Is Bugging Comcast What a Local News Service Should Be Doing?

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Photo contributed by ELi reader Regina Stout

Photo of a transformer and pole caught in a tree on Hagadorn Road on Dec. 11, 2021.

I woke up expecting to spend yesterday writing up the story of an ongoing lawsuit brought against the City of East Lansing by a local attorney. Although I’m ELi’s Publisher and Executive Director, I’m also an ELi reporter, and our Managing Editor Emily Joan Elliott assigned me that report following an interesting court hearing on the case last week.

But once it became clear from emails and texts, early in the morning yesterday, that thousands of East Lansing residents were on Day 3 of a Comcast outage, I consulted with Emily and we decided I’d better work on reporting that, to see if we could help with information, if not also some power-of-the-news pressure.

Hearing the frustration being experienced all over town, I was reminded of the prolonged MetroNet outage this past spring (that one was caused by a car accident). But what the frustration really brought to mind was the big BWL outage that started on the Winter Solstice of 2013.

At that time, we had no ELi, and my household was in the cold and dark for nine days. It was absolutely awful. But being literally “in the dark” as 2013 turned into 2014 made me realize how much East Lansing was suffering for lack of a real daily newspaper that could tell us what was going on and that could apply pressure to the powers that be by “shining a light.”

In fact, that BWL outage was a major reason I convened a Board of Directors in 2014 to establish East Lansing Info (ELi) as a nonprofit news service for the people of East Lansing.

Yesterday, as our reporters Al Hargrave and Heather Brothers deployed to cover School Board and the new Police Oversight Commission, and ELi City Desk reporter Andrew Graham started prepping the three or four City government meeting reports he will bring us this week alone, I pushed to try to figure out what was going on with Comcast.

I asked ELPD, and got nowhere on that foray. I pressed the Mayor, and got no answer. Same with BWL, who I realized might have some information at least about whether the Comcast outage really did stem from the train accident on Hagadorn Road that brought down BWL wires and poles. I emailed the media people at Comcast.

Nothing.

While we regrouped to try to figure out what else ELi could do, I let people writing in know that I was working on it. I know from my experience, sometimes just knowing someone is trying to help you makes a frustrating situation feel a little less lonely, and some of the people I was hearing from were senior citizens stranded at home alone with few ways to talk to or hear from the outside world.

I wrote up a “what we know so far” article, which Emily edited and published, and at a reader’s suggestion, we emailed out the entire article, in the hopes those experiencing the outage might at least be able to get a little bit of information that way. (Some could get email but not get on the Web.) I also knew that writing an article that says “no one is answering us” sometimes gets someone to answer us.

In the “what we know” article, we included information about how to lodge a complaint with the regulatory agency that oversees public utilities in Michigan, and advised Comcast customers about how to apply for refunds after an outage ends.

After a couple of hours, I bugged the Mayor again – I know from experience that utilities do take calls from mayors – and this time he sent me a contact name and email address at Comcast, for Ben Miller, Comcast’s Director of Governmental & Regulatory Affairs for the Heartland Region.

Success!

Miller answered me, and by phone he told me that, in a strange twist of fate, he was leaving the MAC (Michigan Athletic Club) just off Hagadorn shortly after the train collided with the wires and broke all those poles. He told me he could see it was a massive mess that would take a while to clean up, and he confirmed that to be the primary cause of the large Comcast outage.

I let readers know the good news Miller provided – how nice to be able to bring some good news now and then! – that Comcast expected service to be fully restored by the end of yesterday. We conveyed that by updating the article and posting it to Twitter and Facebook, as well as again emailing it out to our two email newsletter lists.

Skepticism from readers resulted. I get it. So, late in the evening, I checked back in with Miller, and he told me that Comcast crews were on schedule to have everyone back on by 11:30 p.m. We let folks know that.

How happy I was this morning to wake up to texts and emails letting me know people were back on Comcast service. I sent Ben Miller a thanks for being responsive to our questions and to the frustration of our readers.

In some ways, ELi is a very different kind of news organization than old-fashioned newspapers. We almost never print on paper (although we started this year). We are nonprofit, and we don’t take ads. We run no op-eds, and we endorse no candidates. And, because we can’t make sense of the ELPD weekly reports without enormous amounts of reporting energy, we have no police blotter. We were founded by citizens who weren’t formally trained in journalism, and we’re run by two women – Emily and me – with doctorates in History.

But what’s old-fashioned about what we do at ELi is the honest and attentive factual news service we provide to this community.

We have answered over 200 “Ask ELi” questions this year alone, with Emily answering many of them. Our reporters go to School Board and City Government meetings so you know what’s going on. Our team members dig deep (no pun intended) into things like the sewer system, the City’s finances, and public-private redevelopment deals, and we try to get the powers that be to act on things like utility outages and stinky sewers.

For over seven years, the people of this city have kept ELi’s public service going by sending in enough funds to make that possible. Today, we run this entire operation on just under $200,000 per year in total – about what the City Manager’s compensation package totals each year, and probably a lot less than what the top Comcast executives make!

We do it because we are mission-driven to help this community live in the light.

Help us out today. Thank you.

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