Our own dementia

As the Grateful Dead once mused: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Indeed, when Laura Markham and I, fresh out of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, had the idea of starting an “alternative” weekly newspaper here in the autumn of 1980, we could not have imagined how long or strange the journey would become.

Ours was not exactly an original epiphany; there were scores of such papers across the country. Our particular dementia had more to do with the fact that we proposed to do it in Detroit (as the promotional slogan once urged), thereby stepping into the publishing abyss that had already swallowed up more experienced, more talented and better-funded enterprises.

We were armed with a business plan, a burning sense of idealism, a boundless sense of naïveté and about $5,000. We were immediately confronted with numerous no-confidence votes (as much in the city’s ability to support such a paper as in our ability to produce it) and the second-worst economic downturn Detroit has experienced since the Great Depression.

That our little soapbox would have to become a business to survive was a gradual realization — and more of a shock than you can know. It took many years that included a few missed payrolls (and deadlines), a lot of missed sales goals and a painfully protracted learning curve before it occurred to us that we might make a profit some day.

Twenty years later, I am proud to have been a part of the Metro Times. Two decades of continuity in mission and values. Twenty years of commitment to the belief that a newsroom ought to look like the community it claims to serve. Twenty years of going our own way, asking the tough questions, telling the truth.

From the very first issue we fought the divisive concepts of black and white, city and suburb, us and them. Eight Mile Road didn’t exist in our vocabulary — we were committed to create a journalistic voice that would be respected and welcomed into every home. We published to our own mythological urban construct: the Detroit metropolitan community.

We challenged the bad citizenship of Detroit’s corporate leadership as businesses steadily turned their backs on the central city. With suburbs offering incentives, businesses tripped over each other to tear up suburban green fields for new corporate campuses, leaving behind a devastated city with a tax base insufficient to pay for even the most basic human services. We broke into the beautiful old downtown theaters, photographed what we saw and screamed at the top of our lungs that time was running out to stabilize and save them for future generations. We told the suburbs that it was the most absurd of illusions to believe they could prosper while the city perished.

We interviewed and gave voice to some of the great fighters of our time, including George Crockett, Maryann Mahaffey, John Conyers, Coleman Young, Ken Cockrel, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Ernie Goodman, Morrie Gleicher and Grace Boggs. We nurtured the careers of hundreds of writers and reporters. We stubbornly invented ways to find and grow young, new, fresh voices in the arts, establishing our amateur fiction and photography contests and founding the Detroit Music Awards. We co-sponsored hundreds of local community events including our own film and lecture series.

From Vol. 1 No. 1, our commitment to local musicians was paramount. We chronicled Detroit’s remarkable contributions to world musical culture — from punk to techno, jazz to folk, classical to Motown, country to blues. We surveyed sculpture, painting and photography from the Cass Corridor to Birmingham. We dined our way through restaurants from Hamtramck to Royal Oak to Dearborn. We critiqued theater from 1515 Broadway to the Attic Theatre to the Detroit Repertory. We reviewed film from the Maple to the Main to the DIA.

We reported. We investigated. We told the truth. We pissed a lot of people off.

We told the truth about the ominous stirrings of the Michigan Militia six months before the Oklahoma City bombing. We told the truth about GM when it set out to destroy the immigrant Poletown neighborhood. We told the truth about the secret plan of local developers to transform Belle Isle into a paved wasteland of casinos and heartache. We told the truth about South African steel in the new People Mover stations when there was an anti-apartheid city ordinance prohibiting such material. We told the truth about the city hiring transnational corporations doing business in apartheid South Africa to build the billion-dollar trash-to-energy plant that sends toxins across the neighborhoods of Detroit to this day.

We told the truth about John Engler’s destruction of pristine stretches of the Manistee State Forest to benefit the natural gas industry and his close ties to the far-right Mackinac Institute. We told the truth about the Moonie front group making quiet inroads into many of Detroit’s inner-city churches. We told the truth about the Detroit-based rank-and-file movement that brought democracy to this country’s largest union. We told the truth about the JOA newspaper companies so brutally crushing their own employees’ rights and dreams.

We brought you the future: We devoted a cover story to the mapping of the human genome and the coming biotech revolution, introduced our readers to William Gibson and the cyberpunk science fiction movement and first detailed the fuel-cell technology that will absolutely transform the automobile and oil industries. We launched metrotimes.com in 1997, the city’s first online city guide to feature robust content, community and commerce functions all under one virtual roof.

What do the next 20 years hold?

The alternative newspaper industry is now characterized by increased consolidation of ownership, fatter profit margins and the inevitable identity crisis. In the face of the thorough commodification of our culture, either the alternative newsweeklies will renew their commitment to those challenging the system or be further seduced by it.

The use of dissent, outrage and even the concept of “alternative” to sell brands surrounds us at every turn. In today’s cynical, hyper-commercialized universe, the role of the alternative press is to find and champion genuine dissent, outrage and alternatives that can lead us to build a better society together. I know Metro Times will lead the way.

Of course the unsung heroes of this newspaper story are the hundreds of people who have served on the staff, past and present, who so skillfully nudged this vision into reality every week. From cardboard desks to Mac Pluses, from red ink to black, from Reagan to Clinton, they got it done. This newspaper is a testament to their talent, their principles and their extraordinary resolve. I have been honored to be a part of the team.

For me, Metro Times was an act of love, a gift to the city that gave me so much, the city that I will always call my home.

Ron Williams was the founding editor and publisher of Metro Times from 1980-1993 and CEO of Alternative Media, Inc. from 1993-1999. He is currently president of the Independent Media Institute

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