Citizen Journalists Take Back the News in East Lansing, Michigan

By Clement Obropta

The American newsroom is in crisis and has been for over a decade. Across the country, editorial jobs have been cut, local papers have closed up shop, and many have been forced to leave their print editions behind. But despite all this, something extraordinary has been happening in East Lansing, Michigan.

A scrappy contingent of citizen-led “news militia” has risen up to address the lack of local reporting in the area. Even with its limited resources, East Lansing Info emerged as one of the most innovative local journalism movements we’ve seen in this new, challenging time for smaller papers — about 110 “citizen reporters” have been writing for East Lansing Info, paid, since 2014. The news site is nonprofit, nonpartisan, citizen-run, and supported by reader donations.

Since 2004, 1 in 5 American newspapers has disappeared, for a net loss of 1,800 local papers. Sixty percent of newsroom employees have been laid off since 1990, and even once-great papers like the Chicago Tribune have downsized considerably. Digital migrations and lost advertising revenue gutted most local papers and sites, and that was before coronavirus struck. But ELi is not your average news publication.

A brigade of local non-journalists — mostly students, stay-at-home parents, and retirees — writes the coverage. It’s not run by a career editor, either, but by Alice Dreger, an author with a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science, who trained her workforce how to cover the news and dig into local stories. The site is valuable for a city like East Lansing, which houses Michigan State University, borders the state capital, and was previously covered by the capital’s corporate-owned paper.

The group is not especially well-funded; neither are its employees well-paid ($50–100 per article, and Dreger works for free). ELi’s annual budget was $70,000 in 2018. It’s not a profitable enterprise, but it’s a necessary one. The site has attracted 20,000 monthly visitors and 2,000 email subscribers from a city of 50,000 people. East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows and many city government workers are regular readers.

Dreger’s publication is dedicated to holding public officials accountable, restoring the fourth estate in East Lansing’s democracy. ELi reporting has foiled proposed tax hikes and corruption in downtown land development. The site reported on a mishandled mercury spill in 2016; on coronavirus’s arrival in the community; and also on more typical “fluff” stories, like the retirement of a star police dog or blooming ephemerals at MSU’s botanical garden. Despite its nonprofessional battalion of journalists, the site has rigorous editorial standards — per managing editor Ann Nichols, “We have a very serious commitment to not publishing crap.”

The site has spearheaded an alternative strategy for local news, and Dreger is trying to help other community papers follow her model. There’s a wave of reinvigorated local reporting around the country, too, not just in Michigan — the “Portland Press Corps” has been covering that city’s protests since July, and the Report for America campaign has been steadily bolstering local newsrooms for years, sending emerging journalists to struggling communities to aid in their coverage.

Make no mistake, the news desert is still out there. But with trailblazers like ELi, local journalism can hopefully make a comeback and ensure that our local governments are held accountable and our communities can continue to have healthy democracies.