The long and short story of Jack Detroit

Gregory Warner Jan 18, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: You don’t have to listen too long or too hard to the political discourse in this country before you hear the phrase “job creation.” Whether its helping existing businesses to expand, or encouraging would-be entrepreneurs to start new ones.

But how do you do that in a city that’s come to symbolize the worst of what the Great Recession brought? Marketplace’s Gregory Warner has our story from Detroit.

Gregory Warner: When I met Leah Moss this summer in Detroit, she was about to publish the second issue of her luxury men’s lifestyle magazine, called Jack Detroit. She explained it to me as:

Leah Moss: Esquire, zoomed in on metro Detroit.

Leah Moss is 23. She’d never published a magazine before, much less a men’s magazine. A men’s magazine featuring a scantily clad beauty she calls the Jill of the Month. For help with that she turned to the men in her life — her boyfriend, her brother and her dad.

Moss: I can call and say to them, ‘hey, would you want to see a picture of something of this?’ So things I would never have thought of. Like for the next issue, one of our Jills is going to be wearing a men’s dress shirt.

And little else. But this isn’t a story about how young Leah Moss discovered male fantasies. This a story about how she got swept up into Detroit’s fantasy about itself. A story about what happens when you start your career in a city desperate for its own new start.

Rewind the clock to May of 2010. Leah Moss graduates Michigan State, Honors College, with a double major in English and literature — and every intention of getting out of Dodge to work at a national magazine somewhere. She even writes a senior thesis about how wonderfully the magazine industry is doing.

Moss: The viability of the print publication industry, in the age of new media.

Warner: Does that mean, like, how do I get a job?

Moss: It should of!

But it did not. 2010 was a terrible year for magazines. She sent out 152 resumes. Got back:

Moss: Nothing. Nothing.

Her friends all gave her the same advice: Get out of this dying town!

Moss: Pretty much everybody that I knew from college is gone. So everybody said, come stay with me!

But she didn’t want to move to Chicago to bus tables and crash on someone’s couch. Instead, she decided to start her own magazine in Detroit to prove those deserters wrong. But how do you launch a glossy mag if you’re 23 with no experience and no money?

You post a video on touting a product that doesn’t exist yet.

Moss on Kickstarter video: Its bold, innovative presentation caters to young professional males!

That video raised $10,000 from online donations.

Francine Wunder: I am in awe.

This is the appropriately named Francine Wunder. She works at TechTown, a business incubator out of at Wayne State University. TechTown began like every other incubator in the Midwest, trying to attract 21st century jobs to a 20th century city. But TechTown ran into a problem much like Leah Moss had faced: No one wanted to live in Detroit.

Wunder: So the high-skilled, high-paid talent that will work in those biotech and alternative energy companies, they want coffee shops, they want restaurants, they want dry cleaners, they want men’s lifestyle magazines — and Detroit needs to create them.

Techtown had to build those urban comforts. So it helped a hair salon launch an organic product line; helped a pedi-cab company grow its fleet; even started a coupon website like Groupon for Detroit. And Techtown helped Leah Moss write a business plan and secure a grant from the Hebrew Free Loan Association, which had its own motive: To keep smart Jewish girls from leaving southeast Michigan.

Moss: There’s a really vibrant Jewish community here. But all the young Jews have left.

Suddenly Leah Moss had nearly $50,000 to spend and what felt like an entire community cheering her on. She started publishing Jack Detroit and put free copies in bars and shops. Inside were profiles with local record labels and restauranteurs and a Redwings goalie and a fashion designer who competed on “Project Runway,” and other people trying to build a new Detroit. Moss sold advertisements too, but not enough of them. By the end of November, right after the holiday issue…

Moss: I made the announcement that the magazine would be closing at the end of the calendar year. And essentially it was a financially driven decision.

She was now thousands of dollars in debt, and unemployed. No worse off, she jokes, than her friends that didn’t go to state school. But still, she was faced with this irony: that a magazine everyone hoped would change the narrative about Detroit, fell victim to that same bad news story.

Moss: At first, I was like exactly that, like, oh of course, I published something that now matches everything else that’s been published about the city.

It’s tempting to look back say that Leah Moss was a bit taken in by Detroit and its boosters. A city with nothing, trafficking in enthusiasm.

But what happened next to Moss says even more this city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The day after she folded the magazine, she got hundreds of emails. Supporters reached out asking: What was her next move? How could they keep her talent in Detroit? Six days later, Moss had a new job. With Detroit Venture Partners, an VC firm even bigger than Techtown, trying to rebuild Detroit.

Her new job? She’s a community catalyst. Charged with mobilizing other young people to believe in Detroit’s future, make a life here and start a business.

In Detroit, Mich., I’m Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

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