s a more dramatic device. It’s different. I’ll come in in between to provide context and move the story along.”

Though the setup caused a slight loss in the spontaneity of a conversation, it helped dictate Salter’s compelling, quote-heavy structure.

Salter led a similar session about Detroit during a conference in South Carolina.

Many reporters approach stories by exploring the background data before interviews. Salter went the other way and decided he would “nail down the specifics later.” Part of the reasoning for that, he said, was that many sources told Salter data wasn’t available for the rebuilding process of Detroit. “We’re at the anecdotal stages,” he said. Salter did study FBI crime data, spoke to the fire and police departments, examined graduation rates, and reviewed city finances.

“I know what it’s like to come to a graf loaded with numbers,” he said. “I wanted to weave numbers [into the narrative] that would give the reader pause.”

Salter said it often helps reporters if they have a central, simple question going into a story. Salter had a few.

“With this one, it was, who are these people who are staying in Detroit to make a difference or moving to Detroit to make a difference? And what are they doing? And is it having an impact? And why are they doing it, what’s the motivation?” he said. “They’re all kind of related to who are these people, what are they doing, and why?”

The background

Chuck Salter grew up in a family of journalists in Atlanta. His parents would juggle work with picking him up from school and he recalls even spending time in newsrooms before he started Kindergarten.

“I think that really helped, just in terms of hearing about reporting and writing,” he said. “And really what it was was just the access to different people, to different worlds.”

While in junior high, Salter would often ride around the state of Georgia with his dad, Charles Salter, who wrote a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution known as “The Georgia Rambler.” That experience showed the younger Salter that “you can show up on anybody’s doorstep and you can hear their stories.”

Salter studied English at Vanderbilt and later landed at the New York Times’ London bureau as a clerk. When he came back to America, he got a job with The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. For eight years, he covered everything from politics to sports to human interest.

Salter, who said he’s always thought of himself as a journalist, came to Fast Company after a freelancing gig turned into a full-time position in 1998.

The future

Salter said he is “so optimistic about storytelling and about just good journalism that reveals and explains the world.” If that type of writing didn’t exist, there’d be nothing on the internet on which we could comment and there’d be nothing to share.

“You need that core material, that core journalism at the heart of it to, kind of, fuel the rest of the web.”

But Salter said journalists have to be aware when they’re writing a longer story of how to hold the reader, viewer, or listener’s attention. In a way, the medium doesn’t matter, he said, because when a reporter asks an audience to pay attention for a longer period of time, that reporter has to hold the attention with narrative, character, tension, a compelling idea, or some combination of each.

“We’re all playing around with new technology and new platforms and new formats. It’s unsettling not to often know what the best one is, but it’s just incumbent upon us to experiment, to try them out. Because someone’s going to figure them out. Somebody’s going to figure out, what’s the best format for this kind of story? What’s the best treatment? There’s so much opportunity to do that. This has been a big mind-shift for me, just growing up as a print journalist and thinking I write feature stories…I’m trying to play around with the different formats.”

Read Salter’s story here: How a Young Community of Entrepreneurs is Rebuilding Detroit

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