I launched a local paper to hold power to account, even when those in power lean as far left as I do …
The problem I have with liberals in government is the same as the problem I have with conservatives: they’re human. Allow me to explain
I live in East Lansing, Michigan, a city so blue that our public library has a social justice reading group – for preschoolers. Our police chief is on good terms with the ACLU. Our high school recently designated all-gender bathrooms with unanimous support of the school board, and our Islamic Center hosted a citywide “Go Solar!” event. When the online news site I publish for East Lansing was considering a satire edition for April Fools’ Day, one of my reporters suggested the headline: “Last Republican in East Lansing captured, tagged, and moved to safe breeding population in Grand Rapids.”
I am not that “last Republican in East Lansing”. I consistently vote Democratic, donate only to left-of-center candidates, and work nationally on sexual and reproductive rights. So why did I bother to start a non-partisan local news organization for East Lansing? Why do I push my neighbors to use the Freedom of Information Act to look into our local government’s doings? Why do I constantly irritate my city council with investigative reporting?
About a decade ago, my historic neighborhood was facing the possibility of a giant commercial development being built just down the hill from us by a company known to have a troubled history. Worried about our way of life, the president of my neighborhood association and I started going to city council meetings.
Watching our city government came as something of a shock. While the policies were consistently liberal – in favor of the arts, the environment, and the unions – the behaviors were troubling. We saw cronyism, unmanaged conflicts of interest, and a general attitude that citizens are at best naive bores.
At that time, we had no dedicated news organization to keep the people of East Lansing informed – to provide the transparency and accountability that the press ideally does. In a one-party town like East Lansing, a “news desert” is especially dangerous. But in our town, as all over America, the internet had gutted the local news economy, leaving us thirsting.
So I did something I never thought I’d do. I used my skills as a professional historian and mainstream writer to become a local investigative reporter. Then, in 2014, I assembled a board and created a foundation to bring in donations from our community to provide news, hiring regular citizens and teaching them how to be local reporters. That neighborhood president I teamed up with a decade ago? Today, Ann Nichols is the managing editor of our organization, East Lansing Info. We’ve had 110 citizens report for us so far.
Pattern No 4: And then there’s the cronyism problem. True graft is relatively rare; I’ve not seen it in my city. But what we see every day is how people in power take care of the people to whom they feel some loyalty. This is where it feels impossible to bust in as an average citizen and have any meaningful say in the decisions being made. Those decisions – which in our town can involve a tax deal worth $50m arranged by the mayor for friends – are being made at tables to which we are not invited …