Joel Thurtell was a reporter with the Detroit Free Press for 23 years before he retired in 2007 to start this blog, joelontheroad.com. At the Free Press, he wrote every kind of report, from obituaries to magazine stories, investigative projects to once only sports story. In his last few years at the Free Press, he specialized in writing offbeat features in which he often took part in an activity he later reported on. Glass-blowing, fife-playing (or rather, not playing) and dodge-ball are examples of his participatory journalism.
At the Free Press, he wrote about conditions of life for black students at the University of Michigan, exposed a creative and highly expensive public school finance scam, revealed nepotism, cronyism and profiteering in a western Wayne sewer project, found theft and incompetence at the old Wayne County morgue and wrote about U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ use of congressional aides to do his political campaign work and babysitting on the federal dime. His story about Conyers’ staffers grabbing a charity’s Thanksgiving turkeys meant for poor people was a huge hit on the Free Press website.
Thurtell was a reporter at the South Bend Tribune before joining the Free Press in 1984. He began his career as a reporter for WMUK-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate at Western Michigan University. He was a stringer, or part-time correspondent, for the South Bend Tribune and editor of the Berrien Springs Journal Era before joining the Tribune fulltime in 1981.
He earned a B.A. in history at Kalamazoo College and an M.A. in history from the University of Michigan. He became a candidate for the Ph.D. in Latin American history at UM, but left academia to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa. There, he supervised construction of a school and a well.
At the Free Press, he wrote many environmental stories and has a big interest in the Rouge River. In June 2005, he and Free Press photographer Patricia Beck canoed 27 miles up the Rouge, from Zug Island to Nine Mile Rd. in Southfield, and their book — UP THE ROUGE! PADDLING DETROIT’S HIDDEN RIVER — was published by Wayne State University Press in March 2009. Up the Rouge! was named a 2010 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. The Free Press Rouge project won the 2006 Harry E. Schlenz Award of the Water Environment Foundation.
Seydou’s Christmas Tree, Thurtell’s memoir about his Peace Corps service, was pubslihed by Hardalee Press in 2009. A collection of his sailing columns, Plug Nickel, also was published in 2009.
In 2010, Thurtell’s journalism textbook, Shoestring Reporter: How I Got To Be A Big City Reporter Without Going to J School, and How You Can Do It Too! was published. In 2011, his novel, Cross Purposes, Or, If Newspapers Had Covered the Crucifixion, was published.
His children’s book, Mouse Code, was published in 2012