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July 18, 2019, 7:42 a.m.
Business Models

Local news projects rush to fill The Vindicator’s void, with the McClatchy-Google network putting down roots

“We’re ultimately trying to do this as small and nimble as possible so that we can be seeing what’s working and throw out what’s not — and quickly being able to shift in a way that’s a little bit harder when you’re working with a 150-year-old newspaper.”

Youngstown, Ohio has become kind the beat-up poster child for industrial decline, the opioid crisis, the Trump phenomenon, and, most recently, the loss of local journalism.

Instead of enjoying its 151st year of business, the locally owned daily newspaper is publishing its last pages on August 31. Beset by a local market that no corporate chain thought valuable enough to invest in and a worn-out family that had owned it for generations, The Vindicator’s closure is drawing a lot of painful ends — but also some new beginnings.

Last week, ProPublica announced it was adding a new spot to its funded Local Reporting Network for a Youngstown reporter. On Tuesday, the Youngstown business journal announced plans to expand with an investigative team and more local government coverage. And now The Compass Experiment — the McClatchy-grown, Google-funded, Mandy Jenkins-led project to build up new local news sites — will launch its first site in Youngstown. The new network is aimed at small- to mid-sized cities with strong community connections and a loss of local news. They plan to hire four locally-based journalists and one business staffer — and yes, it’s important that they come from Youngstown. (Here’re the listings.)

“Some of the national narrative around Youngstown is the population is declining, they’ve had so much economic turmoil over the years, and this is not worth the risk for a big company to go in there,” said Jenkins, who grew up in Ohio and went to Kent State, a 40-minute highway drive away. She’s talked with several members of Youngstown’s political, business, and media communities in choosing the city of 65,000 in a metro area of 540,000. “There’s still a really important story to tell, and it’s important to point out this is a community that still has those connections to one another.”

I did not hop on a plane like Margaret Sullivan did to visit Youngstown after the Vindicator news came (though I may have driven near it on a road trip before) — I do not have the context that living in Youngstown or even Ohio brings. But it also seems like the Maag-Brown family, which has owned the Vindicator since 1887 and whose current matriarch has worked there for the past 71 years, tried its very best to keep the Vindicator afloat and hit a dead end. And newspaper companies’ analysts couldn’t make the math work. That, of course, doesn’t mean that local journalism doesn’t belong in Youngstown, but it’s definitely an inclination that the old model no longer works there.

Good thing Jenkins doesn’t want to keep using the old model. (The new one, though, is still TBD.)

As our Josh Benton wrote about the closure earlier this month:

Is that because Youngstown is a uniquely bad market? Maybe. But in per-capita income, the Youngstown metro area ranks 180th out of 280, not down at the very bottom. Its unemployment rate is 6.2 percent — not great, but also not apocalyptic. No one is saying Youngstown is some great blue-ocean media market, but it’s also not all that far from where a lot of cities are economically away from the coasts.

It’s the combination here that’s a very bad sign: a small-scale owner that wants out and a large chain that says “nah, we’re good.” The energy in the newspaper business for the past half-decade-plus has all been toward consolidation: roll all these individual papers and small chains into one giant GannettHouseDFMTribClatchyCorp and let corporate efficiency buy everybody a little more time. But in at least in this one case, the consolidators have decided that financially there’s nothing of value left to consolidate. The tricks they’ve been using — cut staff, outsource editing, outsource production, regionalize ad sales — apparently weren’t worth trying in Youngstown. And that’s scary as hell.

So here’s another option. The Compass Experiment is a three-year initiative to bust out of the old model that, yes, newspaper companies like McClatchy are based on, with “millions” of dollars from Google to build from the ground up. (McClatchy has full editorial control over the sites.) Hopefully not having the overhead constraints of a 150-year-old newspaper will help.

“To some extent, what we’re proposing is a completely different product for the area,” Jenkins said. “We’re certainly not going to try to replace the Vindicator wholesale, in addition to being digital-only and not in print which has its own overhead issues. We’re a much smaller operation and we’re going to have to be more targeted in what we cover to make sure it’s original, it’s useful, it’s got a place in the market in relation to what everyone else is going to be doing. We’re ultimately trying to do this as small and nimble as possible so that we can be seeing what’s working and throw out what’s not — and quickly being able to shift in a way that’s a little bit harder when you’re working with a 150-year-old newspaper.”

Jenkins had been evaluating potential locations, a process that accelerated when the Vindicator news surfaced; this outlet will launch in early fall and two others will come soon after. The specifics — including the name — are not yet solidified, as she wants to wait until the Youngstown-based team is in place and contributing its own ideas, but in our previous conversation she mentioned plans for local advertising and here pointed to Youngstown State University as a potential partner. She’s also hiring for two more central roles to support the trio of sites going forward.

“We would like to give these sites a runway as much as possible to make sure they’re self-sustaining by the end of the three years,” Jenkins said.

Who knows, with luck, Youngstown might fill the void The Vindicator will leave behind. Or at least it’ll be a creative flash in the pan of local news innovation.

Image of a Youngstown pride poster by Michael Pontikos used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 18, 2019, 7:42 a.m.
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