Why I Report for ELi: Working “With” the LSJ

Tuesday, January 9, 2018, 4:21 pm
Alice Dreger

ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols asked our regular reporters this week whether they’d be interested in writing individually about why they report for ELi. Eight of them quickly volunteered, so you’re going to be seeing those first-person pieces from our reporters in the coming days. These will include a couple of our East Lansing High School student reporters as well as professional reporters who choose to work part-time on the ELi team.

I would appreciate if you would join me in reading what they have to say. Not only will they be telling us about their work and perspectives, they will be helping us understand how this key communication system functions in our city.

This week something happened that stands as an example of a major reason why I myself report for ELi—and a major reason I founded ELi and work hard to support this remarkable team.

On Monday morning, we published my long-form report on the City’s settlement of a federal lawsuit brought under the False Claims Act involving the City Attorney. This is a story with which we took even more than the usual amount of care, because we knew it would be of importance to many of our readers . . . and, yeah, because the City Attorney has previously made noises about suing us over previous reporting on this story.

This was one of those times I was thrilled to have a Managing Editor who is not only a professional writer and editor and a long-time resident, but who also has a law degree. Ann went over all the legal documents we could obtain, patiently explaining them to me, checking my legalese-to-English translations one-by-one.

She and I went through six drafts, and shared drafts with five additional members of ELi’s team. Meanwhile, ELi’s tech team worked with me on a question about displaying court documents to readers (which we do as often as possible, so readers can look at raw sources for themselves).

After our report ran, Beth LeBlanc of the Lansing State Journal picked up the story, calling Phil Bellfy, the whistleblower-plaintiff. When Phil let me know LeBlanc was on the story, I told him that was great news: she’s a solid reporter and would likely find out more than we knew at that point.

LeBlanc did not disappoint. After our story had run, the Mayor was apparently ready to talk to LeBlanc, which he hadn’t been with us. He admitted to her that Council had voted on the settlement two months earlier, something we had been asking about and had received no response from him.

People often think we are in competition with outfits like the Lansing State Journal. It’s true we love a good scoop. It’s also true it irritates us when LSJ reporters use our work without giving us credit, as happened today. (Journalistic standards say you give other news organizations credit for breaking stories.)

But it’s also true that we exist in part to push other news organizations to pay attention to what’s going on in East Lansing—to get LSJ reporters to “take” our stories. We love it when other reporters, especially the good ones like LeBlanc, pick up what we have sniffed out and run with it.

This pattern—of ELi seeding more solid reporting for East Lansing—has occurred repeatedly over the years. Perhaps the best example of it was back when, in ELi’s prior life, I was pretty doggedly reporting on the various scandals related to the construction of St. Anne Lofts downtown. The LSJ ended up doing a massive multi-page spread on the “Bureaucratic Collapse” surrounding the project.

I was equally delighted when my work on the cover-up over the mercury spill at our wastewater treatment plant led to Todd Heywood of the City Pulse picking up that story and finding out more. The work I did on that serial story for ELi, a series we called The Mercurial Trail, had taken me many days and had cost ELi about $600 for charges from the City in Freedom of Information Act fees. So it was a joy to me to see it grow legs.

When we create competition for other news organizations in East Lansing by producing high-quality, relevant news that matters to citizens here, we force those organizations’ parent corporations (like LSJ’s owner, U.S.A. Today) to spend money on more professional reporters in our community.

We also create an appetite for local news, which leads to people becoming ever more connected to their local governments and communities.

People sometimes think I want to put the LSJ out of business. On the contrary, I work in the hopes the LSJ will keep employing good reporters. ELi’s mission isn’t to make money. It’s to provide the community with high-quality news and information it can’t otherwise get.

The work I do for ELi takes me away sometimes from my mainstream writing career that does pay. It often leads to stress and sleepless nights. But the benefits that come from working with and for the ELi team are tremendous. This work is a true privilege for me, and it is an honor for me to work with Ann and our reporting team.

Now the rough news: Unfortunately, progress on our 2018 Sustainability Campaign has stalled, well short of the goal.

What this means is that I need to stop reporting now, and focus entirely on fundraising to try to save this organization, to get us enough of a funding commitment from our readers to make it possible for us to know we’ll get through 2018.

As I do that, know that our other reporters are going to keep working for you, with Ann as usual at the helm.

If you want to support them financially as I do, pitch in now. I hope you do, because I want to be back working as a reporter for you. Reporting is what I came to do.

Thanks for listening, and again, please do me a favor and read the forthcoming first-person “Why I Report for ELi” columns coming from our other reporters.


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