The Joe Louis Arena is home to the Detroit Red Wings and sits just alongside the Detroit River. | AAJA Photo/The Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau/Chris Lark
By Carolyn Chin
While next year’s AAJA Convention will be set in glitzy Hollywood, the 2011 Convention will take place in Detroit, arguably one of the most economically troubled cities in the U.S.
Detroit has its fair share of problems – a fading identity, a dying auto industry, a struggling public school system. And there’s no forgetting the deep corruption in city government.
It raises the question: What does Detroit have to offer?
Detroit Free Press copy editor Frank Witsil and Detroit News multimedia producer Ankur Dholakia, co-chairs of the Detroit convention, are adamant that this convention will benefit both AAJA and the city. AAJA will mark its 30-year anniversary in 2011.
Detroit is one of few cities that still have two competing daily newspapers and a key broadcast market. “We’re an essential city in America journalistically,” Witsil said. “Journalistic stories are unfolding here.”
Detroit has upheld its reputation as the Motor City since the early 20th century. The recent struggles of the city’s Big Three automakers – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – to stay afloat has hurt not only Michigan’s economy, but the national economy as well.
The city was also the site of a landmark hate crime. In 1982, American-born Chinese Vincent Chin was beaten to death after a dispute in a Metro Detroit bar just days before his wedding. Two American auto workers suffering from a bad economy blamed Chin for the success of Japanese automakers.
Chin was mistaken for someone of Japanese descent, yet the assailants saw only an Asian face. The two assailants got a mere slap on the wrist, serving no jail time and paying less than $4,000 in fines and court fees. The backlash sparked a Pan-Asian and Asian American movement.
“In many ways, Detroit is ground zero of the Asian American movement,” Witsil said.
The Detroit area is also home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East. Holding the convention in Detroit 10 years after 9/11 is also significant to AAJA because of the discrimination the area’s Arabs and Arab Americans have faced.
“This is an opportunity to highlight the diversity of our group and show what Arab Americans, people of Middle Eastern descent have to offer,” Witsil said. “It really helps to send a message that emphasizes the impact that journalists can have in fighting for civil justice, social justice.”
AAJA’s Michigan chapter, one of the youngest and smallest in size with roughly 50 members, has planned to hold a national convention in Detroit for the past four years. The Michigan chapter was created in 1988, but because of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News strike in 1995, the chapter closed. It was revived in 2003.
The New York chapter also vied to host the AAJA Convention in 2011. Cheryl Tan, who helped lead New York’s bid, noted that Detroit was economically more desirable. “Money – especially in these tough times – is always an important consideration,” Tan said. “Room rates were much lower in Detroit than in NYC, which will make it financially easier for members to attend.”
Detroit’s chamber of commerce also offered $10,000 in the package.
“There are lots of factors that go into picking a convention city, not purely dollars and cents,” AAJA National President Sharon Chan said.
“The Detroit committee is working incredibly hard to make this happen. We have a lot of confidence in the Michigan chapter making this a success.”
Gannett and the Detroit Media Partnership supported holding the convention in Detroit, as did Visit Detroit, the local visitors and convention bureau.
“When you see the locals and the organization being so passionate about it, you want work harder to get it for them,” said Sheila Neal of Visit Detroit.
Individuals who supported the effort include Dave Hunke, former Detroit Free Press publisher and current USA Today president and publisher; Paul Anger, current Detroit Free Press publisher and editor; Jon Wolman, The Detroit News publisher; and Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News.
The damaged image of Detroit could factor into convention registration, but Dholakia remains hopeful.
“Having journalists come to Detroit I think will open their eyes and see what Detroit’s really like,” Dholakia said. “Yeah, it has its shortcomings, but … Detroit is trying to find another identity. Hopefully it will be a lot better in 2011.”
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