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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beginning this Friday, members of the Online Journalism Association will have the opportunity to shape our industry’s future by voting for the next ONA board. While there are a lot of great candidates, I hope my fellow journalists will give me a shot.
So I realize that platform isn’t too specific. So over the next couple of days, I will lay out here some of the ideas I have for ONA to carry out this vision. If I get elected to the board, great. I’ll do my best to figure out what’s possible and try to get some of these accomplished, If not, I hope those who serve on the next board will consider these ideas.
Platform One: Bring In New Blood, Support New Leaders
I’ve met a lot of innovative, hungry journalists in my travels with Digital First and as a freelance journalism trainer. These are the folks who stand out in their local newsrooms – teaching themselves a new tool or programming language, staying late to work on personal projects and always making themselves available to help their less digitally savvy colleagues.
These journalists are often the primary source of digital support in their newsrooms, but they need support, too. Many are somewhat isolated from support within the industry, perhaps because they are in sparse media markets or have a less than encouraging newsroom culture. That’s why I propose a two-fold outreach effort to reach these journalists:
1. Aggressive expansion of local ONA chapters in the Midwest, South and West.
Tapping into the resources we have in ONA at the corporate level of many large journalism companies (DFM, Gannett, Tribune, Cox, Scripps and several TV networks), we should kick off local meetups at the city, state or regional level (depending on the market). these key players can help identify local leaders who can lead the charge for local meetups. We can help by luring in attendees with appearances by national industry leaders and personalities (many of whom are members).
While we could use it, the push wouldn’t be to get these local groups paying membership dues right away. Our initial goal would be just getting them into holding regular (or semi-regular) meetups to discuss tools, tactics and journalism issues. To fully tap into the resources ONA can offer, they’d then need to move toward a more formal membership agreement.
2. Train the Trainers.
What ONA does with ONACamp and collecting online tutorials is great – and I propose we add a new element in the form of “Train the Trainer”-type events. As I said above, many of the people pushing change in their local newsrooms are lonely players and they may not have much in the way of preparation or confidence to be trainers.
While we may not be able to offer this training in person, ONA should launch an online series of tutorials from the great trainers in our midst to help local leaders become better trainers. I’m thinking of tutorials in preparing engaging presentations, developing skills assessments and setting up incentive-based training programs. I’d imagine we could also offer sample checklists, handouts, training programs, evaluations and the like.