“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.