And So, It Goes

I built a local news organization. It kicked ass. And now, it has collapsed.

And So, It Goes
Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi

All the things I’ve read about happening to a community when a local newspaper dies, these things I will now watch happen to my own town.

The news organization I founded almost eight years ago is officially “quiescent,” in the framing of the Board of Directors. The person I thought would replace me for at least this year has decided to go back to academic life. And my inbox is slowly filling with messages from neighbors, local business people, and even elected officials, all of which say that no one is blaming me, but that this is so bad.

As I go for a run to try to settle my head, I think about how emergency medical providers must feel at the scene of a disaster like a war or Covid, watching what they can’t stop or even much ameliorate. I imagine they keep going as best they can, and so I have thought about blogging about what’s going on in the City of East Lansing, to keep people informed – just a little? But I don’t have the energy or the knowledge anymore. I stopped watching all of it when my successor gave notice just a few weeks into my “sabbatical” from the paper.

Some stats: In about seven-and-a-half years, East Lansing Info (ELi) published about three thousand original reports. We employed dozens of people on a regular basis. We ran a Summer Youth Journalism Program for five years. We had about 150 people participate as reporters, writing factual articles about local businesses, commission meetings, parks and trails updates, art events. We taught thousands of people why news matters.

A select few of us, including me, did that by producing seriously hard-hitting investigative news. Just as examples, I tackled the cover-up of a major mercury spill at our wastewater treatment plant; our City’s knowing exposure of blue-collar workers to friable asbestos for seven years; a deeply problematic $56 million bond deal that effectively gave away millions in tax dollars to a family of developers; a federal fraud lawsuit against the City for a construction project that benefitted the City Attorney’s private property; and on and on.

I did all this – founded the damned thing, ran the damned thing, reported for the damned thing – because I hated the thought of my neighbors not realizing what was happening with their money. I hated the thought of City workers being poorly treated by well-paid managers. I hated the thought of East Lansing progressives smugly putting up “we believe blah blah” signs while data wrestled out of our rainbow-flagged City hall showed systemic racism in policing and in public employment.

Now...“quiescence.” Already, important news is going unreported.

No one is doing any deep reporting on the first-ever shooting of a person by East Lansing Police officers. (Guess who they shot? Yes: a Black man.) No one is reporting now on the City’s purchase of yet more land on the money-pit we call Evergreen Ave. No one is widely educating homeowners that, no, they don’t have to let the City’s tax assessor come into their homes, even though he’s asking very politely.

I don’t know if people are still writing into ELi’s “contact” portal seeking help, because those messages no longer forward to me. As I was officially granted a sabbatical on February 1, I no longer have any legal relationship with the organization. The Board will soon consist of a skeleton crew that plans to appoint a Task Force to see what can be done. I don’t have a lot of hope.

For a lot of years, I listened to people tell me that ELi would die when I wore out, because I gave so much expert labor for free – management and fundraising as much as reporting and editing. I kept going to keep it from dying. Today, the party line is that ELi became unsustainable because there’s not enough money to pay people what it really costs.

But it’s not quite that simple.

Even if someone were found now to head the organization – someone who knows journalism, nonprofit management, and local politics – who would train that person to take the helm? How could they develop the required relationships in time for the fundraising need? And who has that combo of skills and knowledge?

Small nonprofits are such delicate things, like small species. They’re very hard to keep alive if the environment changes suddenly, or if the founder wears out. I thought we had invested enough time and care in the people succeeding me that it would float for at least another year. I was planning to help fundraise, as always. I was still doing background managerial misery work like the 990 tax report, to help out.

But it never occurred to me the person who told the Board that, yes, she would replace me for at least a while would immediately go out for another job. And everything crumbled after that. To be honest, the quality was starting to fall after I stopped being Publisher, and that was going to have significant effects come fundraising time….

The local news publishers I’ve met through this work, they are almost all like me. They are energetic, persnickety firebrands. They are the reasons their organizations exist.

Like mine, theirs will likely go when they go. Some already are going or gone.

The sources of exhaustion are many. Not least is watching big philanthropy waste so much money on self-aggrandizement, paying some of their leaders more than my organization’s entire yearly budget ($200,000) to do what, exactly? Wring their hands and hold another bacon-wrapped-shrimp conference, ultimately to support adequately only a handful of progressive-adoring pet "news" projects. Every year, the national philanthropic money available to us went down. Our budget went up.

I’m also exhausted by dealing with a frivolous defamation lawsuit. That suit dates back to my reporting on a real estate developer’s federal indictment in June 2020. By the time the case finally made it to the judge who would hear our request for summary dismissal, it had costs me months of stress and tens of thousands in legal bills because of all the legal maneuvering on the plaintiff’s part. The judge granted our request on the first pass.

But in spite of having just pled guilty in federal court – admitting in his plea to tax evasion, concealing assets, lying to federal agents, and making false statements on a loan application – the developer-plaintiff has decided to appeal in the defamation suit. This will cost me months more of stress and thousands of dollars more. even though I expect us to win.

There’s no insurance for stress, but I did think we had insurance to cover the legal defense. We didn’t. ELi can’t afford the bills, so I have been paying them myself. It’s part of the reason I took the “sabbatical” from ELi – to go back to work that pays well enough to pay those bills.

I’ve also gone back to that work because it really matters to me, and it’s been on hold too long; I’ve got a nonfiction book proposal in, two others in my head, and three novels in a mystery series already written. I’m doing public speaking again, working on a podcast that will launch any day now, and more. I love all that work. I didn’t mean to take such a foray into local news.

It’s been a very long haul, bringing this town the news. Even if the defamation suit had never happened, I expect I would have burned out of the ELi work by now. Reporting in one way or another for a decade on the City of Good Intentions is just soul-sucking. Some days – many days – I asked myself the question of why I was working to bring so much stupidity to my neighbors’ attention, when all it did was make them angry.

I mean, I think we accomplished some things. I don’t think the citizens’ independent police oversight commission ever would have come into existence without ELi. I know I got the fire safety code updated, despite a battle royale over it with the City Manager. And I probably saved the taxpayers a few million in some of the shittiest real estate deals.

I don’t regret the work. What I regret is the way it has fallen apart.

I said to a friend recently that I had always imagined my exit from ELi would look like this: a big party celebrating what we have done together, a party that would raise around $25,000 for ELi, maybe more. I would get to be with the people who have helped. We would have some drinks, reminisce,  dance a little.

Instead, the site has gone quiet, the Board is ghosting me, and, somehow, I’m still doing the 990s. Not with a bang, but with bureaucracy.

For those of you who are regular readers of this newsletter, here are some updates:

My father is still on this earth, and ten days later, I am headed home. Now that his grades are turned in, my older brother is arriving there tomorrow, to take on helping our sister. I left my mom with a freezer full of great food and a nicely cleaned-up garden, and readers will understand why I was very pleased to hear my father talking to me for the first time about what he’s going to do when he gets to heaven.

The president of St. Olaf is still making an ass of himself. Ed Santurri is doing fine work talking openly about why people of all political stripes should be troubled by his dismissal as the Director of St. Olaf’s Institute for Freedom and Community. He's an inspiration to me.

Finally, I’ll be doing a live teaching session from my living room for The Garden next Tuesday, May 17. The subject is intersex and what it helps us know about sex and gender development in humans. You can learn more and sign up to join us here.