As a kid, Detroit native Stephen Henderson, BA ’92, demonstrated an early flair for critical thinking. He often typed his opinions regarding the local news and mailed them to the editorial desk at the Detroit Free Press.
“Never published any of them,” says the 2014 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary at, yes, the Detroit Free Press. In April Henderson won the coveted prize for a series of columns chronicling the city’s historic bankruptcy.
The award is especially poignant for the editorial page editor, who returned to Detroit from Washington, D.C., in 2007. He’d been covering the U.S. Supreme Court for the former Knight Ridder newspaper chain. The move marked a return to the Free Pressas well; in addition to a stint there in the 1990s, Henderson previously wrote for the Lexington Herald-Leader,the Chicago Tribune,and The Baltimore Sun.
Though friends and colleagues were perplexed by his decision to trade D.C. for Detroit, Henderson was clear about his motivation.
“The first column I wrote when I returned was about the fact that I decided to come home and how crazy that seemed at the time,” he says. “But I felt a sense of obligation and a connection to this place. It’s having a hard time, and I can use my voice to maybe help.”
In early 2013 Henderson trained that voice on the biggest municipal bankruptcy filing in the nation’s history. From a writer’s perspective, the scenario presented a rich (though troubling) vein of content. For a native Detroiter, it was a tremendous opportunity to report on one of the greatest potential comebacks of all time.
“All year I felt like I was doing work that was out of the ordinary,” Henderson says of his award-winning columns, which ran from February-December 2013. He used the platform to address local and national leaders, dispel myths about the city’s decline, and argue that the bankruptcy ruling was “the start of help Detroit needs.”
It wasn’t long before he realized his voice resonated with citizens and decision-makers.
“To be here and to do this work was enormously satisfying,” Henderson says. “The prize caps that off in a pretty extreme way.
“Because I live here, the things I was writing about have a very direct effect on me and my life,” he continues. “It made it very easy for me to see which way was the ‘right’ way [when tackling a topic]. That’s a very different approach from other jobs I’ve had where there’s a distance between me and the city.”
The experience illuminates why it’s valuable to have a native reporter helming your editorial page, Henderson says. “This is a good example of what an advantage that gives you – that ability to establish a strong connection between the writer who’s living it and the reader who’s also living it. So few of us get the opportunity to be ‘at home’ and do the work that means the most to us.”
Opinion pieces always have come naturally to Henderson, who served as editorial page editor at the Michigan Dailyfrom 1990-92. He’d been arguing in print since he was a kid, after all, and was determined to share his ideas with an actual audience.
“That was what drew me to journalism in the first place – the ideas, right?” he says, “and the ability to express and advocate for one idea over another.”
Forming and defending controversial opinions was a skill he developed during a “pretty crazy time on campus,” he says. U-M students were arguing for divestment from South Africa. Diversity was a huge issue. And the conflict in the Middle East was gaining momentum with the onset of the first Iraq War.
“I remember we wrote an editorial that suggested bringing back the draft because we felt like most of the people doing the fighting in Iraq were poor kids who had no choice but to enter the military,” Henderson says. “That got an awful lot of response, even national interest.”
It was never hard to find someone who was “very upset with whatever position we took,” Henderson recalls. “It was great training for the real world. That instant response we get now on social media? You got that every day at U-M. You couldn’t hide from your readers on campus.”
Something in the water
Henderson has fond memories of his time in the Student Publications Building, named for yet another Pulitzer winner, Stanford Lipsey, AB ’48, who once served as a Dailyphotographer.
Henderson’s name now tops a plaque in the lobby that lists other award-winning Dailyalumni from his own era: Lisa Pollak, AB ’90, who earned the Pulitzer for feature writing in 1997 (she was among the close friends Henderson first called on learning he’d won the 2014 prize); Amy Harmon, AB ’90, 2008 Pulitzer winner for explanatory writing, and Rebecca Blumenstein, who won a 2007 Pulitzer as part of a team for international reporting.
“That strikes me as extraordinary,” Henderson says. “Obviously there was a high level of achievement expected in that building. And it was infectious at that time.”
Henderson still contributes to the Dailyas a professional adviser to the Student Publications Board. His chief concern focuses on the paper’s evolving business model as the demand for mobile content reshapes the traditional publishing paradigm. And as students face increasing financial pressures, he worries the brightest young journalists may opt for employment that pays better than the student newspaper. He hopes that’s not the case, for personal and professional reasons.
“A lot of my closest friends in the world are people I met in that building,” he says. “I met my wife in that building. It’s home in a lot of really important ways. And the work I do now is all about the work I did then.”
The last word
Henderson’s time at the Dailytaught him how to run an opinion desk at a major metropolitan newspaper by balancing confidence and humility, he says.“I spend a lot of time questioning the decisions I make. You need to be self-confident and make good decisions, but you also need to keep an open mind,” he says. “I make decisions based on the best information I have at the time, but I’m insistent that if we’re wrong, we say it. I don’t think there’s any shame in that when our goal is to make Detroit, Michigan, a better place.”
Henderson has seen a significant transformation in the role of the editorial writer since his early days at the Daily,pre-social media. “For 200 years the editorial writer had the last word,” he says. “Now we have the first word.”
It makes for a different dynamic among the writers, he notes, who are more cognizant than ever of what the audience is thinking and saying. Discussions with readers take place in real time, and while most are self-regulating there’s always the “inexcusably nasty” reader who is more interested in shouting than engaging in civilized dialogue.
But Henderson always has been comfortable taking a stand and sticking by it. It’s a skill he developed at the Daily.
“It always blows my mind to think of the issues and decisions we were making at that age, with no adult in the building,” he says. “We made a lot of dumb mistakes, but on balance, we always went through the right process. We knew how to make a decision and then defend it. There’s no substitute for that experience. It’s as close to the real world as it can get.”
(Top image, courtesy of the Detroit Free Press.)