Meet the Media: Randy Essex, Senior Content Director for Business & Education at the Detroit Free Press

Randy Essex is the senior content director for business and education for the Detroit Free Press, which includes autos. He leads nine reporters (with an assistant editor) and the small in-house staff that does the print product. He is part of the senior leadership team reporting to Editor Peter Bhatia.
What Randy says he really does is identify and nurture good stories.

Can you tell us what types of stories, trends or issues are on your radar now?
With the reduction of newsroom staffs in the past 15 years, we can’t be a paper of record that covers every meeting or daily proceeding of this industry and that agency. We need to identify issues that are critical to our audience and that the Free Press can offer uniquely.

Our auto coverage, for example, has shifted away from the inside-industry bubble to jobs and consumer interests. We can’t write enough about pickups these days, which are both critical to the industry and of high interest to consumers. Detroit development remains of high interest.

Describe the craziest or most fun story you have written.
I’ve had a long career. Maybe this one: When I was the editor-publisher of a very small paper in Colorado from 2014-17 before coming back to Detroit, I noticed an ad in our paper that Shooters Grill in Rifle (that was a real town in my county) was offering concealed carry training with a steak dinner for $75. When a reporter went there, she discovered that the waitresses (there were no male servers) carried loaded handguns in holsters as they served food. “Shooters in Rifle serves a big helping of Second Amendment” went viral. The proprietor, whose husband was an Iraq vet laid off from the natural gas fields and working in North Dakota at the time, was interviewed via feed on CNN and Fox News; CBS sent a national reporter. “We called it Shooters and started throwing guns and Jesus all over the place,” she said, explaining the décor of Bible verses and guns mounted on the walls.

What story or stories are you most proud of?
Again, long career.

Free Press coverage of the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies was thorough and important to the community. (I was at the Free Press 2006-11, then came back in December 2017.)

I led coverage of the 2004 Iowa caucuses at the Des Moines Register and it was just an amazing campaign and caucus night.

I won the Burl Osborne Editorial Leadership Award in 2016 from the American Society of News Editors for editorials advocating immigrant rights when I was in Colorado. I’m actually probably most proud of this work. The editorials generated an outpouring of thanks from immigrants – along with calls for my resignation and a couple of threats.

The Free Press’ Death on Foot report on SUVs’ role in escalating pedestrian deaths last summer was a groundbreaking national report.

What elements or characteristics do you look for in a story?
It has to be new. It must have context and appreciate nuance. Clarity.

How long have you been in journalism and how did you get started?
I started as a junior high sports reporter doing ninth-grade football and basketball reports for my hometown paper, the Beatrice Daily Sun in Nebraska.

When I was a sophomore in high school (1973), I learned that the school’s first synthetic track was flawed. The track coach showed me how he could pick up chunks of it from the edge and it smelled of gasoline. He said he couldn’t get the school board’s attention. When I went to interview the superintendent, he put a tape recorder on his desk and said, “I want to be sure I’m not misquoted.” I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that the boss of the school district was a little afraid of a 15-year-old. The story won a state high school journalism award and I at that point decided I’d major in journalism.

Finish this sentence: If I am not reporting, I am …
Editing. Kidding.
Running, biking, watching baseball.

What advice do you have for PR people that want to pitch you?
Offer something exclusive or a fresh perspective. I’m not interested in general topics and probably am not interested in your expert. Develop a rapport. I will respond to your email if it’s not just a blanket pitch. I will entertain guest opinions for our Sunday business sections if they offer insight on a relevant topic and aren’t an effort to promote the person or business.

Any pet peeves with PR people?
Don’t send crap in boxes. Never put glitter in an envelope. This used to happen, but you all seem to have figured it out.

Be sure you change the salutation of the pitch so you don’t call me Emma. Spell stuff right. Show that you have taken care.

And, yeah, I know that you’ve read the excellent coverage in the Free Press and therefore think I’d be interested in …

Be genuine.

Tell us a little about yourself (family, interests, hobbies, background, etc.)
I’ve done 26 marathons, but have cut back in recent years to half-marathons. I do a couple of duathlons every year (run, bike, run – I don’t do water). I love baseball, Cubs and Tigers, though it’s tough to watch the Tigers right now.

My wife, Angelyn Frankenberg, and I live at the Broderick Tower overlooking Comerica Park. We do not own a car living in the Motor City. It’s fine.

I have a grown son who lives in Los Angeles and is going back to school to get a teaching certificate.

You can follow Randy or the Detroit Free Press on Twitter at:
@freep @randyessex

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