Hard News, Small Town

The murders of five people at the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, made me relieved I run a news organization with no newsroom. If someone wanted to come after me for my reporting, they’d get me – not my Managing Editor, not my tech managers, and not my reporters.

At East Lansing Info (ELi), a citizen-news militia which I founded and publish, we work from our homes, from coffee shops, from benches at City Hall, and occasionally from bars. Out of the hundred-something people who have reported real news for our community via ELi, I produce most of the really hard investigative news – the stuff that might get somebody mad.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a member of our city government. She asked me, in an exasperated tone, why I’m always publishing hard-news stories.

I asked her what she was talking about. At ELi, we publish stories on book clubsCity-sponsored soccer leagues, and baby animals.

“No, no,” she said. “I mean why do you – Alice – always report hard news?”

I explained to her that doing hard news in a small midwestern city is a lot to ask of anybody, especially anyone who is born-and-raised-midwestern. (I’m a displaced New Yorker.) I can’t find a lot of reporters willing to take the crap that comes with doing hard news here, so I let other folks take the easier news.

In fact, I explained to her, sometimes when an ELi reporter working on a story realizes it’s going to make people unhappy, I ask that reporter if they want me to take it over. Often they say yes, because they don’t want to get metaphorically beaten up at the grocery store or the post office or their kid’s classroom when they run into someone who wishes we didn’t report something.

And metaphorically “beaten up” is one thing. The truth is I also worry about them getting physically beaten up. I worry about this in part because almost every time I tell my mother about some tough story I’m covering for this town, she says to me, “I hope nobody shoots you.”

I try to reassure my mom that this is not New York, and I’m not going to get shot. (The guns here are mostly for hunting deer.) But I also remind her I believe every town needs good investigative reporters, just like they need police officers, firefighters, and people toiling in public works. Just as those people risk their lives for their cities, reporters are sometimes needed in risky places, if democracy is going to work.

My mother raised me to be a reporter. I don’t mean that she made me go out and do journalism. I mean that, as an immigrant from Poland who came over at the age of eleven just as the Iron Curtain came down, she constantly reminded me as I was growing up about how important it is to have a free press. Our kitchen was constantly piled high with newspapers. And my mother was constantly critiquing the news, looking for undue influence and bias (as well as grammatical errors).

I know some people don’t get why I would go from doing national work to doing local – they see that as a step down. But to me, this is just like when I decided to quit tenure to be around more to raise my kid. It wasn’t a step down. It was a decision to take care of my own.

To me, and to all the good journalists I know, news is about feeding people in a democracy. Feeding the people who happen to live next door to you is just as important as feeding U.S. senators, no? Local is where you live. Local is where this displaced New Yorker has lived for 22 years.

Of course, local shouldn’t have to be where you die.

The folks at the Capital Gazette are still publishing, through their tears and rage. I look at them, and I see my team.

Even though my team is mostly made up of amateur reporters, even though my Managing Editor is a J.D. and I’m a Ph.D. and we have no formal training in journalism, what we have is the sense that someone has to keep the news coming. That’s exactly why we’re doing this as a team of amateurs, and why we’ve been doing it for four years.

I suppose it’s why I think of ELi as a news militia. We shoot facts, firing them out in story arcs. We just have to hope nobody shoots back. And if they do? Like the people of the Capital Gazette, we’ll report it.

Note: The helpful encapsulation “Hard News, Small Town” comes from the Institute for Nonprofit News’ Executive Director Sue Cross, who used it in a conversation I had with her and one other publisher doing similarly challenging work. I am grateful to Sue for her concise framing of the challenge.