Byline backstory: Phoebe Wall Howard covers cars for the Free Press by seeking humanity

Frank Witsil
Detroit Free Press

As part of our expanding coverage at the Free Press, we're adding a new feature, Byline Backstories. They are short interviews with various Free Press staff that you can listen to online or, if you prefer, read an edited transcript here.

The interviews are on Amazon Echo, Google Assistant, Apple podcasts and

They aim to reveal more about the writers and photographers whose bylines you see and the work that they do. Think of them as backstage passes, if there were such things in journalism.

We haven't  taken you behind the scenes more because, for years, we said the story is not about us, it's about the news. And there's that adage about not wanting to see how the sausage gets made. 

But, in an era of social media, perhaps it’s time to pull back the curtain a little more.

Meet Free Press reporter Phoebe Wall Howard in an edited transcript of the interview.

FREE PRESS: So how does it feel being on the other side of the interview? 

HOWARD: It's... it's a little funky. 

Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press reporter

FREE PRESS: I want to just jump right in and ask you about a story that you didn't write, but without you, wouldn't have been written. That's the story a few weeks ago, that 13-year-old Allegra Blackwood, a middle schooler, wrote after she tagged along with you at Ford’s F-150 unveiling. She said that experience, in her piece, was magical. And I was hoping you could tell our audience how that story happened and what the experience was like for you watching her work.  

HOWARD: So I was scrolling Twitter as I do almost every minute of every day. And another reporter mentioned that she'd interviewed Allegra for a story on COVID and vaccination. And then ended her post saying this young lady would like to be a journalist one day and a writer, an author, any journalist who wanted to reach out and chat with her, was invited to do so. 

I reached out and said, please put me in touch. I said, "In coming days, we have a world debut of the F-150 all-electric Lightning, and I wanted to take her to Ford's World Headquarters in Dearborn. Was she interested?" And she couldn't believe it. She'd never done such a thing. 

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I had to get special permission from legal because she's a minor, only 13 years old. So, she went with me. And I said, "I want you to report I will follow your lead. And if you're stressed out or don't like it, what we're doing, you know, just tell me and I'll take over." But she was 100% on her own and it was unbelievable to watch.  

FREE PRESS: One thing that I wondered, too, as I read it was, on the one hand, it's really uplifting, you know, to hear teens talking about wanting to do what we do. And on the other, I kind of felt a little heartbroken knowing that every year more journalists are losing their jobs than are being hired. Can you talk about that a little bit?

HOWARD: I think that your points are good and thoughtful and important. The way I tend to look at it is I think it's the industry is constantly evolving. And watching this young woman, she took notes on paper, but she wrote her first draft of her story before we left Dearborn on her phone.

I was thinking she was texting a friend or maybe her mother. And I kept thinking, I wonder why she's spending so much time texting. And then she handed me the phone. And when she handed it to me, I said, "Oh my God." And she said, "Is it is it awful?" And I said, "No, this is quite unbelievable." I was speechless. 

So I think that you have different ways of telling stories with video and audio now, and writing, I think things will take a different shape. But in my career, I've never had as many readers as I have now. I think people are as hungry for information. But you're absolutely right. The way it will look in the future is just unknown. We'll see. 

FREE PRESS:  One story that I remember where you were at the scene that must have been really emotional to write and, in fact, all of us in the newsroom were thinking about you reading it. It was in 2018 when you watched your childhood home in Grosse Pointe go up in flames. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like for you and why you reached for your notebook to write that story.  

Fire crews battle a house fire on Washington Road, between Kercheval and Waterloo, in the city of Grosse Pointe on Monday, March 26, 2018.

HOWARD: So in my time of greatest stress and anxiety, writing is the one thing that relaxes me. My husband and I were racing from our place in Detroit next to the Joe Louis Arena to my mother's house after receiving a call that she smelled smoke.

We went racing down Jefferson. We couldn't get near my childhood house for blocks. We were running to the house, and I turned to my husband and said please go get my notebook as soon as possible after making sure my mother was safe at a neighbor's home.

But I then proceeded to report. I interviewed witnesses, I interviewed law enforcement and firefighters, rescue workers and documented as much as I could, not knowing whether I would be covering it. I had a clear perspective as a reporter.

What I did is after everyone was safe and they did what they could for the night I raced back with my mother to my place in Detroit, and I put her to bed stayed up and wrote the story with a note to my editor saying if this works, I hope you'll consider publishing it. And if it doesn't work for you, please just delete the story.

I think it was, you know, before six o'clock in the morning and he posted it immediately. We had email from all over the world. One of my favorites being a Kansas City teacher who used it to teach fire safety to little kids using the cat that they rescued.

The only thing my mother had after the fire was her cat, Henry.  


HOWARD: Henry is OK. He was in a hyperbaric chamber that saved his life. It was so ridiculous. A Detroit firefighter ran in and pulled out the kitty. And that's all she has today. And Henry's — you know — hashtag Henry the cat. But people loved hearing about Henry.  

FREE PRESS: I wanted to just ask you a couple other questions that also might help our audience understand what you do. One is: As an auto reporter, it seems like you have to balance writing for industry insiders around the world, who really want to know every little thing that's going on in the auto industry and you also write for people who may be closer to home, who don't care as much about those details, but they really want to know more about the local company, the cars, and read features. How do you balance both kinds of stories?  

HOWARD: So when I was hired at the Free Press, I told the editors interviewing me that I only knew cars as a consumer, like I drove a car. I've been a business reporter but never covering autos. So how to balance whether I'm covering the industry or people, the way I look at the auto industry is through humanity. 

I want to know the backstory of the CEO. I want to know the backstory of the factory workers. When the Ford F-150 Lightning came out, I advanced it with a preview of the top engineer, a woman who learned English at age 8. She came to this country, knowing seven letters. If people had any idea what goes into building a car, it's just insane.

But I look at everything through the prism of real people, and whether it's good or bad, but I do cover, you know, recalls and accidents and issues of fraud. I try to cover it all. But in a way that's interesting to me, and in a way that if readers don't understand cars, they still want to know about it.  

FREE PRESS: I think sometimes people forget — because they have high expectations of us as journalists — that we are human, too, that we make mistakes, we have emotions, we have feelings. What would you like to readers to know about what we do? What's one thing you'd like them to know that would help them have a better idea of, and that we are human? 

HOWARD: What I would like readers to know and I work on this every day is that they can call or email or text or tweet, I respond to every single one.

And I have found when people are angry and I respond, they're sometimes startled. And they'll say no one's ever responded. I think the press is viewed as a nameless, faceless monster at times. And the Detroit Free Press and local media entities are not that. I mean, we're your sons and your daughters and your brothers and your sisters. And we're doing our best every single day.

But it's so important that people reach out and tell us things. Don't assume we know things. And, I tell people that all the time, and I learned so much. Never get angry, never get defensive. I can always be better. Every day.  

FREE PRESS: Thanks, Phoebe. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today and I hope that we've given readers a little bit more insight into you and and how we work at the Free Press.

To read all of Phoebe Wall Howard's stories subscribe to the Free Press and

HOWARD: Thank you so much. 

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or

Phoebe Wall Howard

Title: Business reporter, autos team

Age: 55

Year started at the Free Press: 2017

Education: University of Missouri, Columbia; bachelor's degree in journalism 

Interesting details about her: Associate film producer, stand up paddle boarder, cyclist, runner and sailor. Her family has been in Detroit since at least 1860 and has owned a paint shop, T.J. Wall & Sons, in Corktown.