How Are Two of Our Most Dogged Reporters Handling the Crush of East Lansing News?

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Photographer Gary Caldwell (left) and reporter Emily Joan Elliott in self-supplied photos

Reading the stories of many local news organizations going out of business because of the sudden total loss of advertising during the coronavirus emergency, I am relieved that, in 2014, I set up East Lansing Info (ELi) as a citizen-news-brigade model that is nonprofit and relies on the support of our readers.

It’s that support that allows us to pay people to bring you the news – and lately the news here has come fast and furious. The whole team has been doing fantastic work, but I want to introduce you today to two relatively new members who have taken on a disproportionate amount of reporting duties during the pandemic.

These are Emily Joan Elliott, at-large hard-news reporter for us, and Gary Caldwell, our lead photojournalist since the excellent Raymond Holt needed to take a hiatus (predating the public health emergency).

Gary Caldwell is set to graduate from East Lansing High School in 2020 and he has long been planning to take next year as a gap year to further his career as a videographer and photographer. He plans to “build my portfolio and build my personal business.” (That business is Gary Caldwell Productions.)

ELi makes a point of treating teenage employees just like our older ones – we set the same high expectations and pay on the same per-production scale – but I will admit that Gary’s talents took me by surprise given his age. The first meeting I asked him to shoot was an extremely difficult one: it happened in a small, badly-lit room, and involved a tense discussion among a big group of people. Yet by the time I had left the meeting, Gary had sent me a set of truly evocative portraits of the people participating.

Above: Gary Caldwell

Since then, I’ve just had to say to Gary, “I need something like x” and he makes it happen. Just in the last couple of days, he has shot for us everything from Campbell’s Market Basket (see the images) to the Burcham solar park (see the images) to all-purpose high school photos done for our coronavirus reporting (see the images) to Mayor Ruth Beier hanging out the window (below).

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of a compelling photo for a news story. We know from experience that people are far more likely to read a story if we lead it with a great shot that makes them feel “in the picture.”

So, when it became clear that the stay-at-home order would be coming from the governor, I checked in with Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez to let him know we would still be sending Gary out to keep our readers informed. (The chief and the mayor both supported Gary continuing work when I let each of them know.)

I asked Gary what it’s like working on the assignments we are giving him right now. He said, “Photographing during a pandemic is different, as it is challenging and uncertain” – but, I would note, it has not slowed him down at all. If anything the challenges have accentuated his creativity.

“Shooting for East Lansing Info has pushed me to try and photograph new things that I never would have,” Gary told me. “It has been a great opportunity to expand my skill of photojournalism while visually sharing with the community of East Lansing.”

Our Associate Publisher Natalie Rose hired Emily Joan Elliott just a couple of months ago, and since then Emily has been pumping out clear, compelling reports for our readers (at a rate I had been told no one besides me could pull off – thank you, Emily!).

Her interview with physician-epidemiologist Nigel Paneth last week is our most-read-ever article, with almost 30,000 reads in a single week and over 800 “shares” on Facebook.

Above: Gary Caldwell’s portrait of Nigel Paneth

Nigel wrote in an unsolicited email to Emily, copy to me, this morning: “You really have a gift of bringing out all the essential points. Both of the articles you’ve done with me have really been excellent.”

Emily grew up in the Bronx and lived there until she was 18, then attending SUNY Binghamton as an undergrad before coming to MSU to do her Ph.D. in History, which she completed last spring. As a New Yorker myself, Emily’s accent makes me feel at home, but she tells me she has been asked what country she is from at a store in Okemos and at Espresso Royale in East Lansing.

Besides working for ELi, Emily currently teaches at MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and also works for the Historical Society of Michigan. Her dissertation looked at “temporary labor migration to Moscow, considering legal and popular understandings of belonging,” including the ways that identity categories played out.

Emily says she has always found “migration and social issues important, even [when I was] a high school kid in the Bronx. Some of the same things that I write about in ELi, I wrote about in my dissertation, particularly focusing on community and social equality.”

I asked Emily by email what it’s been like reporting during a pandemic.

“I would really emphasize how non-stop it is. I actually work 5 jobs total (I am down to 3 until the pandemic is over). Usually, I have the ability to let a story sit for a day or two if I am busy, but that is much more difficult now. The story changes every second, and the longer it sits, the more it has to be redone or the longer it becomes. I often wind up putting one story aside to write an update about something [President] Sam Stanley said regarding changes at MSU.”

She adds, “I think the reality is also much different than what a Hollywood film might suggest. We aren’t out on the street with people going crazy behind us. Most of my work is done in my living room as I call and email people.”

What has kept her going?

“I’ve really been touched by how well people have come together. People have been very willing to speak and work with me. They have also been so willing to share their time and stories. In these stories, people have demonstrated great concern for their fellow man or have taken action to help their communities. I hope this sticks around long after the virus has gone.”

While we ask our reporters to be nonpartisan, all of us are feeling the stress.

“I worry like everyone else,” Emily wrote to me. “Some mornings, I can’t bring myself to look at the numbers coming from NYC. My family still lives there, and I worry about my parents. They are still young, but they are old enough to be considered an at risk group. I am glad that they are both home and taking social distancing seriously.”

My thanks, as always, to all our contributors and support staff, and to the donors who keep ELi going. Those of us who work on the news-production side of the ELi picture feel genuinely privileged to keep working for those of you on the news-consumption side.

ELi has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi’s mailer to stay informed

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