In 2009, Kalamazoo native and journalist Ben Lando was living in Baghdad, Iraq, when he launched Iraq Oil Report, which became a leading daily online source for news and information on the oil and energy industry. With 12 full-time reporters and thousands of subscribers, Iraq Oil Report is an award-winning, financially successful news enterprise that Lando still oversees as publisher and editor-at-large.
But now, 10 years after launching that news enterprise, the 40-year-old Loy Norrix High School and Western Michigan University graduate is back living in Kalamazoo where he has launched a new journalistic venture that’s closer to home called NowKalamazoo.
In November, NowKalamazoo published The Homefront, a print-ed and online magazine that took a deep look at Kalamazoo’s homelessness crisis. (Editor’s note: Encore Publications Inc. was a partner in the production of The Homefront and its content is archived at encorekalamazoo.com/about-homefront.)
In March, as Lando’s wife, Gabrielle, gave birth to the third and fourth of their children, Lando launched nowkalamazoo.com as an online news website dedicated to covering the COVID-19 crisis in his hometown. According to the description on the site, NowKalamazoo is “a community dashboard of resources, the most important updates about COVID-19 in Kalamazoo County, and other essentials to staying safe, happy, and connected during these trying times.”
The development of both The Homefront and NowKalamazoo was driven by what Lando says is “a gap in local news coverage of broad and of specific issues in Kalamazoo and in terms of daily hard-news coverage.”
“There is clearly a gap in our local news ecosystem that has been growing over the decade,” Lando says. “There’s a massive amount of unmet demand that we are trying to figure out how to meet. We want to use journalism as a tool to identify problems in the community and help potentially guide stakeholders into determining solutions.”
How did NowKalamazoo get started?
It came about during the homeless encampment in Bronson Park in 2018. As a Kalamazoo resident, I saw the encampment as exposing what was clearly a problem in our community and exposing the issue as a crisis when it had not before been called a crisis. There didn’t seem to be that much work being put into developing solutions or a sustainable way to address the growing homelessness crisis. We wanted to cover the issue to understand what was happening, who was trying to effect change, who is supposed to effect change and what they were doing.
It took a while to get our arms around the story and the various sub-stories that answered those questions. Over the course of a year, we put together a magazine called The Homefront that was free for people to read and we hoped would lead to at least more conversations, if not some change on how we approach the issue of homelessness in the county.
We wanted it out on record that in November 2019 this was the status of this crisis and who the people are who are supposed to be doing something about it and what they’re supposed to be doing.
What led to NowKalamazoo’s development as a daily COVID-19 news source?
There is so much misinformation and noise out on social media about the COVID-19 pandemic that we wanted to help the community cut through that and understand how the global COVID-19 pandemic impacts their health and way of life. We are putting all the local COVID-19 news and information on a single site so it’s easier for people to consume. Providing daily updates on the local efforts and news regarding the pandemic helps people understand the pandemic and not become overwhelmed by all the information, myths and rumors being thrown at them.
The response has been good. People say they find that it’s helpful to have everything in one place. We can provide that single focus, because other news organizations have a lot of other things that they’re covering as well. We also are supporting those news organizations by shining a light on and linking to their stories.
How is NowKalamazoo being funded?
Right now it’s coming out of Ben Lando’s pocket (he laughs). But we recently found a fiscal sponsor so we can get grant funding, donations and sponsorships to help us continue our efforts as well as do more original news reporting about the pandemic and its effects on our community.
This is probably not the easiest time to launch a news outlet. What have been your biggest challenges?
There have been two main challenges. One is that I tend to underestimate how much time it takes to start a new news company while maintaining an existing company (Iraq Oil Report) and expanding my family by two. That was the easy one to deal with. I just, you know, reduced the amount of sleep I got.
But the other challenge is to convince people that there is a workable business model for local news coverage and that the failure of traditional daily news outlets to maintain the quality and quantity of their operations is not indicative that daily news is a dead model. We want to convince people that there can be a successful business model in providing high-quality local daily news coverage about the issues that matter and are important to the community.
Has your success with Iraq Oil Report inspired you?
Iraq Oil Report provides high-quality, deeply contextualized reporting for anyone who has operations in Iraq or is a decision-maker or a stakeholder in Iraq who needs to know what’s happening in the oil market and energy sectors. We try to provide some kind of a holistic understanding of what’s happening in a country that changes on a daily basis. Our extremely talented reporters and editors make sure that the news organization has the best understanding of what’s happening despite how frequently it changes. Running Iraq Oil Report has given me the understanding of what it takes to make this kind of news organization work, and it’s what I hope to do for my hometown through NowKalamazoo.
It’s a challenge for sure, but I spent four years living in Iraq, which helped me prepare for almost anything that life could throw at me, including having a new news organization, having twins and having a pandemic all at the same time.