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Steve Neavling

One word came to mind when I first met Steve Neavling: Hooper. Hooper as in the oceanographer from the movie Jaws. Neavling looks just like Hooper. The shaggy head of hair. The thick beard. The zeal in his eyes when talking about chasing news. You can see the same things in Richard Dreyfuss' portrayal of the character when chasing sharks.

Neavling has spent the last 15 years as a journalist, working for the likes of the Bay City Times and the Detroit Free Press before launching Motor City Muckraker nearly two years ago. The online news site covers the city of Detroit proper, and it has surprised everyone with its staying power.

I had my doubts when I first interviewed Neavling about his initial ambitions for the online news site. Hyperlocal news ventures are almost a dime a dozen, and many don't last long. Apparently I wasn't alone back then. Neavling had similar thoughts when he started out.

"I thought it would just be a site I could have until I found another job," Neavling says. "That way I could still keep writing."

Back to Jaws. The similarities between Neavling and Hooper aren't just physical. Hooper drew upon a family fortune to open the door for him to pursue his lifelong passion of shark research. Neavling doesn’t have the family fortune, but the low barriers of entry for launching, maintaining and monetizing a blog made it possible for him to keep living his childhood dreams of breaking stories in the big city.

It only took a month or two before Neavling realized he wanted to turn Motor City Muckraker into his business. He focused on building an audience before making money and got hooked on the freedom that comes with being your own boss. The cost of chasing that dream proved largely inconsequential.

"I didn’t want to give up the liberty to pursue the angles of stories I wanted to pursue," Neavling says. "I got used to living without all of the money I used to have."

For instance, Neavling points to Motor City Muckraker’s recent expose on local taggers and revealing their identities. Neavling believes that is not a story he could have easily pursued at the Detroit Free Press because of the built-in legal hoops and administrative approval required. He adds that "newspapers have sort of an old white man syndrome" that makes them gun shy.

"That would have taken me months and months to get that through the Free Press," Neavling says. "When I was ready to run it, I ran it."

That sort of work comes at a price. Neavling believes one of the taggers started posting a wanted poster with his picture on it calling him a "journalist imposter" around town. In another case, a man brandished a handgun at Neavling while he was reporting a story. It's all in a day's work for Neavling, but without the shark-proof cage.

The reason he can make Motor City Muckraker work is because it's a passion play. He and his girlfriend, Abigail Shah, are willing to run a barebones operation from their Midtown apartment, make enough money to live on, and still come up with consistently compelling content that seemingly everyone has an opinion about. It's glamorous in the way a band touring through small venues in a van basks in the indie rockstar lifestyle.

"That's the big difference," Neavling says. "If I didn’t have the passion to work 16 hours a day it wouldn't work. You have to be constantly feeding people information. That's how you make it work."

Like shark hunting, it's not a terribly profitable venture to pursue. Neavling and Shah make it work by generating revenue from AdSense and selling a few banner ads on the website. They also just held a crowdfunding campaign that sold 65 Motor City Muckraker t-shirts. The $1,300 raised will help pay for freelance content on the website, which is meant to help grow it beyond being just Neavling with a blog.

It's not a lot of money but it’s growing, and it’s enough to keep Neavling and Shah doing what they’re doing. Knowing Neavling, he’s not coming back to dry land until he gets his shark.

"I can't see myself doing anything else," Neavling says. "It's that simple."

- Written by Jon Zemke

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