Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Author: Mandy Page 1 of 22

What happens when a journalist goes to product

Even unexpected career changes can be fun!

When I lost my job at The Compass Experiment in March of last year, I will admit I was a bit lost.  I hadn’t really planned what was going to come next. I already had my dream job! I was at a bit of a “now, what?” point. 

For several months, I worked independently on a full-time basis, picking up a variety of rewarding projects ranging from freelance story editing to news production, product research and competitive analyses for a variety of companies and products. I worked on some very cool projects and teams, but I will admit I missed really being part of a team, not just a frequent guest star. 

At the time, one of my many side projects was serving on the advisory board for Factal, a breaking news platform serving some of the world’s largest companies and NGOs. I had been a fan of Cory Bergman and the team’s work since their Breaking News days and was eager to do what I could to help them grow their business. It helped I had a little bit of experience in running a social media news-gathering business from my time at Storyful, so their mission was near and dear to my heart. 

Repping the team

I was a bit taken aback when Cory suggested I consider applying to be Factal’s first Head of Product, I didn’t think I had the right experience. I quickly discovered the work that the job required was all stuff I’d done before in one way or another in my journalism life.

Talking with users (directly or via the conversations of Factal’s talented member success team) was an old hat to me as a local news GM.

My job required me to pore over event reviews and feedback from readers, members and funders of all sorts to figure out the next steps. Prioritizing which new features we’d want to build into future editions of our various apps and platforms was also familiar.

Any manager with limited resources has to learn how to sort the needs of audiences, staff and sponsors/advertisers into “must-haves” and “would be nice somedays” – and walk the fine line of explaining those choices to the stakeholders.

Since I started in August, I’ve been learning so much from the team, who are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

I would have thought my years of customer service in retail, fast food and newsrooms taught me how to get good feedback and insights from customers. But no! Sitting in on meetings between Factal’s member success team and clients (or prospective clients) was a master class in drawing out and shaping feedback into actionable proposals and tasks for the product team to take on.

I remind myself daily to try to avoid feeling the biggest dummy in the room when working with Factal’s developer team, who do all of the actual hard work in making our products work.

I have to sometimes remind myself to keep out of the news team’s Slack exchanges, as their work is what is most familiar to me. I tell myself, “You have a different job now, they’re doing fine!”

(More than fine, actually)

The part of me that loves organizing information is reveling in learning to use ProductBoard. This is where we distill all of the incoming information into actionable steps for improving our product and business.

My husband and many former colleagues can tell you how much I love to make lists of upcoming priorities to check off. Now I can finally put that habit to good use in setting out the order of the next tasks the developers need to complete to continue keeping staff and clients happy. 

I’m also learning so much from Factal’s founding team of Cory, Charlie Tillinghast and Ben Tesch. They each bring so much to the table in terms of experience and vision.

I’ll admit that some days I really miss working on the news. I’m thankful to feel like I’m growing my skills and still making vital news and information available to those who need it. 

These last few months, I have been talking with my friends who work in product development – especially those with similar backgrounds – to learn how they made the transition. I want to learn how they structure their teams, plan future projects and schedule their time. If you have insights or tips of your own to share, please let me know in the comments, via social media or the contact form. I’m all ears!

The future is more remote work

My lovely workspace and view (Photo/Mandy Jenkins)

I’m calling it now: Working from home is here to stay.

I suppose it is my experience in working remotely that leads many of my friends and former colleagues to ask me for advice on how they should adapt to that WFH life. They were forced into it by a pandemic — but I chose it.

In the pandemic, we all had to find a way to work effectively outside the office. Now I suspect many will be lobbying to keep working from home, even for just a few days a week.

The Nieman Lab published my prediction for the future of journalism in 2022 and it is a shocker: I surmised the future of journalism is going to remain remote.

To help others who are still transitioning into this life, I shared my lessons learned and tips for working from home more effectively, so go check them out there.

Losing writers to Substack isn’t so bad

I’m sorry, but this is yet another blog post about Substack. Sort of.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Depending on who you ask, Substack and its many imitators are a godsend or the downfall of modern journalism. Really, it’s just a newsletter platform that pays some people money and gives independent writers a way to collect revenue from subscriptions. That’s it. 

There has been a lot of opining (so much!) about how “the media” will survive losing the writers who have left their cushy jobs at NYT, WaPo, CNN, or Vox to go it alone on Substack. 

It’s almost as if this has never happened before. Like back when people left newsrooms to start their own publications. Or to create blogs. Or do TV shows. But I digress. 

Frankly, the loss of these voices isn’t a concern to me. As Will Oremus noted in Slate, many of these departing writers are not primarily known for their hard-hitting reporting anyway. They’re pundits, the sort of column writers that get invited onto cable news panels and podcasts. They’re also primarily white guys of a similar age that I probably couldn’t pick out of a lineup*.

This might be a crazy thought, but what if this is a good thing? I’m sure these folks’ columns masquerading as reporting get good pageviews, or else they wouldn’t have gone independent. But so what? I would bet that every newsroom that has lost some superstar white dude has many more talented writers and interesting personalities in its ranks that could become big stars. 

Maybe if so many media writers and newsrooms leaders weren’t themselves white dudes of a certain age, they could see this opportunity for what it is.

The departure of these bright lights might free up some salary and oxygen for more women, journalists of color, and other underrepresented groups in the newsroom to get their shot at the spotlight. 

That would require our biggest and most prominent news organizations to think creatively about assessing the skills and ambitions of their current staff and considering who they need to recruit. It can be done!

As for those underrepresented newsroom voices – get your newsletter and column pitches together now! It’s only a matter of time before the next [young, white male] journalist is tapped to be the next big newsroom star. 


* Many of my friends (and my spouse) are white, male journalists. I can like them and also think they are wildly overrepresented in news, especially in the ranks of management. ✌️

What Happened and What’s Next With The Compass Experiment

“So what happened?”

That is the first question I get after “How are you?” from every person I have spoken to in the past month. But for the most part, they already know what happened to The Compass Experiment. They’ve heard it many times before.

It wasn’t anything dramatic. It rarely is when a startup or product within a larger company pivots or concludes. In fact, it is such a familiar story that it the fourth time since 2010 that some version of it has happened to me.

We all know last year was a challenging one for many media entities. McClatchy went through a bankruptcy and a sale, emerging in late summer with a new owner and new people in charge

As it happens sometimes, one management group’s pet innovation project becomes the odd man out when priorities, plans, and players change. In February, McClatchy decided to reorganize Compass in hopes of making the two local news startups financially sustainable on a shorter timeline. 

Instead of running Compass and its two sites, Mahoning Matters and The Longmont Leader, as a primarily independent business entity within McClatchy, it would become part of larger networks. The hope was the benefits of shared resources and network effects could spur faster growth. Mahoning Matters would be fully integrated into McClatchy as one of its publications. The Leader would be spun off and sold to our partners at Village Media. The three-person central team that helped run the revenue, fundraising, and audience efforts at both sites would be made redundant (that included me). 

As far as solutions go, it could have been a lot worse. I was not involved in the decisions, but I would have also suggested I be the first to go if I had been. After all, the goal of the overall project was to make the local sites self-sustainable. From day one, I have been working toward the goal of eliminating my own position. I just thought I had more time. 

What I didn’t want was for our local teams to see any cuts. They were both too new and at too precarious a place in their life cycles to withstand losses. Mahoning Matters had just celebrated its first anniversary in October, and Longmont had just turned the corner on seven months. 

Both sites have small teams (five full-time staffers at Longmont, six at Mahoning Matters) and tight budgets. We were operating as lean as possible to get through the pandemic with a plan to grow as our communities opened back up. To cut from such a small base would have been soul-crushing, and I’m just relieved I didn’t have to do it. 

So what now?

As disappointed as I am to have had to leave at this point of the story, I have no regrets about joining this project. I never do when something like this happens. I learned so much from this experience and I’m proud of all we did in my time with McClatchy. 

I entered into Compass with the goals of hiring the right team and building local news products for audiences that deserved better news. I did that, we did that, and it still matters to those communities. The people I hired continue to do great work. The stories they write and the relationships they have built locally are worthy of celebrating (please give them your support if you have the means).

We learned a great deal about audience research, building new products, launching revenue partnerships, and testing new processes, tools, and ideas in our local markets. We shared some of this on The Compass Experiment’s Medium site, and I think those running the sites now will continue to share more going forward. 

I hope to continue to share more of my learnings and experience here, too. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to my blogging heydey like it was early in the lifecycle of this site, but I would like to continue to be part of the conversation about making local news, sustainability, running startups, etc. as I consider my next moves. 

On that note, I'm looking for my next role and picking up some training, consulting, and short-term projects along the way. It's a weird and scary time to be unemployed in journalism, so please keep me in mind if you or someone you know needs a me

One year of telling stories that matter in Youngstown

Youngstown, Ohio

Today marks one year since we launched Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio. In some ways, October 9, 2019 feels like it was a decade ago, in others it feels like yesterday.

Nobody could have predicted the ups and downs we’d face in our inaugural year. We knew we’d have a long road ahead to grow our audience and build relationships with local advertisers in Youngstown. What we didn’t foresee was the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it would have on our business, community, and staff.

As I said in a post marking our six-month anniversary in April, this year has been a terrible and inspiring time to be working in local news.

Terrible in that the coronavirus pandemic not only took the life of a member of our team, it has also struck a major blow to a region that was already struggling.

Inspiring in that our team has been able to tell stories of impact that have made readers take notice. I encourage you to check out this list of 20 milestone stories from our first year compiled by the Mahoning Matters staff to see what I mean. From data dives on local nursing homes to creating resources for navigating the COVID shutdown, our team has focused on the stories that matter most.

We’ve worked hard to find out what people in the Valley need to know — through events, focus groups, and audience surveys — and we’ve adapted our work to meet those needs. And it is working. This year, we have grown to reach more than 200,000 monthly website readers and 8,000 email subscribers.

In addition to creating good journalism, we started The Compass Experiment to find ways to make local news financially sustainable. To do that, we knew we’d have to pursue a variety of revenue lines and be ready to adapt as needed.

This year, we have built relationships with local businesses, some of whom have become advertisers and partners even during these difficult times. We have been able to expand our coverage with new series built with the support of key local business partners through our Community Leaders Program.

The Movers and Makers series, sponsored by Farmers Bank, highlights the work of local entrepreneurs. Eastwood Mall stepped up to sponsor Difference Makers, which brings attention to the work of everyday local heroes serving the community.

Our readers have also made investments in our work. Earlier this year, on our six-month anniversary, we launched a voluntary giving program that asked readers to financially support our newsgathering. So many stepped up to give us what they could, be it in monthly payments or one-time donations, to keep our site free and accessible to all.

Mahoning Matters has also been fortunate to have found strong allies in the local philanthropic community. In close collaboration with Report for America, we have been able to get support for the concept of donor-funded journalism in the Mahoning Valley.

It all started with the Thomases Family Endowment of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, who in July became the first local funder to support our work with Report for America.

Today, we announced the creation of the Mahoning Matters Journalism Impact Fund with the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, which ensures our future contributions are managed professionally in the community. This fund will help support our accountability and solutions-oriented reporting in the months and years to come and will give us an avenue to begin accepting tax-deductible donations with our fiscal sponsor, the McClatchy Journalism Institute.

That is all to say the pieces are coming together. We’re still a ways off from breaking even, but we’re building the framework for a local news business that can succeed long-term.

In the meantime, we are running forward. We have an election coming. The coronavirus pandemic is far from over. Our community has questions about what its leaders are going to do to improve their lives. We’re going to keep on telling these stories that matter in the Mahoning Valley for the next year and many more to come.

This was originally published on the Compass Experiment’s Medium site.

Forging a new source for local news in Longmont, Colorado

A global pandemic probably seems like a bad time to be building a new local news website.

Economies both global and local are in precarious positions, unemployment is soaring, advertising has disappeared and nobody is up for in-person events. And yet, the need and demand for local news and information has never been greater.

The circumstances call for some bold action in local news. If now isn’t the time to show up for our communities, then when?

This is why The Compass Experiment will soon be launching our second local news website in Longmont, Colorado. We hope to have this new publication, The Longmont Leader, ready to go by the end of May.

Our team learned a lot in launching our first Compass site, Mahoning Matters, last year. We had to rush to build and launch a new local news site in the wake of the closure of Youngstown’s local newspaper. We managed to get it up just 40 days later. To do that, we had to cut some corners and improvise a few things. For the second site, we had big plans to take our time and do everything just right.

Six months in and everything is still changing

In a time when nothing is close to normal, Mahoning Matters is planning for the future, whatever it brings.

The Mahoning Maters team got me this team photo for Christmas.

It’s been six months since we launched Mahoning Matters and in that time, everything has changed.

Last October, we were hustling to get our site launched just 40 days after the Vindicator closed its doors to ensure that Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley still had accountability journalism. Today, we are finding ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented news event that will have untold implications for our community, our business and our very existence.

In the past 30 days, we’ve seen our traffic rise and our priorities shift to meet the needs of our readers. We’ve lost a member of our team to the virus that has been driving all of this change, and have been unable to mark his passing in any of the usual ways. We haven’t been able to stop.

This is simultaneously a terrible and inspiring time to be working in local news.

Treading water in a plague

hoto/Birger Hoppe

A year ago today, I was diagnosed with cancer. In the days and weeks that followed, the news got progressively more frightening.

First, my doctor told me the variety of breast cancer I have, triple negative, is more aggressive, harder to treat and more likely to return than other types.

Then I found out the pain in my neck that had developed the weekend before was not, in fact, because I slept wrong, but was a swollen lymph node pushing up under my collarbone, indicating the disease had already spread beyond my chest.

Later, a genetic test would reveal the BRCA1 gene mutation that had been hiding in my DNA all my life, like a ticking time bomb.

Those weeks of terror are not unlike the news cycle we are all living in now.

Every day reveals new horrors and challenges brought on by the spread of COVID-19. As time passes, we find out someone else from our overlapping social circles has it, or has died from it. Much like the cancer support groups I joined after my diagnosis, the attendance in our daily lives is slowly decreasing.

For local newsrooms covering COVID-19, the best we can do is be useful

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

At Mahoning Matters, we make it our mission, above all, to be useful to our readers in Northeast Ohio. In the midst of the public health and economic crisis created by the arrival of COVID-19, we’ve found ourselves constantly evaluating if we are keeping to that mission. 

Like many newsrooms across the nation and the world, we’re in a constant state of upheaval in covering the biggest story of the century so far. Our day-to-day has become anything but, and it’s forced a shift in our editorial strategy while attempting to keep to our mission. 

Prior to the arrival of coronavirus to our nation’s consciousness and living rooms, we were just really getting our footing as a news organization and small business in the Mahoning Valley. We set out to differentiate ourselves from other local media, which includes three TV news stations, a business journal and a daily newspaper out of nearby Trumbull County. We tried to avoid chasing the same stories as everyone else, instead linking to them in a new curated email newsletter called “Morning Matters”. 

Instead, we spent our limited staff’s time focusing on telling exclusive stories through an accountability lens and featuring information that was, above all, useful. In February, we had what was, by far, our highest traffic month yet, driven largely by extensive coverage of local nursing home inspections and a guide to Lenten fish fry in the area. 

Then came March, and with it, news of the coronavirus closing local businesses and schools and generally throwing life as we knew it into a tailspin. Now, we have found ourselves chasing the same story as everyone else, because there is only one story. Our readers are coming to us more often than ever to find out the latest developments in regards to the coronavirus and its effects on the community – and we struggle to support that bottomless need for information while attempting to stick to our principles of what news we cover.

So every day we look at our coverage and ask, “Is this useful?” 

Why do people believe fake news?

What I found while studying news, disinformation and the audience they (mostly) share

Image: Shutterstock

How could someone possibly believe that?

Like many journalists and media researchers, I’ve found myself asking this question about disinformation that has gone viral via social media. Though I’ve spent years learning how and why disinformation is created, I’d never had the opportunity to explore the motivations of the people who believe and share these stories. That is what led me to do more in-depth research during my year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.

Over the course of six months, from December 2018 through the spring of 2019, I conducted in-depth interviews with nine Americans who were selected for their relationships with both disinformation and mainstream news. I had planned to interview more participants, but life circumstances got in the way.

Through these conversations, I came to the conclusion that the media industry isn’t facing a disinformation problem as much as an engagement problem. It isn’t merely the insidious and convincing nature of disinformation that drives people to consume, believe or share false news, but is also a profound disconnection from the mainstream media and how it works.

We’re launching a local news site in Youngstown

Photo/Mandy Jenkins

When I started at The Compass Experiment a few weeks ago, I got right to work in trying to figure out where to launch our news operations. We spent a lot of time poring over data on markets across the U.S., seeking out communities big enough to financially support a digital news provider, but small enough that a startup-sized staff could still make an impact.

And then we heard the news that The Vindicator, Youngstown’s 150-year-old newspaper owned by the Maag-Brown family, would be closing its doors for good on August 31. Pretty much from the moment the story broke, I started getting messages from my former classmates at Kent State University, located about 40 miles away from Youngstown, worried about what was going to happen next.

The Vindicator kept its eye on the local city and county governments, tracked the campaign of local Congressman and presidential candidate Tim Ryan, and reported on the actions of police, courts, schools and businesses across a region of more than 500,000 people. Who would take up that mantle now?

We at The Compass Experiment want to help Youngstown find a path forward, which is why we have selected it as our first launch city. We are already on the ground working with people in the community to set up a digital news outlet that will launch in the fall.

In case you’re reading this and haven’t heard of us, The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore sustainable business models for local news. Over the next three years, we will be starting three digital-only news operations in small to mid-sized U.S. communities that have limited sources of local, independent journalism.

Federal Street in downtown Youngstown. (Photo/Mandy Jenkins)

At first blush, Youngstown doesn’t seem like the sort of place where an experimental digital news project would put down stakes. It is a shrinking city in a region that has been suffering financially for decades, but it is also an area that has a distinct local identity and a need for a public watchdog now more than ever.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spoken to many people in Northeast Ohio who care deeply about what happens once the Vindicator shuts it doors. They want to take action, and we want to help them do that.

Starting now, we are recruiting a small local team to drive the creation of this site with the needs of the Youngstown community in mind. For the sake of transparency, all of those local roles are posted here. Note that we will only be considering applications from those working in or with strong background in Youngstown or the surrounding region.

For those who want to help from afar, we are also hiring a couple of central roles who will work remotely to support the Youngstown staff and the teams that will be behind our next two sites. Those roles include a Central Editor and a Business Operations Manager.

As I said in my first post about Compass, we don’t plan on doing this alone. Since the announcement of the Vindicator’s impending closure, I have been heartened to see regional and national news outlets express interest in expanding their coverage in the Mahoning Valley. Instead of competing, we welcome the chance to collaborate with these and other news providers in the area to best serve the local audience. This is a region too big and too complex for us to tackle alone.

Youngstown State University is one of the largest employers in the area and is home to more than 12,000 students. (Photo/Mandy Jenkins)

When I first took on this job, I dreamed of opening a new news provider in my home state. While our accents are a little different, Youngstown is not all that different from my hometown of Zanesville, which is about 100 miles southwest, as the crow flies. Both are cities that were decimated by the exit of manufacturers and mills that used to provide a steady income and a good life. Both are places that are losing their children to joblessness, to drug abuse, or the best case scenario, to a job far away from home in a bigger city.

Naysayers might say Youngstown’s best years are past, but there are many others who celebrate the community, who honor its history while fighting to create a brighter future. They are revitalizing the downtown, opening new businesses and nurturing a growing student body at Youngstown State. Those are the sort of people we need on our team in Youngstown. I hope you’ll join us in writing the next chapter.

This was originally published on the Compass Experiment’s Medium site.

The Compass Experiment is creating sustainable local news –and needs your help

Photo: Getty Images

Anyone watching the headlines lately knows that local newsrooms across the country are hurting, and some have disappeared altogether. Many more still are barely operating, publishing news as a shadow of their former selves. Amid these closures and cutbacks, news deserts — areas that have no locally-based media — are blooming.

In losing their local media, these areas are losing some of the vital ways they used to connect as a community. Births, deaths, local sports, city council, and businesses opening or closings are all left to be passed around as rumors on social media.

This is where the Compass Experiment comes in.

We are a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore new sustainable business models for local news. Over the next three years, we will launching three digital-only news operations in small to mid-sized U.S. communities that have limited sources of local, independent journalism. Our goal is not only to support the dissemination of news in these communities, but also to make the local operations financially self-sustaining.

Local news is where I started my career and I feel it is the bedrock of our industry’s connection with the audience. Local news tells their stories, lives in their communities and earns their trust through the kind of accountability that comes when you might run into your area reporter at the grocery store. We cannot ensure local journalism will survive for the long-haul without a focus on sustainability, which is why I sought to be a part of this initiative in the first place.

While we are very early in this project — so early, in fact, that I technically haven’t started yet — but here are a few things I want to share about our plans so far.

1. We aren’t going to be in the business of parachute journalism.

I have no interest in dropping journalists into unfamiliar places and giving the locals the news we want give them. The best community journalism is created by people who know it best. This is why we will be actively involving communities in the development of the sites and hiring local journalists who already know and love the area.

2. All sites won’t be the same.

All communities are not the same, so why would we assume they all need and want the same out of their journalism? We won’t be replicating the same cookie-cutter approach to every site’s coverage, but rather taking a custom approach dictated by the needs of each place.

3. These sites will have to be self-sustaining at some point.

To help solve the problems facing local news in the long-term, we have to focus on the business model. The reason this is an “experiment” and not a “project” is that we are using this opportunity to innovate and adapt new potential sources of revenue for these local sites.

4. We won’t be doing this alone.

We know there are many bright minds already working hard to create sustainable local media across the U.S. and the world. I believe we can get further, faster by working together. So I’m going to ensure we also are learning from what’s already going on out there and collaborate with those who share our goals to find new paths to what can help community news operations everywhere.

5. We won’t be doing this in the dark.

As part of the aforementioned collaboration, we’ve set up this site to share our progress and our failures along the way so that others can learn from them, adapt them and spread them as needed.


Where we are now

Right now, we are in the process of selecting the location of our first site. The sort of communities we have in mind would ideally meet the following criteria:

  • Has a population of roughly 60,000 to 300,000
  • Is not part of or close to a major city — we’re looking to cover communities where people work and live
  • Has an engaged citizenry that votes, volunteers and is already focused on making their city a better place
  • Has no or few sources of local news, or recently lost a local news provider

We want to hear your ideas. If you live in a community that is hungry for local news, let me know.

If you want to be a part of what we’re building, drop me a line.

If you’re already working on this problem and want a collaborator, I’m here for you.

I didn’t join The Compass Experiment only to make incremental improvements to the three communities where we’ll be starting new sites. I want to be part of a movement to make local news sustainable everywhere. I hope you’ll join me.

This post was originally published on the Compass Experiment’s Medium site.

Page 1 of 22

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén & Hosted by Pressable