What Doesn’t Hurt Itches

Your personality defect rocks.

What Doesn’t Hurt Itches

By Alice Dreger

Back in 2012, a few months after I started the first version of the local news operation East Lansing Info, my tech helper checked on our stats. While our numbers weren’t huge, she saw one major reason to keep going: a sizable percentage of the pings were coming from inside City Hall.

Local News Blues launched just about three months ago, and when I look at the subscriber list and who has been contacting me about its content, I see something similar. Thanks to those of you who have been part of this projectsharing your experiences and perspectives as local news producers – together, we now have the ear of national reporters and academics working on the local news crisis, major funders, and leaders in journalism-adjacent operations.

That’s great. But what feels much better is the mail coming in from other local news producers saying “yes, more, please.” They’re here for the information about and appeals to Press Forward we can’t seem to get anywhere else, the commentary and analysis, the shared hacks, and the sharp takes of trench soldiers like Corinne Colbert and Amos Gelb.

They’re here because this is a space where we get to talk in public about what’s making us so frustrated with the powers that be. Here, nobody who has never done this lectures us about how we’re just doing it wrong. Here, we don’t have to feel gas-lit by tone-deaf mixed messages of “support.” Here, we’re not being used as pull-quote generators for someone’s empire-building.

Why did I start this after I retired from East Lansing Info? In retrospect, I think it was the big-ass cupcakes that sent me over the edge. 

I'm talking about the minor monstrosities were the party favors given out at the end of the 2023 INN Days, in Washington, D.C. I’m pretty sure they were just the size of grapefruits, though I remember them as pumellos. Covered in spectacular clouds of icing and galaxies of sprinkles, each came in its own fabulous box, pink yet somehow reminiscent of Tiffany’s.

Staring at the lot, all I could think was how each one cost about what I was able to pay per-hour for a short report on something non-controversial. The chocolate one would have paid for an article on our library’s outreach van. The vanilla one, that would have been on the opening of that vintage clothing shop. That pink thing – poetry slam night. 

It was all just a metaphor, of course. But the metaphor arose because of what else had gone on at the meeting. 

Chief among the troubles was the usual discovery that there were the public events and then there were the side events, unannounced, invitation-only meetings taking place in unmarked rooms in which the big vendors, the philanthropists, and the other powers in our lives were meeting up to make the decisions that really mattered. It seemed the agendas they gave us were for the activities happening at the kids’ tables.

Also at that meeting, INN made the big announcement that Google News Initiative would be giving each established INN member $20,000. As the news leaked around the lobby space, the murmur rising wasn’t a thrill. It consisted of a steady flow of reasonable questions formulated by all these journalists about why Google was doing this, what bad thing it portended for the industry, what kinds of hoops we’d be expected to jump through when we had no time to be leaping like trained circus lions, and how much INN would be skimming off the top. 

Man, I love hanging with fellow journalists. They go right to the hard questions, right to the doubt, right to following the money.

And yet. 

At that time, there was no productive way for us to share publicly what tidbits we were managing to ferret out about what was happening in the side rooms and the INN deal with GNI. Other than finding each other for drinks and dinners and what became the frank and lively ANNO discussion list, there was no way for us to talk openly with each other about the stress of trying to make payroll, the feeling of being denied one grant after another, the question of whether to give up now or later. 

Now, we’re talking openly. So, how's it going?

My ancient mother wrote in her letter to family and friends last year, “Whatever doesn’t hurt itches.” It’s a line I think also captures the experience of doing local news in America right now: Whatever doesn’t hurt itches. 

Solid reporters who have the knowledge we need are so hard to find. When we do find them, the money doesn’t work. Our work disrupts our local scene – we talk about how local news binds people together, but solid local news reporting sometimes drives them apart. Officials withhold information, audience members call us depressing (and worse), and we always wish we could be doing more. The big money can't solve all that, but getting predictable chunks of it sure would make life less stressful for us and our staffs. But they won't just give us the damn money.

So why the hell do we do it? 

I think it's because, among all the things we share in terms of experiences, the most important thing we share is a personality defect.

In the book Galileo’s Middle Finger, I put forward a term for people who feel the urge to seek and share the truth even when there is every reason to give up. I called it the “Galilean personality.” 

People with this personality type often drive others up the wall. They question everybody, including the people they are supposed to be loyal to. Unable to stop questing after truth, they often forsake money, safety, and comfort, frequently without the active consent of their spouses. Most of all, they have this bizarre, unrelenting, counterfactual fantasy that the truth will save them – that if they just show others what is true, rationality and justice will ensue. 

Amos Gelb has a better term for it. “Journalism is not a career path,” he says, “it is a psychosis.”

And that is, I think, the one thing the outsiders really don’t get. We’re not here asking for money and doing what we do because we are looking to live comfortably. What funders mean by “sustainability” is never going to be what we mean. You could give us all the money in the world and we would still be uncomfortable. 

I mean, you tell us you’re going to give us each $20,000 to spend as we see fit, and here's our immediate response: “What’s really going on here?”

I’ve spent some time puzzling over the question of why such a personality type would exist. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is what evolutionary biologists call “prosocial” – that it’s a type of personality that ultimately benefits the group. As a consequence of our managing to show our worth sometimes, people haven’t killed off our type (though some political regimes have tried).

Even though people like this haven't always ended up in what we call journalism, they seem to exist in every culture. I think it's because, to survive long-term, every society needs people who will question and doubt everybody else, who will throw themselves at the fan blades until they figure out what’s really going on, who will share the truth with others even when it’s dangerous to do so. Who will remind everyone that someone is getting hurt, and someone could be doing better.

When I was trying to figure out what to call this project and I happened on the phrase “Local News Blues,” I loved it specifically because “the blues” has two meanings – a lamentation and a soulful appreciation. If, three months in, this has mostly been a lament, please know it is not because I have not appreciated you. 

Yeah, you're crazy to be doing this. You’re also the sustenance this world really needs. Back to work, Cupcake. And let me know what you want us to find out for you.

Alice Dreger is a journalist, historian, and the publisher of Local News Blues. She founded East Lansing Info, a nonprofit digital investigative news service, and ran the operation for about ten years. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.