Which Assignments Were Our Reporters’ Favorites in 2019?

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Saturday, December 28, 2019, 1:30 pm
Alice Dreger, Publisher

One of the great joys about working for ELi is working with our reporters. They are a diverse lot, but unified in the mission of providing local news as a public service endeavor.

As part of our year-end retrospective, I asked our reporters to tell me about which was the assignment they would count as their personal favorite this year. I qualified that it didn’t have to be a story that made them feel happy – just one that felt particularly rewarding.

Noa Kuszai, a senior at East Lansing High School and a graduate of our Summer Youth Journalism Program, named as her favorite her April 2019 ELi report on the 54B District Court drug court “graduation.”

Noa told me she “absolutely loved” this assignment. She explained, “The story itself was fine, but when I interviewed [Chief Probation Officer] Amy Iseler, I knew that that program was special. She was incredibly passionate, and for half the interview, we were both crying over how amazing the program was. At the end of it all, it was such a fantastic experience to get to hear about such a wonderful program and wonderful people.”

Drug Court graduate Nicole Borrego reveals her personalized graduate canvas to the court. The graduate canvases are hung in the probation department to provide hope and inspiration for recovery. (City of East Lansing photo)

Sarah Spohn, a freelancer who covers the Culture beat for ELi, also named a story that led her to meet someone special: her feature on Judy Winter, “an East Lansing resident who champions for the ‘underdog.’ ” Sarah noted, “Winter describes herself as a storyteller, and I, of course, relate.”

Wrote Sarah, “Getting to meet Judy Winter [pictured below] was a very inspiring experience, both motivating as a fellow journalist/writer, and as a human being. The way Winter was able to take the emotions of grief after losing her son Eric to cerebral palsy, and transition that into creating a safe, creative, encouraging place for those with differing abilities is an incredibly powerful story.”

Sarah continued, “Her outlook on humanity, and giving opportunities for people to show us what they CAN do versus what people think they cannot do, is something we could all learn from. Along with the staff and volunteers at Eric ‘RicStar’ Winter Music Therapy Camp, Winter's story of her son’s choice to live life full of joy, happiness, and kindness is one we could all benefit to learn from. It's a story I was immensely proud to help tell, and one that will stick with me for a long time.”

You can see Sarah interviewing Judy in our special four-minute video about ELi’s work!

(Photo by Raymond Holt)

Not surprisingly, people-feature writer Ann Kammerer found it challenging to pick a favorite subject from the many remarkable stories she related to our readers this year.

“I always feel a special responsibility to every source to tell their story clearly,” Ann wrote to me, “to represent their motivations and passions accurately, and to respect their confidences, too.”

Ultimately she picked her profile of John Duley. “Having the opportunity to meet and interview East Lansing civil rights activist, educator and spiritual leader John Duley [pictured below] was a defining moment on so many levels. It is hard to describe what it meant to hear him reflect on his life and legacy, and to hear of his drive to help make the world a better place for everyone. Someone like Mr. Duley affirms there is hope we can turn things around if we all dig deep and find the bravery and commitment to do so.”

(Photo by Ann Kammerer)

We try really hard at ELi to find assignments for citizen-reporters that will give them more than the pay our donors provide. As founder of this organization and leader of this team, I believe it is my job not only to care about what we produce, but to care about how we produce it. So it’s always exciting to me to hear something like what ELHS student and ELi reporter Lucas Walters told me about his report for us on the Trojan Marching Band competitive season:

“That piece was enormously gratifying on two levels, as I was reporting on something I had helped accomplish. The victory was something I had worked hard on throughout the season, and I had also collected much of the material throughout the season. The article felt like the payoff for a lot of hard work. I also enjoyed sharing something I had accomplished with the community.”

(Photo by Raymond Holt)

ELi Arts & Entertainment reporter Chris Wardell also talked about the joy of bringing his work to our neighbors when he named as his favorite story "the preview piece I wrote about jazz drummer virtuoso Jeff Shoup and the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival." Chris explained, "I’m very passionate about arts and entertainment and music in particular, so it’s very important for me to share this passion with ELI’s readers. It’s also imperative to me to continue to highlight one of East Lansing’s most celebrated festivals, while bringIng to light what a valuable resource the music even is to the community."

Mark Meyer has been lead editor for ELi this year – and a terrific one at that – and as part of that job, he’s covered a wide variety of subjects for our readers, from emergency services’ work to transportation issues to the openings of the new elementary schools.

“Though I spent a good portion of the year covering high school and community sports,” Mark wrote, “my favorite story of the year was about the Shaw Estates overlay district rezoning. Not only did I gain a better sense of the overall process but it also opened my eyes as to how neighborhood members can band together to prevent an action that they might consider to be detrimental to their daily lives.”

He explained, “As someone whose family has rented a home in East Lansing, I was interested to hear some of the testimony and the reasons some give for why a neighborhood property should not be converted to a ‘rental’ — fear of attracting the ‘wrong’ kind of tenant. The successful installation of the overlay district also speaks to the larger issue of property rights in East Lansing, which I would like to explore in further reporting.”

Councilmember Shanna Draheim listens to Shaw Estates resident Jill Young during the public hearing on the overlay petition. (Photo by Alice Dreger)

ELi Government reporter Dan Totzkay also named a story that opened his eyes: his June 2019 report on local interest in developing a citizen review panel for complaints against police officers.

“While I loved reporting on the ongoing development drama that shaped how East Lansing looked and what businesses were allowed to operate,” Dan wrote, he found it valuable to “hear folks’ testimony on how racial profiling is alive and well in what we might consider as progressive a community as East Lansing. Even just my small part in reporting on that meeting and the proposal at that stage felt so important and let me feel like I played some small role in moving toward a more equitable community.”

Side note: Dan left us for a tenure-track job at West Virginia University, and says Morgantown could really use an “ELi” there! I told him to focus on getting tenure first.

Clockwise from lower left: MSU Professor Jeffrey Wray; LaShawn Erby of Black Lives Matter Lansing; ELPS Trustee Kath Edsall and her family; Councilmember Aaron Stephens; government and citizen-reporter Chris Root.

Government reporter Chris Root really produces series-work for us as she reports out on highly complex big development deals. Asked about her favorite single story of the year, she named one from October 2019 about the DDA’s Evergreen properties.

“This year I spent a lot of time at meetings of the Downtown Development Authority, several of which made unpredictable news,” Chris wrote. So often, what happens at these meetings cannot be predicted by the agendas! That happened with this meeting, where “representatives of locally based River Caddis Development and Chicago-based DRW Convexity showed up during the public comments period to say they intended to submit proposals for the DDA-owned properties on Evergreen Avenue.”

Chris added, “I also chose this article because it was enriched by Raymond Holt’s wonderful photographs.” Many of our reporters have said that they feel even more excited about reporting for us since Ray joined the team.

Downtown Development Authority meeting of Oct. 24, 2019, photo by Raymond Holt. You can see Chris Root reporting on the far right in the photo.

What about me? While surprisingly to me, the story didn’t make our most-read-articles list of 2019, I would name my reporting on the eBay land sale as my favorite.

That story had it all: We found out about it via a “nothing to see here” City Council agenda item, and pressing on it, we found out there was plenty to see there! ELi readers sent in tons of tips, with many real estate and marijuana industry professionals calling to give me background information to help. We got to use the Freedom of Information Act. And the issue was clearly important to citizens who learned of it through our reporting, as many named it as an election issue for them.

Map showing the land sold via eBay and then-Mayor Mark Meadows.

What will be our favorites of 2020? Tune in next year to find out! And if you love this work and can help keep it going with a financial contribution, please do so immediately as our matching funds run out in just four days, at midnight Tuesday, December 31. Thank you!

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