Failure of the Will

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016, 11:49 am
By: 
Alice Dreger, Publisher

I’ve been struggling with the problem of ELi a great deal since the elections. It basically comes down to the question of whether now is a good time for me to give up on ELi, and either let it close or let someone else try to run it.

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed I haven’t even done any reporting since the election, except for today’s article on our Islamic community members.

In some ways, the national freak-out following the election has been gratifying to me. Finally, people are waking up to the very reasons I decided to found ELi for East Lansing. They’re realizing that the rise of the internet has led to “infotainment” taking the place of real news reporting, that even major news outlets no longer bother to fact-check (paging Rolling Stone), and that people are getting their “news” in ways that simply amplify their preexisting beliefs. They’re realizing some news is spun so hard it is downright fake.

They’re finally realizing most people don’t want to pay for news they don’t want to hear. So they don’t pay, and they don’t hear it.

Failure of the will to pay for real news is why the Lansing State Journal recently laid off yet more reporters, and why ELi is basically out of money at the end of this month, despite our asking for help over and over.

So, I’ll be honest here. It makes me really frustrated that it’s taken what just happened for people to start seeing what I and other supporters of independent investigative journalism have been saying for years.

It makes me especially frustrated at the local level, and that’s because I have worked my butt off for the last two-and-a-half years to try to at least provide one intelligent, diverse, small city in America—the one I love the most—with a news source it could count on and trust. I have been hoping to show it can be done all over America, if smart, dedicated people just realize that one of the most important public services to provide and to support locally is news reporting.

ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols and I have tried really hard together for over two years to provide this town with consistently high-quality reporting on the two governmental bodies that affect our local lives the most—City Council and School Board—because local is where you live. We have tried to create a stronger community with better lines of communication through which to share information, support, and respect. We have provided opportunities for young and underemployed (and young, underemployed) people to get paid a little something for promoting local democracy and a sense of place through citizen reporting.

We have had a huge impact. We hear that from readers, but we also see it in how various City departments, the school district administration, multiple faith organizations, local businesses, and others now specifically ask us to push information out. We see that in our 2,000+ Facebook page “likes.” We get love letters. Ann and I even recently got a piece of hate mail—calling us middle-aged housewives and telling us to get college degrees—which we took to be a sign we’ve really had an impact. (For the record, Ann is satisfied with her B.A. and J.D., and I’m satisfied with my B.A. and Ph.D. Our husbands would, however, vigorously dispute the claim we are housewives.)

A few people have heard our never-ending requests for financial support. A few. Of the 15,000 or so readers ELi has every month, to date, about 300 have helped financially.

I can’t believe at this point that the rest of you don’t know we need money to operate. In fact, we need only about $45,000 a year to operate at the level you’ve come to expect. In a town whose government has an annual budget of $33,000,000, where the schools bond committee is talking about a bond upwards of $70,000,000, where a four-year degree at MSU costs an in-state resident about $100,000, where the median house price is $179,000, you would think we could raise $45,000 a year to survive.

So this is what I conclude: either people don’t get how important news is, or they think we’re doing a lousy job.

If it’s the latter, I honestly don’t understand what you’d consider a good job. We work like heck to keep covered what needs covering, and we agonize over how to report in a way that is maximally respectful of our fiduciary responsibility to be accurate, fair, and nonpartisan. If you think what you see at ELi is easy to produce, then you have no idea what goes into finding reporters, training people, covering meetings, doing interviews, fact-checking, double fact-checking, digging, timelining, and editing over and over again until what we have is clear to a newcomer yet satisfyingly fresh to someone who has already been following a complicated story.

Yes, we sometimes bring bad news—about debt, mismanagement, questionable behavior, suicides, crime. Is that the problem, then? That you don’t want to know the bad stuff that might be happening around you?

At what point would you like to know, I wonder? I guess maybe never. A lot of us are solidly middle-class enough and not noticeable members of minorities, so we can probably afford to stick our fingers in our ears and assume everything is going to be okay. You’re assuming that if something really awful is happening or about to happen in East Lansing, Gannett, the national corporation that owns the Lansing State Journal, will figure you’ll generate enough clicks to make it worth them paying a reporter to cover it.

Right. Because national corporations care so much about what happens at the local community level!

Here’s what I do know: My Board of Directors wants me to keep pushing you to donate. And I’m exhausted. I’m really tired of spending so much of my time begging you for donations to supplement the five-figure sum my husband and I have donated this year on top of my and his free labor.

Here’s where we are:

Out of necessity, we’ve put our reporters on notice that they can’t produce any more work for us for pay until further notice. I’ve let Ann know she may want to start looking for other jobs. (My big fear is she’s going to find one while we are hoping to save ELi.) I’m trying to regain my will to report, to fundraise, to feel like providing public service.

Just to be clear, my giving up on ELi would not mean its end per se. I don’t own ELi—it’s a nonprofit corporation managed by its Board—so if the Board of Directors decided to continue the organization without me, that would happen. But given that I work for free as ELi’s publisher, CEO, and most productive reporter, and given that my husband and I have also consistently been the largest financial donors to ELi, it’s hard to imagine of what a model without my participation would consist. And if Ann leaves, I’m not going to have any will to continue to participate.

Our Board of Directors met yesterday, and we developed a contingency plan for which we’re working out the details. I’ll provide that to you in the next few days. I don’t know if it’s going to work. What I do know is that if East Lansing can’t come up with $45,000 per year to support the only source it has for consistent, nonpartisan, factual local news, we have a very sad situation on our hands as a democracy.

If you want to show some degree of support, the best way to do that is via Patreon with a monthly pledge, because if we have to shut the whole thing down, it’s very easy for us to just stop taking your monthly pledges. You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal or check; click here for more info. Lump-sum donations help us deal with our financial problems right now. Donations are tax deductible in the years in which they occur.

If you do decide to donate, recognize the person next to you probably won’t, so consider donating more than you otherwise would. Also consider asking the person next to you to contribute.

 

Update: Here's the plan from the Board -- sustainability by January 31, 2017, or we fold operations.

 

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