This article is part of an LMA series on solutions and innovations at and for local media organizations, in which we explore the products, best practices, and strategy behind sustainable and thriving local journalism businesses.
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
Two years after launching Detour Detroit, the news operation’s slow-but-steady membership strategy is starting to pay off.
Co-founders Ashley Catherine Woods and Kate Abbey-Lambertz participated in the Facebook Membership Accelerator program last year when Detour Detroit had only 100 paid members. The accelerator program helped the duo gain valuable membership insights and resources shortly before coronavirus changed the Detroit landscape — and eventually the size of the Detour Detroit audience.
“We’ve really seen the vast majority of our growth just in the past six months,” Woods said.
Described as a “guide to Detroit” by Woods, Detour Detroit has grown from a few dozen close friends to nearly 300 paid members and more than 11,000 subscribers of its twice-weekly email product.
Detour Detroit, with nine employees, is funded by a variety of sources: Lessin Media Group in Silicon Valley, Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, Google News Initiative Innovation Challenges, Solutions Journalism Network and Facebook Journalism Project Community Network Program Grant. The goal was to take Detroit coverage beyond downtown, which received most of the attention, Woods said.
She hired Abbey-Lambertz as a freelancer when Detour Detroit started in 2018 and eventually promoted her to co-founder by the end of the year. Each is quick to compliment the other’s contributions to the publication. As CEO/publisher, Woods focuses primarily on Detour Detroit’s overall revenue and growth strategy as well as membership efforts, and Abbey-Lambertz manages the editorial products.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve gotten a crash-course MBA in the last two years,” Woods said.
She and Abbey-Lambertz previously worked together at Huffington Post covering Detroit before Woods went to the Detroit Free Press for a digital-focused role. Now Abbey-Lambertz leads the editorial team after taking a step back earlier this year from producing work.
“I realized how absurd it was to co-run a business and also be reporting and working as an editor,” Abbey-Lambertz said.
The majority of Detour Detroit writers are minority women who reside in Detroit. Equitable coverage of the Detroit community has been a priority since the start, said Woods, who emphasized the importance of that commitment as white ownership in a majority Black city.
“We have and still have to prove everyday that we are showing up for the community in a way they expect,” Woods said.
To that end, Detour Detroit helped raise $3,000 in recent months for Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm actively assisting Black Lives Matter protesters. The publication has also partnered with Outlier Media, a service journalism organization that provides Detroit residents “with the information they need to create change in their own communities,” according to the website.
The goal of the partnership is to inform more readers in lower-income neighborhoods, Abbey-Lambertz said. In exchange, Outlier Media benefits by learning from the Detour Detroit business leaders as well as other Detroit-area media partners, Outlier Media Executive Director Candice Fortman said.
“I respect [Detour Detroit] as an editorial operation but also as a business and growth organization that we can learn from,” Fortman said. “We try to do something together in some way as much as we can because we’re both small organizations working on small budgets and can learn a lot from each other.”
Membership jumped 20% after a creative “Keep Detroit Local” campaign that unlocked a free advertisement for a Detroit business each time someone signed up at the upper-two membership levels. Woods estimates at least 65 businesses have received free ads since the deal started.
“It just proves you don’t always have to give swag — just give readers an opportunity to do good,” Woods said. “That’s actually more meaningful than a coffee cup.”
What initially launched as $3/month or $30/year membership options has expanded to now include Starter ($5), Sustainer ($10) or Builder ($15) monthly subscription plans that offer various perks. Asking for that much money was initially intimidating, Woods admits, until she framed the cost of the quality work in a different context.
“$10 to $15 is the price of a nice cocktail or a pretty reasonable lunch,” Woods said. “When you put it in that kind of context its really starting to make sense for our readers.”
The vast majority of the 290 paid members — most opting for the $10/month plan — are 45 years old or younger, Woods said. She credits the informal structure of Detour Detroit’s content for drawing a youthful audience.
“We’re your host telling you about the news and making you laugh about it and understand it,” Woods said.
During the pandemic, Abbey-Lambertz said much of the coverage focused on frequently asked questions from those readers about COVID-19 and related issues, including the Detroit Police Department budget and how that spending compares to other cities.
“If one reader has that question, then other people do, too,” she said. “It makes me feel like we’re doing it right and getting our work to the people who need it. And when we can be responsive to their needs, even more so.”
The team next plans to launch a publication called The Blend, a joint effort with Detroit Women’s Leadership Network announced in May. The network already boasts a strong community, Abbey-Lambertz said, that serves as a built-in audience with a lot of good questions.
“Everyday it feels like there is something we should be doing — both on the editorial and the business sides,” Abbey-Lambertz said.