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.
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.