The mission of East Lansing Info (ELi) is to provide nonpartisan, nonprofit, meaningful local news and information about East Lansing, Michigan. We take charitable donations from the community and engage a local team of citizen reporters in the process of bringing high-quality, accurate, and relevant reports of life in East Lansing.
And we do it in an extremely cost-conscious manner in order to make sure this system is sustainable. With your help, we’ve created a news organization that, for seven years, has brought a whole city’s worth of news to our community. We started out on a tiny budget to see if we could make this work, and ramped it up carefully. Today, we continue to operate on less than $200,000 per year. (You heard that right!)
Keeping expenses low and quality high is ELi’s formula for making sure the people of East Lansing have a nonprofit news organization that is here to serve them.
We are the only news organization that brings you regular coverage of East Lansing’s City Council, Planning Commission, School Board, and Downtown Development Authority. We are the only news organization that does consistent investigative reporting on East Lansing. We also work to bring good news of our people, our schools, our businesses, our art, and our parks and trails. We care so deeply about this community, and we appreciate that you support this work.
As ELi’s Executive Director and Publisher, today I’m bringing you a look at ELi’s income and expenses for our last fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. Ordinarily, we bring you just calendar-year Annual Reports, but ELi Managing Editor Emily Joan Elliott and I decided it was a good idea to bring a Fiscal Year report as we hopefully are beginning to emerge from the significant Covid-19 economic disruption in East Lansing.
What was ELi’s income in our last fiscal year?
ELi is a registered 501c3 nonprofit, which means donations to us are tax deductible to the fullest extent the law allows, and from July 2020 through June 2021, ELi’s income totaled $157,495. This included $142,481 in donations from readers, $15,000 from the NewsMatch grant system that we access through the Institute for Nonprofit News, plus $14 in interest income.
In other words, about 90% of our financial support comes from local readers like you! We have tried to obtain national grants, but the few national foundations that support hyperlocal news do not see East Lansing as a “high need” news area. Fortunately, we don’t have an exceptional amount of violent crime; we don’t have a lot of political scandals; we have a relatively stable economy and a relatively educated populace. That’s why we have to rely on local donated dollars – although we are also glad to do so, because doing so keeps us literally accountable to our own community.
Our General Manager Jodi Spicer who keeps our books for us ran the numbers and found that we had a total of 704 “unique donors” contribute to us during our last fiscal year. (That includes several dozen couples and families who count as one “unique donor” each in our books.) Because many signed up to support us through an automated monthly contribution, together those 704 donors made a total of 2,307 unique donations.
That’s an amazing number when we compare our stats to other local nonprofit news organizations, and I believe it is the result of the ELi team doing excellent work for so many years. It also helps that we have a populace that understands the true value of honest news – news that is here as a public service, not for profitable, “click-bait” generation.
What were ELi’s expenses in our last fiscal year?
From July 2020 through June 2021, ELi’s expenses totaled $176,250. That puts our expenses up about 18% over the prior fiscal year, and the chief reason for that is that we are paying more people – including Emily and Jodi – to do editing, bookkeeping, and management work that I used to do as an unpaid volunteer. (Frankly, they do it better than I did!)
The start of ELi’s new monthly paper edition also increased costs over the last fiscal year, as the paper edition means we pay for more service from excellent local designer Cait Palmiter and BRD Printing in Lansing. But the paper edition has also extended our reach dramatically, which is not only helping us to meet our service mission but is also bringing in new donors to ELi. The paper edition appears to be on track to be a net-gain financially for ELi.
Here are our expenses broken down for our last fiscal year:
The category of “Reporting Expenses” includes things like Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) charges billed to us by the City of East Lansing and mileage reimbursements if reporters have to travel more than five miles. The category of “Professional Membership and Continuing Education” includes our dues to the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN – our access to NewsMatch) and the Local Independent Online Publishers (LION) association. INN and LION support us with resources, networks, and training.
Our goal is to always keep expenses low while also making sure the maximum amount possible in our expenditures stays in the local economy, doing more local good.
In our last fiscal year, about 89% of ELi’s expenditures (your donations) went to pay local people to bring the news. If we add into that what we paid for local accounting and legal help, that number rises to 92%.
I am excited to report that the amount we paid in credit card processing fees this last fiscal year compared to the year before went down by almost 50%, saving us about $1,200! The reason for this is that two new systems slashed the donation-fee costs, and our donors have taken advantage of these two systems. First, MSUFCU’s new “Member2Member” service allows electronic transfers from members to us at no cost (read more here). Second, ELi’s adoption of the e-payment service Omella is also allowing donations to us at no cost, including via Apple Pay and Google Pay.
And what did we do with the funds donated and expended?
In our last fiscal year, the ELi reporting team brought you 639 original reports about what’s happening in East Lansing. Twenty-eight local people contributed reporting, including Nathan Andrus, Aaron Appelbey, Patty Bonito, Heather Brothers, Gary Caldwell (photojournalism), Claire Chapin, Alice Dreger, Emily Joan Elliott, Andrew Graham, Chris Gray, Jack Timothy Harrison, Alex Hosey, Ann Kammerer, Amalia Medina, Mark Meyer, Ann Nichols, Brooklyn Peppo, Adan Tomas Quan, Anaiis Rios-Kasoga, Chris Root, Natalie Rose, Carrie Sampson, Elke Schrenke, Nick Sly, Ken Sperber, Sarah Spohn, Sophia Strasburg, and Christopher Wardell.
Our main categories of reporting included East Lansing City Government, East Lansing Public Schools, the Downtown Development Authority, zoning and development, arts and cultures, public safety including ELPD, taxes and City finances, and Parks & Rec.
In the last year, we have had a record number of readers send in “Ask ELi to Investigate” questions, and we have loved getting those questions answered and helping to solve problems, too! We’ve also loved helping our local businesses through our special “Spend Locally” series, and cheering people up with our “Little Local Joys” series.
In the last year, we also continued to bring you investigative reporting like no other news organization here, looking into the Center City District deal, including the bond refinancing that benefitted the developer’s family; other downtown development disputes; East Lansing Policing, including racial disparities in stops, arrests, and use of force and a survey described as a “breach of ethics”; a major gas leak caused by a contractor’s failure to mark a gas main; a Council member’s complaint against police about ELPD’s handling of an alleged sexual assault complaint; MSU’s shift of health benefits for local retirees; the City’s botched handling of an oil spill on private property; and concerns about outdated East Lansing voter rolls. And that’s just a sample.
Just a couple of years ago, nearly all the investigative reporting at ELi was done by Chris Root and myself, as unpaid volunteers. But in the last year, we had an incredible team contributing to investigative reporting, including Emily Joan Elliott, Andrew Graham, Heather Brothers, and Nathan Andrus. This team has really upped our service.
What do I see coming in the next year?
For one thing, I see our team having to do more fundraising, because in the last fiscal year we had to dip into savings to the tune of $18,755. (At the end of the fiscal year, we had $54,625.47 in the bank.) But I also see the hope of more people stepping up to support this work as they recognize the value of ELi to the community.
And I see a fantastic team that will keep bringing the news. That is going to include our critical reporting on the City Council race this November, a big investigation of the use of Tax Increment Financing in the City, reporting on the return to in-person education at MSU and its impacts on East Lansing, coverage of what’s happening in our public schools, and so much more.
But remember: we can’t do this without generous financial support. You can help us do this if you make a tax deductible contribution today.