East Lansing Info’s Annual Report for 2020

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Gary Caldwell and Raymond Holt for ELi

In 2020, Elaine Hardy (left) was named East Lansing's first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Administrator; The Abbot opened at the long-blighted corner; Jessy Gregg (upper left) became Mayor Pro Tem; and Aaron Stephens became Mayor.

East Lansing Info (ELi) provides nonpartisan, nonprofit, meaningful local news and information about East Lansing, Michigan. We take donations from the community and engage a local team of citizen reporters in the process of bringing high-quality, accurate, relevant reports of life in East Lansing.

Today we bring you a report of our activities for 2020. Here are some highlights:

  • Continuing as a lean and efficient operation, we brought a whole city daily news on only $147,159 in 2020.
  • About 91% of our expenses in 2020 went to local jobs, as we put $132,329 right back into the East Lansing area economy by paying local people to bring the news.
  • ELi Tech Managers Lisa Lees and Morgan Lees successfully moved ELi to a new domain with a new and beautiful, mobile-friendly, custom website while stabilizing and preserving six years’ of ELi reporting archives.
  • Emily Joan Elliott took the reins as ELi’s Managing Editor in the midst of the pandemic, and shepherded two special series: our Covid-19 reporting and “Spend Locally,” which is aimed at saving local retail shops, service businesses, and restaurants.
  • ELHS educator Cody Harrell directed ELi’s Summer Youth Journalism Program for the fourth year in a row, teaching both the Intro and Advanced (Investigative) programs virtually this time around.
  • We started the East Lansing Insider podcast, produced by ELi’s Andrew Graham.
  • ELi General Manager Jodi Spicer oversaw the raising of $134,000 in our year-end 2021 Sustainability Campaign, ensuring a solid base for our work in 2021.
  • Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post hailed ELi as an innovative model for local news in her book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.
Margaret Sullivan’s book, Ghosting the News, features the story of ELi as an innovative model for rescuing local news.

In 2020, ELi brought 736 original reports from 30 local reporters.

In 2020, the ELi reporting team made it possible for the people of East Lansing to know what is really going on here.

Debbie Walton, Elizabeth Guerrero, Lyons, and Monica Fink, elected to the East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education in Nov. 2020.

We covered East Lansing city government, the East Lansing Public Schools’ Board of Trustees, the ELPS school board election, the suspension of ELPS and MSU in-person classes, the resignation of two members of City Council and the appointment of their replacements, the change in the City Attorney, the new special Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission, turmoil in ELPD over charges of excessive use of force, the rising cost of living here and the declines in City finances, big redevelopment including the Center City District bonds and the stalled MSUFCU office tower plan, the effect of the pandemic on many aspects of local life, and a whole lot more.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

The Abbot (left) and Graduate Hotel (right, under construction) seen from near Dublin Square.

Just in terms of number original articles, our output went up 27% when compared to the year before. And we believe the quality went up, too. For example, hiring Nathan Andrus as a data analyst has helped us do far better work tracking public safety data and providing “news by the numbers.”

Because no public forums could be held with the school board candidates, Emily Joan Elliott and Jane Turner teamed up for ELi to video-interview all eight candidates, bringing those recordings to voters to help them make their decisions. Emily also brought textual information about the candidates and about the voting process during a tumultuous election season.

The ELi team answered countless numbers of reader questions via email, Twitter, and Facebook, and brought published answers to about 55 reader questions. We served thousands of people through our emailed news alerts and biweekly newsletters. (Sign up for free here.)

We also kept reminding people here of the good, featuring stories of people caring for each other, sharing Little Local Joys, publishing our placemaking Ann About Town series by Ann Nichols, pushing people to support local businesses, and sustaining the arts. In the second half of the year, we also started bringing regular obituaries as a service to the community.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Musicians in Ann Street Plaza

You can click here to see a sample of our reporters’ favorite stories, click here to see the top ten stories of 2020, and click here to see what we think will be the big stories of 2021.

Our reporters in 2020 included Nathan Andrus, Aaron Appelbey, Patty Bonito, Heather Brothers, Gary Caldwell, Alice Dreger, Emily Joan Elliott, Andrew Graham, Chris Gray, Marie Adele Grosso, Jack Timothy Harrison, Alex Hosey, Ann Kammerer, Noa Kuszai, Amalia Medina, Mark Meyer, Sydney Garnet Mullett, Ann Nichols, Adan Tomas Quan, Anaiis Rios-Kasoga, Chris Root, Natalie Rose, Elke Schrenk, Ken Sperber, Sarah Spohn, Sophia Strasburg, Chantal Tetreault, Christopher Wardell, and Liz Wittrock.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

James Henson, also called Scropion, on June 2, 2020, at a protest outside East Lansing’s City Hall.

Gary Caldwell served this year as our lead photographer/videographer and provided some absolutely amazing photographs for us this year.

We ran the whole operation on about $147,000.

How did we do that? We use a blended staffing model of volunteers and paid staff, and those of us who are paid work at ELi for a lot less than our work is worth. We do this work because we believe in the critical importance of factual news and we consider it our privilege to provide this public service to our own community.

As noted above, about 91% of expenses this year went straight back into the economy in terms of paying people to work for ELi. In fact, more than that went to local employment, as we paid our accountants at Clark Schaefer Hackett $1,735 for their services in 2020, including handling our payroll and tax reporting.

The remainder of our expenses went to paying for server space, credit card processing fees, Freedom of Information Act charges, stationary and postage, advertising, and professional memberships for ELi in the Institute for Nonprofit News and LION Publishers.

Our total income in 2020 came to $159,535.

We obtained $113,316 in individual donations in 2020. That includes sponsorship from MetroNet for our homepage and from Crunchy’s for our biweekly newsletter (get our newsletters by signing up here).

We also obtained $22,000 from NewsMatch, the maximum for which we were eligible (down from $30,000 for 2019, and down further to only $15,000 for 2021).

In addition, we obtained $5,000 from a Google grant given to local newsrooms for emergency Covid-19 reporting, and $5,000 from the Lenfest Institute emergency pandemic funding system. We also obtained $14,200 from the Paycheck Protection Program in the form of a forgiven small business loan, and we earned $19 in interest income at our MSUFCU account.

Because of the pandemic, we had to get creative with outreach and fundraising.

We held our first ELi Trivia Night – so fun!

We also held our first ever telethon on Dec. 30, staying “on the air” live for 12 hours. (You can watch the recording here.) Besides hearing from some of our local and long-distance supporters (including Alice’s and Emily’s New York families), our local guests in the first part included Cody Harrell talking about young people as reporters, Jane Turner on vaccinations and return-to-school, former mayor Mark Meadows and current City Council member Lisa Babcock on the Center City District bonds, Sam and Alex Hosey on racism in East Lansing, and the Hoseys and City Council member Ron Bacon talking about Trojan football.

ELi Board Vice President Jiquanda Johnson (bottom) talks with Emily Joan Elliott and Alice Dreger on the first ELi telethon.

We also talked with ELi Board Vice President Jiquanda Johnson of Flint Beat about the hardships of bringing news in Mid-Michigan, Ingham County Commissioner and attorney Mark Grebner about “The Driveway Case,” and zoning attorney David Pierson about eccentricities of the East Lansing zoning code and the absurd renderings developers sometimes gift to us.

Clockwise from top left: Emily Joan Elliott, Alice Dreger, Peter Sagal, and Andrew Graham.

We also had big-name national guests on the telethon, including Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, talking with us about the colorful parking structure; Dan Savage of “It Gets Better” and The Savage Lovecast explaining the decline of the local news economy; The Atlantic’s Emily Yoffee discussing the challenges of bringing news people don’t want to hear; science reporter John Schwartz of The New York Times reminiscing about some remarkable moments in his career; and Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker, talking with us about “Parks & Rec” and how local midwestern politics can be even more crazy than what TV writers imagine.

Our two boards continued to work on advising and guiding us.

Our Board of Directors this year included President Sam Hosey, Vice President Jiquanda Johnson, Treasurer Ray Vlasin, Secretary Maysa Sitar, Public Editor Ann Nichols, and Member-at-Large Anaiis Rios-Kasoga. They did wonderful work supporting our editorial team, including most notably responding to an “ethics complaint” from developers at Harbor Bay Real Estate.

In 2020, Dana Watson (shown at a Nov. 2020 Zoom meeting) moved from being ELi’s Community Advisory Board Chair to being on City Council.

The Chair of our Community Advisory Board (CAB), Dana Watson, was named to City Council so had to leave us, but we added Bezil Taylor and Anne Hill to the CAB. Also on our CAB are Mike Krueger, Thasin Sardar, Meg Croft, Barbara Ball-McClure, Alex Hosey, Sam Hosey, Anaiis Rios-Kasoga, and Chris Root. We could not meet as often as we normally do because of the shut-downs and added work, but hope to meet more virtually in 2021. The CAB will hold its first meeting of 2021 on Jan. 27.

In 2020, we continued to educate young people about journalistic practices and ethics.

Cody Harrell had to scale back the size of our Summer Youth Journalism Program since it moved online for the public health shutdown, but he kept it going!

The participants of the 2020 ELi Summer Youth Journalism Program (held online).

Three sophomores from ELPS – Adan Tomas Quan, Elke Schrenk, and Evie Wittrock – completed the introductory course, learning about First Amendment law, interviewing skills, journalism ethics, feature writing, news reporting, and the Freedom of Information Act. The second tier covered investigative journalism and included four area young people: Alex Hosey, Amalia Medina, Anupreksha Jain, and Sophie Strasburg.

In four years, we have now graduated 27 students from the Tier 1 class. In the two years running the Tier 2 class, we have graduated 9 students.

The ELi team loves East Lansing, and this community loves us back.

In 2020, we expanded our community support, with a total of 731 donors in 2020, bringing the total number of people who have supported ELi financially to over 1,100. Just during our Sustainability Campaign (November – December 2020), we attracted 240 new donors to ELi, which is a huge number for an organization our size.

Our Sustainability Campaign, featuring wonderful graphics by designer Cait Palmiter, brought in 839 donations and raised about $134,000 towards our work in 2021, including monthly commitments and $15,000 from NewsMatch. We are starting 2021 with about $71,000 in the bank.

We are so grateful to all of you who support us with generous donations, tips, volunteer service, readership, and emotional support for this hard work. It is truly our honor to give this city what so many American cities our size lack. You make this possible. Thank you.

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