The Statesman Journal is doing a poor job of reporting on local news here in Salem. But what's the alternative? Well, an opinion piece in The Guardian is about how people in East Lansing, Michigan formed a local paper, East Lansing Info.
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.
...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.
I really like this idea.
The East Lansing Info is a non-profit organization run by a board of directors. The paper is free to read online. Some reporters choose to be paid; others write stories for free. Donations and voluntary subscriptions support what I assume are paid staff: editors and technical people who keep the web site running. The paper's People page gives more details.
I've thought about this notion before. It struck me that one hangup with making it happen was the complexity of fashioning the software needed to keep a local news web site up and running.
The East Lansing Info uses Drupal software, whatever the heck that is. More comprehensible to me is the software used by the Institute for Nonprofit News, an organization I learned about by scrolling to the bottom of the East Lansing Info home page and noting that the paper is a member of it.
I can envision Salem Weekly, our town's alternative paper, morphing into a local news nonprofit along the lines of the East Lansing Info. I like what the Michigan paper is doing, aside from their decision to avoid editorializing.
In an effort to promote community news sharing and to focus especially on East Lansing, ELi confines itself to local news and information (you won't find any editorializing at ELi!) and encourages audience members to consider participating in ELi as editors and reporters. We think of ourselves as a "news cooperative" because we encourage all of our readers to consider contributing news and information.
Since I'm an avid reader of newspaper opinion pages, I'd want to see editorializing be a part of an independent Salem online paper. I also enjoy TIME magazine, which does a good job of "news analysis," mixing in blunt facts with educated interpretations of what those facts mean.
The Guardian opinion piece about East Lansing Info was written by the founder of the paper, Alice Dreger. It's titled, "I am a liberal. But I know Democrats in office are no better than Republicans." She writes:
Ann is a diehard progressive, like me. Yet we both have become fierce advocates of non-partisan news. That’s because, watching our city council, Ann and I could see the same thing: when people get elected to serve in government, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, independent or Green, they tend to be human, not heroic. Liberals, like conservatives, assume they will govern differently once in power. They will drain the swamps, represent the little people, spend public money only in just and reasonable ways! What really happens?
Here's what she says happens, all of which I've noted to some degree happening here in Salem with the City Council and City of Salem staff.
Pattern No 1: elected officials believe in ethics until someone they like breaks the rules. We had one member of council who repeatedly advocated for her business from her council chair. That’s not only unethical, it’s illegal. She also took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from developers and landlords and voted on their financial business without disclosing those payments before the votes, as required by a law that very council had passed. But did anyone on council hold her to the rules? Nope. We had to report on it. (She was voted out of office.)
Pattern No 2: elected officials also honestly believe, when they run for office, that they will finally bring transparency to government. But once in, they quickly discover that they’d rather not tell the people everything. Doing so – particularly when controversial decisions haven’t yet been hammered out – just complicates their lives.
Just about every week, we must use the Freedom of Information Act (Foia) to get documents that should be readily available. I recently had to make a formal Foia request to obtain a copy of a handout our city manager gave to city council. This was his draft of the city’s “strategic priorities” for the coming year. On the list of his strategic priorities: open and transparent government.
Pattern No 3: government accountability? Here again, Democrats are as Republicans. As soon as the oath of office is administered, they seem to become incapable of admitting mistakes, especially those of their own party. As we face a $200m debt (mostly pensions) in a city with only 20,000 year-round residents, our council has taken up the mantra: “Now is not the time to worry about blame; now is the time for solutions.” Me, I happen to think a little blame helps prevent more mistakes.
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.
When Ann and I look at our city council, our state legislature, and Congress, what we see are not dramas of good and evil. What we see is the tragedy of human nature. American government is full of a lot of well-intended people making a lot of self-serving decisions. It’s no different with liberals or conservatives.