Digging Deeper and Understanding Your Community:
Q&A with John X. Miller
For years, John X. Miller took the newsroom staff at the Detroit Free Press on community “bus tours” which got journalists away from their desks and into the city. Along the way, he organized visits from community leaders who would get on the bus at different stops and explain their role in Detroit. Now, he has expanded these bus tours beyond the newsroom.
Q. What is the goal of your bus tours?
A. I conducted my last bus tour for the newsroom in September 2006, but the idea’s gained popularity among the executive staff for the corporation, so I’m now setting up a bus tour for our business side. They want to get the same thing out of it – generate interest and information about the market.
And the framework and the premise are identical – get people out of their seats and into the community as a way to explore and examine things they haven’t seen and to let them have conversations with people who are making things happen.
Q. What are bus tours like? Who goes on these tours and where do you go?
A. We try to have the tours be very specific to a geographical area, so we had a tour of Southwest Detroit that took a half-day and had six or seven locations. We went on a tour of McComb County, one of the fastest growing areas, and took a tour along a specific area that was growing. We visited the GM technical center – one of the largest in the country. We spent about one and a half hours there watching everything they did, from matching the paint on cars to figuring out stopping distances.
We ask reporters as well as artists, designers, copy editors and assignment editors to go on the tours. Everybody needs some kind of edification as far as what’s in our marketplace. We drive by a lot of places day in and day out, but we don’t know what lies within. We make sure to take tours and stop at places that can be revisited at a later time.
Q. How do you get journalists interested in the tours?
A. We tell them they’ll gain insight and possible links to new sources. We tell them that they’ll learn something they didn’t know before about the geography we’re touring and we offer them free lunch.
Their attitudes afterward are “Wow, we didn’t know what we were missing. We didn’t know all of this stuff about the area.” It was much more interesting than they thought it was going to be.
Q. What about the community members you pick for the tours?
A. Sometimes we have politicians get on the bus with us, like mayors, members of the Chamber of Commerce and municipal officials. We focus on a geographical area first and then we figure out where to start. We go into the history as well. One of the oldest churches in this part of the country is a nearby Catholic church. The priest gave us a tour and we got to see some of the relics in there. It was two miles from the newsroom and most of the people on the tour didn’t realize it was there or its significance to Detroit.
Q. Describe what you call “listening posts,” the places where journalists can learn more about their community.
A. One of the places we stopped on the last tour was the YMCA Youthville, where they work with mentoring teens and children. It’s also a recreational facility.
As a listening post, you can go there on any given day and talk to teens about what’s going on in their lives.
You can just go sit and listen – not necessarily ask questions. The important part is listening without intruding, so that the conversations don’t change and people won’t perform for the media.