Why Use Citizen Journalism for Local News?

[Background: I am the Publisher for East Lansing Info (ELi), a citizen-reporting, nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization. We publish only factual news and maintain a hyperlocal focus. To hear about why I decided to start this organization, you can read this essay I wrote for The Guardian.]

In the next installment of this new blog, Hard News, Small Town, I’ll get into the practical question of how you recruit people not trained as journalists to do nonpartisan local reporting. In this post, I want to engage the idea of citizen-reporters . . . particularly since it seems to threaten just about every professional journalist who comes across what we’re doing at East Lansing Info.

Since ELi started up in its current form in September 2014, we’ve had about 110 local people function as reporters for us. There are currently about eight of us that do very regular reporting, and a lot of other people who do occasional reporting. So why use non-professionals to report local news?

It’s what we’ve got. The fact is that the internet economy has gutted local news. In most cities, there simply is not enough money from traditional revenue sources like advertising and subscriptions to pay professional reporters to cover the news that needs reporting.

ELi uses an economic model that treats local news reporting as a public service. Like a food bank or a suicide hotline, we operate with the understanding that there is a critical need in our community that some of us have the time, skill, and will to meet. Like a lot of food banks and suicide hotlines, ELi uses a combination of volunteers and underpaid staff. (I volunteer my services.)

We operate on about $75,000 per year right now, producing the quality and quantity of news that would probably cost closer to a quarter- or half-million dollars per year in a traditional model. (See our most recent transparency report.) Besides saving money and therefore making local news possible where it otherwise isn’t, what’s good about using a lot of people in town as reporters?

Local people know local. Cultivating a broad swath of “regular citizens” as reporters and story advisors means having a team who really knows what they’re reporting.

Sometimes we very specifically recruit someone to report a specific story because of her or his local knowledge. So, for example, we asked Thomas Baumann, a member of East Lansing’s Transportation Commission (by day, a university physicist), to report for us on roadway “safety conversions” that have happened in East Lansing. For ELi, I’ve collaborated with a long-time local gadfly, Eliot Singer, to bring forward complex stories about East Lansing development money pits.

The best example of “local people know local” is our Managing Editor, Ann Nichols, who was born and raised in our community and who has lived here the majority of her adult life. Like me, Ann was not trained as a journalist – I have a Ph.D. in history, and she has a J.D. – but her deep knowledge of local history and her connections all over town make her an incredible asset to our reporting team.

Amateur journalists sometimes have unexpected, useful skills. The thing about professional journalists is that journalism is what they know best – which is great, of course. On the rare occasions when Ann or I are dealing with an ELi reporter who is a pro, it makes our jobs so much easier.

We do have a few professional journalists who have reported for ELi, including Jim DetjenTom Oswald, and our lead schools reporter, Karessa Wheeler. This summer, we also have Andrew Graham, who is home from Syracuse University where he’s earning a degree in journalism and where he’s an editor at the university newspaper.

Having pros work with us is fantastic. We don’t have to give them the kinds of help we generally need to give other reporters. But the great thing about reporters who came from other fields is that they bring the knowledge and skills of those other fields, and that often helps us.

There have been many times when Ann’s J.D. and legal experience has been incredibly useful to us – for example, when she and I have had to report on lawsuits brought against the City and when she has covered marijuana law for us. We’ve had physicians like Ken Rosenman report for us on local public health news, and environmental experts like Paige Filice report for us on environmental issues.

ELi has had arts reporters who are trained artists, music reporters who have worked in the local music scene for years, and high school reporters who report on the high school.

That brings us to this point:

Local is not that hard. Lately, national reporters have been reporting on ELi as a form of “innovation” in local news, and when Ann and I talk with them, one thing they struggle with is the idea that we can quickly train someone to do the job they trained years to do. But the truth is that most of our reporters are not doing the intensive style of journalism that national reporters typically do.

When we have a reporter like Chris Root go to meetings of the Downtown Development Authority, we’re not asking her to do a major investigation of how DDA’s operate nationally or even regionally. We’re asking her to report back what big decisions are being made at East Lansing’s DDA, so that we can keep our readers informed.

She’s really good at that, in part because she has the time to keep going to the DDA, which most professional reporters would not have the time to do. Chris does dig and expand out to looking at regional, statewide, and even national context when it’s called for, but for most of the reporting she (and I) do, that just isn’t necessary.

Occasionally at ELi we take on more complicated stories that involve a lot of investigation. Some of our reporters are naturally inclined to do this, and for those folks, we assign more complicated work, because it’s what they come wanting to do.

My teenage son, for example, likes to dig his teeth into seemingly obscure decisions by City Council. (We jokingly refer to him as the downtown shed expert.) My fellow Government reporter Jessy Gregg took on the story of a neighborly dispute about air conditioner noise, and spent about a month on it, producing a now locally-epic report that was really about how laws are made in East Lansing.

But most of the reporting that happens at ELi is straightforward—stories about fundraisers at the library, about the high school girls’ basketball team making it to the state finals, about water-rescue training by our fire department—and that’s why we have a lot of people who can help. These folks are not being asked, as professional reporters are, to stretch way outside their comfort zones in terms of knowledge and experience.

Making citizens reporters turns them into proselytizers for journalism. This is a point I try to stress to professional journalists who feel threatened by what we do. Because professional reporters should LOVE what we are doing, and want lots of cities to imitate us. Why?

When you take a non-journalist and you ask her to be a reporter, and she does it for even one turn, she starts to understand that journalism takes skill and resources. And that means she understands good journalism requires money.

More than one non-journalist who has become an ELi reporter has said to me that doing this work caused them to send money to a favorite national news organization. That’s because our reporters start seeing bylines as people – people who need steady salaries, health insurance, photographers, editors, tech specialists, and more to bring their findings forward.

Citizen reporters also become fundraisers for us. When it’s time for us to beat the bushes for more funds for the ELi team, we have reporters who help. During our last two big fundraising drives, we asked our reporters if they would write first-person essays answering the question: “Why do you report for ELi?” They readily stepped up, because being part of the achieving our mission has made them disciples of that mission.

See examples of “Why I Report for ELi” from Jessy Gregg (artist-turned-government-reporter), Paige Filice (local environment reporter), Evan Dempsey (high school student and reporter-at-large for ELi) and Sarah Spohn (arts & entertainment reporter).

All this is why I think citizen journalism is the future for small cities like ours. Some big cities might be able to maintain a traditional news model that uses mostly professional journalists. But for a lot of cities, it seems very likely that the only hope of steady local news – the kind of news continuity and depth that keeps people truly informed and connected – is a model like ours.