I caught the Blue Water on Monday morning to escape East Lansing. Our small city has been on fire for about a month now. I thought that, in South Chicago, the flames from the east could not catch my hair.
But not long after the station stop in Kalamazoo, only about halfway on the journey to Union Station, a producer from one of the local TV news stations called to hand over a tip.
“We don’t have the bandwidth for this one, Alice,” he said. I asked him what it was and he told me. He added he had heard our area’s local U.S.A. Today affiliate was working off the same tip.
“But, Alice, I think you have more reporters than they do at this point!”
We laughed a bitter laugh, the laugh that is now the handshake of local news producers like us. I thanked him and told him we had already been working for two weeks on this very story – that we were just trying to get one more key person to talk to us, obtain one more FOIA response, confirm one more item, and then of course we would have to lawyer-up the piece.
The call made me realize I couldn’t take a day off after all, no less the three I had been planning. It wasn’t that I cared about losing the scoop; I knew our reporting was already a mile deeper than anything anyone else was going to bring. As is almost always the case, ours would be the report of record.
It was that I had promised the central source that we’d bring this story forward in the right way, carefully and accurately, with the context necessary to really understanding it. I didn’t want someone else blundering in with this one, making a factual mess we’d have to clean up, causing unnecessary harm.
(“Our motto,” I regularly remind the reporting team, “is First, do no unnecessary harm.” We aren't here for the clicks.)
Yet I needed the day off. I’ve been working so hard, not just reporting but also running the business I foolishly founded in 2014, back when I thought it couldn’t be that complicated to run a little nonprofit news organization that focused on just one town, just East Lansing, with just 20,000 year-round residents.
By Friday morning last week, I had realized I really had to take a break. I nearly caused a car accident by turning left in front of a vehicle I never saw until the other driver hit the breaks hard. They were too Midwestern to lay on the horn and curse me. I heard it in my head.
With my managing editor dealing with her own challenging scene, I dropped a note to our readers to advise them I’d be taking a rare mental-health break. Because the newspaper has turned us all into something like a big dysfunctional family, I was honest, letting our readership know about the deterioration of my brain function:
“I have headaches, vertigo, and low-level nightmares. Last night featured a visit to the Obamas’ house. The kitchen floor was sticky and a noisy group was in the auditorium, up on the stage, setting up a game of Cones of Dunshire. I was troubled that Barack is still smoking.”
Other people find my nightmares hilarious, I know, and I figured our folks needed a laugh; in a space of a month, we’d had to tell them that the city council had terminated the city manager’s contract, the director of planning had quit, the city clerk and deputy city clerk had also quit, and the library director had called the cops on “the wrong” Black boy.
The East Lansing public school district has also been aflame. A gun at the high school, repetitive fighting and bullying, bathrooms so unsafe kids were restricting fluids so they wouldn’t have to pee all day, two shelters-in-place including one where the cops got wind of it only because a parent half a nation away got a text from their kid at school and called 911 – all of it leading to the school board president resigning rather than facing a vote to remove her.
The Board of Ed meetings are lately being held in the high school auditorium. They’re normally held in a conference room, and, normally, the only person there besides the board and its advisors and staff is my reporter.
“Everything in East Lansing is on fire except the fire department,” a local friend said to me. I didn’t tell him I’m working on an investigative piece about someone in that unit. Just waiting for a FOIA response…
It didn’t used to be like this. But our managing editor now is exceptionally good, as is our city desk editor – both real journalists. The consequence is that between the three of us, the reporting has gotten so good, people are telling us things they wouldn’t have told us a year ago. They’re wanting help with things that used to feel helpless. We’re taking on stories that we couldn’t have before.
But it costs.
Mark, the next-door neighbor to our little third-story-walk-up condo in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago, is pleasant, friendly. We run into each other as we’re coming and going from Trader Joe’s, on the back stairs up to our units. But he’s learned I will only talk to him on the landing, and only for two minutes. I’m sure Mark is a lovely person. I’m also sure I don’t want to get to know anyone in Hyde Park.
I go to the big lake to get away from the small pond. To get away from humanity. Lake Michigan won’t be warm enough to swim for another three months or more. But in Hyde Park, even in the brown season, I can dash over four blocks and then walk along my lake alone, run it alone, let my brain soak in that glacial bathtub.
When I head back to the condo, I can know there will be no anonymous packet of information left on my doorstop, no one ringing the doorbell to see if they can talk to me about something they think we should know.
I worry sometimes that my mind will never be able to stop wanting an investigation to work on.
It all started by accident, so innocently, working on my dissertation on nineteenth-century medicine. Indexing three hundred medical journal articles (1864-1915) using DBase-3 and dot-matrix print-outs, trying to track out quantitatively what had really happened to a vulnerable population.
And then the intersex rights work, trying to force outcomes evidence where we couldn’t find any. And then the Bailey book controversy. And then the Chagnon-Tierney controversy. And then the one that almost killed me: prenatal dexamethasone.
I turned to the newspaper as a break from all that! Just little reports would I do – on what happened at City Council and Planning Commission.
But then came the investigation into the mercury spill at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The loss of the developer debt-service guarantee on the City Center District bonds. The use of public funds to pay for the city attorney’s retaining wall and the promotion of the mayor pro tem’s business.
The delivery of hard news to my neighbors has become an unbreakable habit, a daily exercise of my thick skin. How easy it is for my fingers now to create a bright light. What others call “taking a bullet for us all” feels to me like having a pigeon poop on my head. And it feels good to do something that for others is so meaningful and for me so easy.
But oh, I miss writing long and philosophical. I love my lawyer, but I don’t love having to ask for pre-publication review.
The paper is like a baby that won’t grow up. Every day is unpredictable. Will it sleep tonight? Will it wake up fevered and screaming? Will it live? And where can we get more help I will trust with it?
“Please don’t stop,” people say to me when they hear I am getting too tired of it all, too exhausted by it all. They send cinnamon buns and bottles of wine. “If you won’t help us know what is really going on here, how will we know?”
I want to (but do not) say to them: Do you know what other towns do? They don’t know, and they somehow survive. Here, here, we know, and do things get better because we know? Do you not understand the point of the parable of the Fruit of Knowledge?
The pension debt is really just as bad as when we started. The city’s and schools’ workforces are more unstable than ever. The well-meaning politicians make the same dumb mistakes they always did, persist in the same willfully blind petty corruption and conflicts of interest.
(Barack is still smoking.)
What have I changed here, really? I have made everyone knowingly miserable. And many don’t have a way to escape to the big lake.
I think guiltily about my privilege and yet I want that escape back. I want to take the train without having to worry that people around me are East Lansingers who might hear the sensitive news story I’m discussing on the phone. I want to not be the person who always has to care about the foolishness, the injustice, the big dysfunctional family of fish in this goddamned small pond. (What ever made me think “only 20,000 people” would make it easier?! It was so much easier to write for the New York Times, the Atlantic, all the nationals.)
People think local news is dying because of the lack of revenue. But they never pay attention to the costs. And I don't mean the money, just.
I want to stop having to ask people to translate from their passive aggressive Midwestern public comment to New York English. I want to stop having to assert on behalf of an entire town the right to governmental transparency. I want to stop soaking in government waste, my pants legs rolled up, bailing information about how we have been ripped off by the latest municipal bond refi and the gamesmanship of the pension system managers.
I want to sleep without playing the game of Parks & Rec.
And oh, I want to write of no place, from no place, for no place.
When we started the newspaper, people said about East Lansing, “There is no there there.” Now there is too much there there. The way the rubble from the Great Fire was pushed to the Chicago lake shore to make more land, the land on which I run, and run.