Reinventing Local News
How members of the Kent State community and working journalists are finding ways to reinvent and, in some communities, revive local news coverage.
After years of reading The Plain Dealer, in January 2020 I was finally about to be published in its pages. A freelance journalist with five years of experience, I drove proudly to its headquarters in the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn, shook hands and signed a freelance contract. “Hey, if this goes well,” then-editor George Rodrigue told me on Jan. 8, “we could bring you on monthly.” To say I was elated would be an understatement.
In February, I learned that Rodrigue was leaving the paper after accepting a role as editor-at-large for Advance Publications, parent company of The Plain Dealer. Advance owns other newspapers across the country and operates nine digital media groups, including the PD’s sister company, cleveland.com.
Then, in March, the pandemic took hold. Advertising budgets, which had been shrinking for decades, took another hit. On March 9, two weeks before Gov. Mike DeWine instituted stringent lockdown orders, The Plain Dealer announced plans to lay off employees—and my contract was scrapped.
“The reason is strictly financial,” new editor-in-chief Tim Warsinskey explained in a letter to the public. “The industry revenue model has changed, and print newspapers have struggled to overcome deep losses in subscriptions and advertising. More people access the news on digital platforms than ever before. Younger audiences are not subscribing to print editions of newspapers anywhere near the levels previous generations did.”
On April 3, 22 full-timers were laid off. The PD had a newsroom of 372 in 2006, now it had fewer than 20. A week later, more staff losses left just four in the PD newsroom, and they soon signed on with cleveland.com.
The economic slowdown brought about by the pandemic simply sped up print journalism’s steady decline. According to a June 2021 report by the Pew Research Center, “Since 2008, newsroom employment has plummeted at U.S. newspapers while increasing in the digital publishing sector. Newspaper newsroom employment fell 57% between 2008 and 2020, from roughly 71,000 jobs to about 31,000. At the same time, the number of digital-native newsroom employees rose 144%, from 7,400 workers in 2008 to about 18,000 in 2020.”
The economic slowdown brought about by the pandemic simply sped up print journalism’s steady decline.
In Greater Cleveland, cleveland.com assumed responsibility for local news coverage that appears in The Plain Dealer, but its news staff is much smaller than the staff in the newspaper’s heyday. Local coverage of many Northeast Ohio communities is bolstered online and in the paper by Sun Newspapers, a chain of weekly papers also owned by Advance.
Even so, with a pandemic and the spread of disinformation on the internet, providing local readers with pertinent, timely news is more important than ever. Research shows that communities with diminished local news sources have higher taxes, more political polarization, less civic engagement and worse economies.
As alarming as these findings are, there is hope. Digital media circulation and digital advertising dollars are stronger than ever—the former up 27% in 2021—as news startups and Silicon Valley-funded experiments seem to be announced in every weekly media newsletter.
However, creating community-focused coverage with sustainable business models for local news remains a challenge. Ideas abound—and some are being generated by members of the Kent State community. Highlighted below are several efforts that boost local news coverage in parts of Northeast Ohio—and may signal a path forward for other communities as well.
While newspapers across the United States were reeling from the recent effects of the pandemic, Ben Wolford, BS ’11, was devising a remedy of his own—1,646 miles south in his home office in the Dominican Republic.
It was February 2020, and Wolford, a go-getter media prodigy from Randolph, Ohio, was searching for a freelance project to keep him occupied during his family’s stint in Santo Domingo. His wife, an attorney with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was applying for new postings while helping raise their two children.
Then, on March 30, Gannett, the company that has owned Portage County’s Record-Courier since 2017, announced companywide furloughs for reporters making over $38,000 and other cost reductions. Soon, 30% of the paper’s staff would be laid off.
Initially gathering material for an article on “newsroom turmoil” to pitch to The Atlantic, Wolford called up his first boss and mentor, former Record-Courier editor Roger Di Paolo, BA ’77, who’d been laid off, to discuss Portage County’s fraught media scene. Their conversation was revelatory: Pages had been reduced, subscription costs had increased, and local organizations couldn’t get information about their events published in the paper.
“I hung up the phone and thought, ‘This isn’t just a story, this is a market opportunity,’” Wolford recalls. So instead of reporting the news of local journalism’s decline, he decided to do something about it.
“I hung up the phone and thought, ‘This isn’t just a story, this is a market opportunity.”
Wolford assembled an advisory board, talked with local Portage County residents, crafted a business plan and opened a Mailchimp account for $50. On March 25, 2020, he sent out the inaugural issue of his email newsletter, The Portager, to an initial list of 285 people who had expressed interest. “At the time, I didn’t feel like I was ready, but the pandemic had just set in and people were scared,” Wolford says. “They needed good, local information.”
In Wolford’s inimitable editorial tone, a cross between what he calls a “metro columnist and Twitter speak,” he reported on the pandemic and—with help from Kent State student media interns and freelancers—an array of other news topics, including school board controversies, public spending by the Sheriff’s office, a quirky dairy farm, a homeless camp relocation, bake sales, county government and more. Feedback was positive. By October 2020, 3,200 people were getting The Portager emailed to them—113 of them paying subscribers.
Mike Beder, BS ’00, a Kent-based entrepreneur (who owns Water Street Tavern, Venice Café and Kent Sportswear), says Wolford’s idealism sold him on The Portager in summer 2020. A frequent newsletter advertiser, Beder joined Wolford’s advisory board. He cites his fear of news deserts and his trust in Wolford’s mission. “Ben has so much integrity,” Beder says. “I haven’t second guessed it since. Also, he’s been very transparent. His email and phone number are at the end of every newsletter. I mean, who else does that?”
Since March 2020, Wolford has published an email newsletter every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He’s hired a full-time reporter and some part-time staff—his sister, Natalie Wolford, as managing editor, and a part-time reporter—plus freelancers, including former Record-Courier sports columnist Tom Hardesty.
In March 2021, he built and launched a website, ThePortager.com, which has grown to approximately 80,000 page views per month. He currently has more than 5,600 subscribers, with about 10% of them paid. Readers can sign up for free or start a paid subscription; Wolford even offers a “pay what you can” option. Advertisers increased during the election cycle, and he hopes to eventually hire a business development officer to target prospects and increase ad revenues.
Although he recently was able to start paying himself, Wolford has other jobs to help make ends meet. He works for his father’s marketing firm, Wolford Communications, and edits the English edition of il manifesto, an Italian daily newspaper.
Wolford and his family have been based in Brasilia, Brazil, since last July. He travels back to Portage County as much as he can, but he’s basically running a hyper-local news publication from 7,000 miles away.
“In some ways, the pandemic was a catalyst for making The Portager even possible,” Wolford says. “I don’t think I would have been able to start this and run it as effectively if the whole world hadn’t transitioned to a kind of virtual, global arrangement where you can be anywhere and still be local. I’m even a member of the Rotary Club of Kent—its first foreign member.”
Is The Portager sustainable for the long run? Wolford remains optimistic. “We’ve grown every month, so the numbers are pointing in the right direction. With our for-profit model, we can move quickly and iterate often. We’re in constant feedback with our readers, finding out what they like, what they don’t like, and trying to meet their needs. If they feel it’s valuable, they’ll pay for it. Of course, 90% of startups fail. But I’m happy to report that our funding is sustainable, and we’re doing well.”
Collaborative NewsLab at Kent State University
As COVID-19’s devastation reached universities, Maria McGinnis somehow maintained her composure.
Holding editor positions at KentWired, The Burr and A Magazine, McGinnis, BS ’21, knew she couldn’t let lockdown doom and gloom alter her career path. Last April, she watched as internship opportunities fell away or went remote, as COVID effectively ended in-person reporting and shut down in-person classes. “I think it’s really heavy,” McGinnis said at the time. “The feeling is, ‘Oh wow, all these things are changing, my internship [is now] remote. How will that change my experience?’”
As students fled campus and returned home, Susan Kirkman Zake, professor in the School of Media and Journalism and faculty advisor to the student-run news outlets, was polishing her antidote to McGinnis’ anxieties. By June 2020, Zake had created the Collaborative NewsLab at Kent State University, an experiential learning environment that connects student reporters with outside professional partners.
Using a private donation and a $7,500 grant she secured from the Scripps Howard Foundation, she and Kevin Dilley, director of student media, would pay seven hungry—and COVID-depressed—student journalists, including Maria McGinnis, to write in-demand news for outside sources while earning internship credit. (Some students already had earned the required hours in a previous semester; others are eligible to apply for internship credit via their NewsLab work.) NewsLab would also help new digital publications like The Portager.
“I’m a student broker,” Zake says about her role. “I’m trying to find good professional outlets or good professional partners so that my students can do a higher level of work.”
“I’m a student broker. I’m trying to find good professional outlets or partners so that my students can do a higher level of work.”
In addition to Zake’s senior-level practicum course, where students typically work on semester-long multimedia projects with area editors, NewsLab offers an alternative to entry-level duties such as fact-checking, writing news briefs and redirecting phone calls to editors. Instead, Zake says NewsLab is a “pipeline builder,” a way of working with local editors, instead of just working for them. “It’s a way of getting the students more job ready before they actually apply for their first real job.”
With a seismic shift in workflows and work formats, more journalists are freelancing than ever before. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a 2% drop in the freelance unemployment rate since 2014.)
Though Zake isn’t teaching the School of Media and Journalism’s new class on freelancing in Spring Semester 2022—professor Jacqueline Marino, BA ’94, will teach that—she encourages NewsLab hires, like McGinnis and senior Zaria Johnson, to make the most of their work relationships. Johnson, a recent editor of The Kent Stater, has turned a NewsLab summer environmental justice initiative with The Land (a local news startup in Cleveland) into a part-time freelancing gig.
McGinnis finished an internship with The Land in June and continues to freelance for other digital media sites like The Portager. Still, out of either her own propensity for work or the demands of the industry, she feels somewhat incomplete. “Even being so busy, I feel like I’m still not doing enough,” she says. “It’s a weird way to feel.”
The NewsLab hired 10 journalism students in summer 2021, with funding from the Cleveland, Gund and Scripps Howard foundations, as well as internal funding from the School of Media and Journalism and the College of Communication and Information, and money from student media’s budget. Two interns were unpaid since they needed the credit and couldn’t secure an internship on their own—Zake added them into NewsLab so they could stay on track for graduation.
Zake would like to increase the intern base in summer 2022, if they can get additional funding from grant foundations and new donors. She’d also like to increase the current $10-$12-an-hour pay, while making unpaid internships passé by 2023.
“The goal is to keep students from working in fast food,” Zake says, smiling, “and pay them well.”
WKSU and Ideastream Public Media
It is indisputable. Ever since the presidential election of 2016, more Americans have less trust in their news sources. In June, the Pew Research Center confirmed this decline: 18% fewer adults trust national media than did five years ago. And 7% fewer trust local media.
So how does a public radio station like WKSU handle such issues of trust? Put some seeds of story creation in the hands of listeners, says Wendy Turner, former general manager and executive director of WKSU, who was recently named the first general manager of Ohio public media services for Ideastream Public Media. “Decades ago, it was just editors and reporters making pitches,” Turner says. “It was always, ‘The newsroom decides what the public needs to know.’ Now, we’re more like, ‘Let’s ask our audience what they want to know.’”
Turner’s role changed in October 2021, after Kent State University entered into a public service operating agreement with Ideastream Public Media for the management and operations of WKSU and its sister stations. (Kent State University still retains FCC licensing for the WKSU stations.)
Under the agreement, Ideastream Public Media assumed operations for WKSU on Oct. 1, 2021. In 2022, WKSU will become the sole NPR news and information station in Northeast Ohio, while Ideastream Public Media’s WCPN will shift to expand classical music service.
“This partnership is building on decades of award-winning journalism from two of the region’s leaders in news and information,” Turner wrote in an email to WKSU supporters. “Together we will be able to serve more than 3.5 million people in the community. The decision to pursue this agreement was reinforced by an analysis supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That analysis found that working together would result in even stronger public service journalism.”
“This partnership is building on decades of award-winning journalism from two of the region’s leaders in news and information.”
In her new role, Turner leads the services Ideastream Public Media manages on behalf of all Ohio public television and radio stations. Those include The Ohio Channel, the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau and the recently formed statewide news collaborative (which will coordinate with 10 public radio stations across the state to develop Ohio’s only daily statewide radio and digital news service). She is part of Ideastream Public Media’s executive leadership team, reporting to President and CEO Kevin Martin.
Turner’s position aligns with Ideastream Public Media’s efforts to sustain and expand local journalism. “Ohio’s public media organizations have a history of working together successfully to serve all Ohioans,” Turner says. “By resourcing the coordination and administration of these investments, we have the opportunity to greatly expand the reach and impact of our shared services.”
According to the Pew Research Center, while print took a hard hit during the pandemic, interest in public radio increased dramatically. From 2016 to 2020, membership counts shot up from 2.1 million to 2.3 million; the number of NPR affiliates nationwide grew by over 100 stations.
WKSU just marked its 71st anniversary, making it one of the oldest radio stations in the country. With more than 600 new members in the past year, Turner credits this membership growth to the recognition of WKSU’s importance in providing local information during the pandemic.
Intensified by the 24/7 demand for COVID-19 alerts and testing-site info—WKSU web traffic ballooned by 200% last summer—this tilt toward local concerns has taken various forms, including The Frequency, WKSU’s weekly newsletter highlighting behind-the-scenes coverage of WKSU and trending stories from public media, and The To Do List, a monthly newsletter that shares staff suggestions on activities for the region.
But no effort, Turner says, highlights the COVID-era hunger for WKSU’s brand like OH Really?, a Q&A–style segment that allows audience members to ask reporters and editors questions about Ohio. (“What Happens After Akron Police Seize a Firearm?” and “Why Is Toilet Paper Flying Off the Shelves?” were two of the most popular in 2020.)
For OH Really? stories, Turner says WKSU used a tool and methodology called Hearken, which is used by lots of public radio stations and other journalism initiatives. “This method introduces the public to the reporting process and gives reporters broader sources for story ideas,” she says. “Because the radio story often includes the question asker, there is a transparency in the process that I think could lead to greater trust.
“And sometimes it’s more effective, from a reporting standpoint, to tell a story not from the Washington, D.C., policy angle, but from what’s happening in Zanesville, Ohio,” Turner adds. “But that’s just my opinion.”
What happens when your trusty hometown newspaper of 150 years suddenly implodes, lays off all remaining 44 staff members, and leaves all coverage to another newspaper 20 miles up the road?
That’s what longtime readers of the The Vindicator in Youngstown, affectionately known as the Vindy, wanted to know when the paper shut down at the end of August 2019. The 50,000 loyal Vindy subscribers were asking: Are we bound to live in a news desert? Where do we source daily information, like sports wins and obituaries? And, most importantly, who is going to keep political forces in check?
The Tribune Chronicle in Warren began publishing a daily Mahoning County edition under The Vindicator name in September 2019, but Mandy Jenkins, BS ’02, MA ’04, also stepped in with an alternative answer. A 16-year digital media jack-of-all-trades, Jenkins had been hired as the general manager of The Compass Experiment, an all-digital news laboratory funded jointly by newspaper group McClatchy and Google three months before the Vindy closed. The three-year project aimed to replenish three handpicked U.S. news deserts, while testing revenue stream models to serve as examples for other startups.
A Zanesville, Ohio, native, Jenkins advocated to have Google’s first venture set in Youngstown. Google agreed: Compass’s breakout news site hit the internet in October 2019, backed by a team of five. Since the site is based in Mahoning County, Jenkins and team named it Mahoning Matters.
As with other startups aiming to fill gaps left by withering papers, Mahoning Matters faced a new-kid-in-town conflict with Youngstowners who doubted its street cred. It’s why Jenkins flew repeatedly from New York City (where she lives) to Youngstown, to reassure skeptics that it wasn’t Google doing the reporting. “A lot of what we heard [at listening sessions] was mostly, ‘How dare you come here and do this new thing!’” Jenkins says. “It was pure outsiderism. At least until readers found out that we were all from here originally.”
“It was pure outsiderism. At least until readers found out that we were all from here originally.”
Since Mahoning Matters’ launch two years ago, it has grown into a reputable source for a range of information. Because of the project’s seed funds and its growing reader base—8,000 email subscribers and 200,000 monthly views as of October 2020—it has a decent chance at surviving the whims of today’s wild digital media environment.
And with a staff of Vindy veterans, like Justin Dennis, Mark Sweetwood and Jess Hardin, Mahoning Matters has, by now, convinced Youngstown that it’s a force to reckon with in terms of watchdog reporting. “If we were an [outside] parachute operation instead? I don’t think this would’ve worked,” Dennis says. “But it just does.”
Or, more accurately, kind of worked. In February, due to a bankruptcy, McClatchy was sold to new hedge fund owners, who, to Jenkins’ chagrin, decided The Compass Experiment wasn’t as much of an asset as the original owners thought it was. In March, Mahoning Matters was cut off from future Google investment and absorbed into the McClatchy network. Compass’s second startup, The Longmont Leader in Longmont, Colorado, was subsequently sold to Village Media. (The reporters kept their gigs, however.)
Like five times before in her 16-year-long career in media, Jenkins once again had to find a job. “It was more personal this time,” she says. “Because I had a hand in making [Mahoning Matters]. It was, well, my baby.”
But Jenkins seldom frets. Now head of product at Factal, a Seattle–based breaking news technology company, she knows that her tendency as a journalistic renaissance women—“To do everything,” she says, from audience building to UX design—has calmed a lot of overarching fears that plague midcareer media workers. Such a mentality, Jenkins thinks, will also suit Justin Dennis well as he replaces retiring 33-year veteran Mark Sweetwood as Mahoning Matters’ editor.
“Justin’s always been very responsible and understanding of both the business-side realities as well as what’s needed from a workflow perspective,” Jenkins says. “And that’s not always the case with reporters. Trust me, I’m married to one.”