Tired of well-worn and often cartoonish reasons given for Detroit’s financial downfall, a team of Free Press reporters and editors set out to find the truth behind Detroit’s six-decade fall from prosperity to massive financial problems and the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.
Other U.S. cities had suffered decades of population decline, loss of manufacturing jobs, spikes in crime and social pressures without resorting to bankruptcy. What made Detroit different? How did it happen — this spectacular calamity affecting 100,000 creditors, 27,000 pensioners and 700,000 residents suffering high crime, high taxes, faulty streetlights, buses that don’t show up and blighted houses in nearly all neighborhoods?
The Free Press’ groundbreaking investigation, “How Detroit Went Broke,” gave surprising answers and immediately generated an avalanche of public reaction. The findings are now part of the lexicon for journalists covering the story and used as a reference for what really happened. We submit that it’s the best kind of public service journalism: Reporting that illuminates a difficult issue for readers and puts it within a rich context buttressed by hard facts and numbers.
Who really made the decisions that doomed Detroit’s finances? When, exactly, did the city pass the point of no return? Of all the blame passed around, what was fact? What was myth?
To find the answers once and for all, reporters Nathan Bomey and John Gallagher led a months-long effort that started before the official bankruptcy filing July 18. We unearthed, examined and analyzed more than 10,000 pages of arcane documents from the past 60 years — Detroit annual budgets (sometimes missing), city audits, pension fund reports, City Council minutes, and much more.
Digging through public library archives that had never been digitized, the Free Press created an unprecedented database of Detroit’s financial history. We were careful to make apples-to-apples comparisons, as accounting terminology and measurements varied from decade to decade. Finally, we conducted hundreds of interviews with dozens of officials and bureaucrats from the last six mayoral administrations, as well as outside data analysts and financial experts.
Published across multiple platforms, the investigation illuminated the real causes and astonishingly poor decisions behind Detroit’s slide. The Free Press discovered that:
The Free Press team fashioned its multiple findings into a fast-paced narrative brought to life with colorful anecdotes. In a reversal of traditional production, the package was designed first for iPad and later for print, using an alternative storytelling format that relied heavily on interactive graphics integrated with prose.
The response to “How Detroit Went Broke” has been amazing. The story, a top web attraction for the year, has drawn nearly 400,000 page views on desktop, mobile and apps. The numbers also were driven by social sharing, with more than 20% of page views coming from Facebook and Twitter.
Based on phone calls, e-mails and social media, other media and academics now rely on “How Detroit Went Broke” as a blueprint for research and reporting as cities and states across the nation navigate their own pension and budget problems.
Multiple national media, pundits, politicians and professors linked to the project. Raved the Washington Post’s Wonkblog: “Wow, wow, wow … This is a spectacular piece of journalism from the Detroit Freep on how Detroit went broke.” The Columbia Journalism Review bestowed one of its laurels, calling it “superbly reported, written and illustrated … every reporter covering government finance will benefit from studying this package.”
Government officials are also using our work as a resource. Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock sent an e-mail to our reporters, saying he would bring copies of “How Detroit Went Broke” to a panel discussion with other state treasurers. “The clarity of information you presented is outstanding,” he wrote. Governing magazine, with a national circulation of 90,000 to all levels of public officials, awarded the work its highest public service honor for 2013.
The Detroit Free Press is proud to nominate “How Detroit Went Broke” for the Explanatory Reporting prize of the Online Journalism Awards.