Susan J. Demas: I thought I was done with journalism. I was wrong. Here’s why.

December 4, 2018 5:32 am

Demas at Dream Lake in Colorado, September 2018.

Whenever I’m contemplating a big life change, I head to the mountains.

I love the Rockies, Cascades and Great Dividing Range in Australia, but my heart belongs to the Sierra Nevadas — Yosemite, in particular. Whether it’s sweating and struggling to scale a peak or just wandering around a snow-streaked pass, it gives me time to thrash out my thoughts.

When deciding to accept the challenge of starting up the (yet-unnamed) Michigan Advance, I didn’t have time to escape to the high country. I had just returned from a long fall weekend traipsing around Colorado’s Gore range and was immersed in general election campaigns.

I thought I was done with journalism. After 17 years in the business, I had sold my political newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics, in March 2018.

The 2016 election caused me to do some soul-searching (yes, there were two backpacking trips to California involved). It started with my daughter being bullied by older male Donald Trump supporters who surrounded her at school and shouted, “Lock her up!” a la Hillary Clinton.

Sure, as a journalist — particularly as a longtime progressive columnist — I could write about what was happening in the world. But the list of horrors started to stack up under a president who snapped after the 2017 Nazi rally in Charlottesville that there are “very fine people on both sides.”  

“Pick a side,” I wrote in a column for Eclectablog.

So I did.

For the last six months, I worked for a communications firm, undergoing a crash course on the inner-workings of political campaigns, while picking up some new web and graphic design skills. I had a bird’s-eye view into the progressive Resistance.

A week before the August primary, I had a meeting with Chris Fitzsimon of The Newsroom, which has helped nonprofit launch news sites in several states and was eying Michigan next. It sounded exciting, but I was focused on my new job. I gave him an insanely long list of current and former journalists to talk to.

As it turns out, journalism wasn’t done with me. Two months later, I agreed to launch the Michigan Advance as Editor-in-chief because I believe that it’s vital to cover the stories of people who are often ignored by our leaders. And we have an incredible team of reporters to do so: historian and former Michigan Chronicle senior editor Ken Coleman; Nick Manes, a longtime reporter for MiBiz; and Michael Gerstein, who’s covered the Capitol for the Detroit News, Associated Press and MIRS.

In the end, it was something my husband, Joe DiSano, said that jolted me. He’s a political strategist known for his quips, which occasionally get him into trouble, but he was dead serious. He talked about the Michigan he grew up in and wondered what kind of world we’re leaving for our two teenagers — and any children they might have.

“I think you have a patriotic duty to take this,” he said.

And I did.

There’s undoubtedly an enormous need for dogged political and policy reporting in our state and communities. I’ve watched so many talented friends and colleagues get laid off or leave the industry altogether for jobs they could actually raise a family on.

I’ve been here for the Politico-ization of reporting, in which every election and major policy initiative is viewed almost exclusively through the lens of who’s winning and who’s losing, with scant regard for the impact on thousands, if not millions of people. I’ve had to do access journalism and snooze-worthy policy breakdowns.

I know there’s a better way. I’ll be sharing more of that in future columns.

Demas on her first backpacking trip at Obstruction Point in Washington in July 2009. | Chuck Demas

When I was thinking about taking on this new venture, I envisioned it as a hiker. In the last decade, I’ve climbed more than 60 mountains and logged more than 3,000 solo miles — roughly the length of the often-elusive Continental Divide Trail that snakes across the spine of western America.

But I’ve never done more than a few days at a time on any epic trails that hikers daydream about. As a mom, a journalist and a businesswoman, finding the time for a six-month sabbatical has been impossible. And truth be told, I’m fairly klutzy with little discernible athletic talent, so I’m not sure that I’m distance-hiker material. It would certainly take a significant amount of preparation and conditioning.

I’ve been a journalist for almost two decades and a writer for far longer than that. So I feel, in a way, that I have been training for this for a long time. I started my career writing for a half-dozen papers in the Midwest, begging my editors to let me cover politics. Eventually, I became a reporter and editor for a Capitol newsletter. I spent more hours than I can count flitting between legislative committee meetings, rallies and all-night floor sessions, while trying to juggle life as a single mom.

In 2013, I bought Inside Michigan Politics, a biweekly, subscription-only newsletter that had been around since 1987. Suddenly I became one of the few female publishers in Michigan. Running your own publication is a dream few journalists are able to realize, especially in this precarious media environment. I also learned how to run a business, hiring freelancers, switching to a union printer and redesigning our website (three times).

Demas and her family hiking on the Appalachian Trail in August 2018.

It was a manic and extraordinary five years, as I also moved, got remarried and became a stepmom. Owning IMP allowed me to hike and travel and, most importantly, work at home so I could get my kids off to school, be there when they came home, and not hate myself for being late to their school concerts because the Legislature dragged on until 8.

After I bought IMP, a right-wing radio host asked me, “How does a girl get interested in politics, anyway?” And after being momentarily flabbergasted, I replied that I always wanted to write about who was making decisions and how they affected people.

I doubt he was really listening, but it’s true.

I’ve also been a regular columnist since 2006 for more than a dozen publications, both in Michigan and nationally. The secret was annoying my bosses to the point that they decided it was just easier to let me give it a go. There’s plenty of hate mail involved and there’s been no shortage of people trying to get me to shut up over the years.

But occasionally, people tell me I helped them or touched their lives in some way. It is an incredible honor and I am thrilled to be the Advance’s chief columnist. With everything going on in Michigan and the world, I believe it’s important to advance the dialogue on progressive ideas, so my regular column is titled, “Looking Forward.”

I am ready to take on the daunting task of creating something completely new with the Advance, as is our entire team of veteran reporters. We strive to do journalism in a different way than anyone else in Michigan, to truly connect what’s going on in Michigan’s Capitol to what’s going on in people’s lives.

Thank you for being part of this journey.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.