East Lansing Info (ELi) has been providing the people of East Lansing with real, nonpartisan, nonprofit news for over four years. Just as importantly, it has become a model for how small American cities like ours can give themselves news – and, in doing so, how a local news organization can engage a whole community in the understanding of why journalism matters to democracy.
ELi is based on the ideal of the great investigative journalist David Carr, who believed that the internet had produced a “golden age of journalism.” Given that the internet has caused the economic collapse of traditional investigative journalism to the great detriment of ordinary people, Carr’s idea of this being a “golden age” for journalism may sound upside-down. But Carr’s point was that, because of smartphones and the internet, ordinary citizens could become reporters, and we could all therefore know better what is really going on.
Make no mistake: We would love it if we had professional journalists adequately covering our city. But we don’t. So, we recruit ordinary citizens – stay-at-home parents, retirees, high school students, and sometimes working people embedded in news that needs reporting – and we help them report high-quality, meaningful, nonpartisan local news. A fraction of our reporters are professional journalists. But most of us are not.
Why doesn’t East Lansing have a local “paper” that takes care of regularly covering our news? Well, happily, we lack murders and scandals – the kinds of things that make people click through advertising in a fashion that (somewhat) supports professional journalism.
Nevertheless, we do have real issues in East Lansing, including a $200 million debt for a city of only 20,000 permanent residents, a government prone to the usual problems of loyalty and obfuscation, a school system that – like all in Michigan – gets inadequate support from the state, a Mom-and-Pop electric company that reasonable customers have to worry about, environmental risks, and more.
We need investigative reporters who will make public records requests, watch for unequal treatment by government (including law enforcement), and follow the money. We also need people who will keep neighbors informed about the needs of the less fortunate, the labor of artists and public service employees, and the offerings of locally-owned businesses.
All this is why an increasingly large group of us work to bring East Lansing the news through ELi.
Because we use a blended model of volunteerism and paid work, and because no one gets paid very much through ELi, we currently operate on only about $75,000 a year. On just that sum, we consistently provide news of city government, lawsuits involving the city, local schools, local businesses, environmental issues, and arts and entertainment opportunities.
East Lansing would have almost no organized local news reporting without us. But what’s even more exciting about our news production is that, by engaging about 110 people so far as reporters, and engaging even more as members of our Board of Directors, Community Advisory Board, and readers, what we’ve done is cause a vibrant local conversation about how journalism matters.
ELi gets people here to talk (and argue productively) about:
- What makes an issue newsworthy?
- How do we report in a nonpartisan fashion in a town that is so blue (or red)?
- How should we decide who to name in a small-town story that involves credit or blame?
- What do government transparency and accountability look like, and what is the role of the free press in pushing for those things?
- How do we manage conflicts of interest when we engage in formalized information sharing?
- Who should pay for news?
Because of ELi, East Lansing started having conversations about these issues years before we had a president who would call reporters “the enemy of the people,” years before we would learn how social media can be manipulated by foreign governments interested in pushing propaganda and sowing discord and disarray. Our city had started a grassroots literacy campaign that helped us be prepared as our nation would come to fully face the troubling “media” environment we now do.
We are so excited that people are now paying attention to this model, seeing in it what we do: a chance to reawaken an appreciation of high-quality, old-fashioned journalism in America from the ground up. Our work at ELi has been featured in The Christian Science Monitor, the Lenfest Institute’s report on local news operations, the Poynter report on local news (twice), The Guardian (in a guest op-ed by me), and The Membership Puzzle Project’s report on news operations like ours that engage audiences in news production.
We have had over 600 local people and over a dozen small businesses in town support our work by contributing financially. We take no advertising, do no “native advertising” (manufactured news for profit), and we have had only one small grant, namely $3,600 from the Lansing Area Community Trust for our Summer Youth Journalism Program. Our economic method shows you just how seriously we take accountability to our community.
Now ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols and I are getting ready to put together an online guide to explain how you can do what we do. In the meantime, I hope I’ve convinced you that this kind of public service work is one of the most needed today.
If you want to support our efforts with a donation, or if you live here and want to become a reporter with us, click here. If you want to keep track of what we’re reporting, sign up for our free mailer.
Thank you for listening. And thanks, as always, to the entire ELi team – advisors, reporters, sub-editors, tech managers, donors, accountants – for allowing Ann and me to work with you on bringing our city the news.
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