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As local news outlets struggle to survive, citizen-led efforts are stepping up

The East Lansing Info, a citizen-journalist initiative with a budget of just $70,000 a year, has become a must read for many in this city of 50,000.

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At right, Alice Dreger, founder of the citizen journalism initiative East Lansing Info, hosts her summer government reporting team for an evening strategizing meeting on her porch on June 12, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan.

Christa Case Bryant /The Christian Science Monitor

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It doesn’t exactly sound like a crack investigative team: a former scholar of sexuality with a background in mortgage brokering; a mild-mannered Buddhist with a law degree; a concerned citizen who’s an expert on foraging and cooking weeds; a mother who woke up the day after President Trump’s election and decided she needed to learn about government; a college journalism student home for the summer; and an enterprising high schooler who is into drone ordinances.

But they are all part of East Lansing Info (ELi), a citizen-journalist initiative with a budget of just $70,000 a year that has become a surprisingly influential force in this city of 50,000.

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“If you had a professional army doing what we’re doing, it’s a $1 million operation,” says founder Alice Dreger, who calls their shoestring operation a “news militia.”

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ELi is one of a growing number of nonprofit news initiatives that have sprung up around the country in recent years to try to plug the gaps left by a media industry in financial crisis. They are scrappy, innovative, and deeply committed to the communities they cover – but they are also cut from different cloth, which in some cases has raised questions about the credibility of their journalism.

“[ELi is] part of a fast-growing landscape of nonprofit news organizations across the US,” says Sue Cross, former Los Angeles bureau chief for The Associated Press who now serves as executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which has grown from 27 to more than 160 members since its launch in 2009. “Most of them are founded by journalists, but an increasing number are founded by people who are not journalists, like Alice in East Lansing.”

Ms. Dreger, who possesses a Jack Russell Terrier-like drive for digging into city files, sees ELi as a model for how citizens can hold their governments accountable. Since launching in 2014, ELi’s readership has increased more than 38-fold, with close to 20,000 monthly visitors to its website and 2,000 subscribers to its email newsletter. Mayor Mark Meadows reads it regularly, as do many city employees.

Dreger is writing a how-to guide for citizens interested in replicating ELi’s approach, and hopes such initiatives can help restore journalism as a strong fourth pillar of American democracy – even as traditional media outlets have faced drastic budget cuts and struggled to retain their watchdog role.  

ELi, by keeping expenses low, is able to do serious journalism with very few financial resources. But that’s made possible in part because most employees are simply paid by the story ($50 to $100 per article). And Dreger works for free. Still, she doesn’t necessarily see her role as hard to replicate.

“Every town has ladies with pearls who are incredibly smart and talented,” says Dreger. “There are women running the League of Women Voters and homeless shelters …. Why should they not run newspapers?”

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Accountability to the community

Like many reporters at small-town papers, Dreger’s team works hard and is driven mainly by a sense of mission and a desire to make their community stronger. But unlike traditional journalists, they are unabashed about the fact that they are constituents of the politicians and government they are covering. Not everybody is comfortable with the way ELi's writers walk that line, particularly when it comes to Dreger – an unapologetic advocate for better government.

Cross says that many news startups are driven by a strong individual – and while the traditional checks and balances of a full-fledged newsroom may not be in place, there is still a very strong check in the form of the community they cover. If the reporters “walk into the restaurant, or the post office, and people thought [their coverage] wasn’t fair, they are going to hear about it directly,” she says. 

Accountability to the community is critical to Dreger, which is why she hasn’t sought to raise money from elsewhere. ELi has about 600 donors, nearly all of whom are local, with contributions ranging from $1 to $100 a month, or several thousand dollars in a lump sum. Dreger and her husband are substantial donors themselves, though they’ve reduced their subsidy to $750 per month as ELi has gathered steam.

She sees ELi as not only a civic service but also a vehicle for inculcating a better appreciation for journalism in an era when many now expect to get their news for free – and when the president has denounced the media as the enemy of the people. “It’s to change the way people think about news in America – to understand the key link between journalism and functional democracy.”

Others, however, say ELi’s watchdog approach has been overly negative – and has given Dreger outsized influence over local affairs. Ruth Beier, a city councilwoman since 2013 who ran at Dreger’s urging but has since crossed swords with her, calls ELi a net positive for the community. But she says its harsh coverage prompted two valued city employees to quit their jobs, and has foiled key city initiatives to raise badly needed revenue.

“Because it focuses on errors and things that [Dreger] doesn’t like, then it’s hard to get public support for anything because people think we’re stupid, or worse,” says Beier. “That level of scrutiny makes anything that requires public support really, really hard, because a lot of people read her paper.”

Right now, Beier is campaigning for a city initiative to raise the income tax in order to help pay its pension obligations. The initiative failed last fall and is back on the ballot for August.

“I’m knocking on doors,” says Beier, “and fully 50 percent of the people who are not going to vote yes are not going to vote yes because of Alice.”

A Democratic city against tax hikes

Dreger knows that, and revels in it.

“People are like, ‘We’re not going to give you more freaking tax money, because look at how you use it,’ ” she explains as she kicks off her weekly luncheon with managing editor Ann Nichols. “Which is very unusual for a blue town.”

Ms. Nichols, the Buddhist with a J.D., jokes that she is married to the one Republican in town. Dreger is a former professor, who quit her job at Northwestern University over what she perceived to be censorship of her work on sexuality. They’re an unusual pair.

“Alice is this very fierce person who comes from New York, and I’m really not,” says Nichols, sitting across a small table from Dreger, whose stories she edits. “When people have a problem with ELi, they mean Alice.”

The venue for their working lunch is Red Haven, a locavore watering hole near the 14-square-mile campus of Michigan State University, which offers dishes like strawberry soup and tempeh chorizo tacos.

On the docket today are a host of issues, including the proposed income tax hike, and how to cover racial profiling concerns without disrupting the strong relationship they’ve built with the police department. They also strategize about how best to deploy their team, some of whom are quite green.

As lunch progresses, Dreger hears back from the city clerk, responding to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests she filed during the mayor’s meeting on the tax hike this morning.

Later, the city clerk’s office tells the Monitor that of all the FOIA requests they receive, about half come from Dreger.

“In the interest of transparency, we appreciate when people file FOIA requests,” says Deputy City Clerk Kathryn Gardner.

Citizens appreciate the digging ELi has done, too.

Linda Dufelmeier, a longtime resident who owns a craft shop downtown along with her husband, Tom, says ELi has been a great asset.

“You can’t get information out of the city about anything, and that’s one of the reasons why it was really great Alice took it upon herself to start investigating,” says Ms. Dufelmeier, whose shop, Mackerel Sky, abuts a massive downtown building project. She and her husband blame the construction for a significant drop-off in their sales, and are frustrated that some of the members of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) have a financial stake in the project. Though those members have recused themselves from related decisions, the couple still believes they’re using their position to influence the project.

Dreger also has concerns. “The developers are friends with the mayor and have arranged a sweet deal,” Dreger says. “I think it was a remarkable thing for a city in this much debt to take its most lucrative property … and to lock it up for 50 years under a lease.”

Mayor Mark Meadows, in an interview with the Monitor, strongly denied that there was any wrongdoing and called the deal “one of the best negotiations to the benefit of the people of East Lansing.” But even as he rebuts Dreger’s criticisms, he speaks approvingly of ELi, which he reads along with The New York Times.

“Is it a valuable part of the community? The answer is yes,” he says, though adding that sometimes a bit of opinion seems to creep in. “For 99 percent of the stories, it’s about the community and what’s going on in the community.”