Charting a new (collaborative) course in Mahoning County

Brainstorming at the Youngstown, Ohio Central Library Branch.

As McClatchy’s UX Strategy Manager, I work to understand what our readers (or viewers) need and how we can meet those needs across all our journalism products. Local journalism is undergoing a dramatic transformation and with 30 local newsrooms across the country, we’re always looking for fresh ideas and new ways to be essential to the communities we serve.

In working with The Compass Experiment, a laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore sustainable business models for local news, I had the opportunity to do something a little different and hear from readers at the beginning of a publication’s history.

The Compass Experiment announced it would launch its first digital news outlet in Mahoning County, Ohio, back in July. With the closure of The Vindicator, Youngstown’s 150-year-old daily newspaper, Mahoning Valley residents were trying to figure out what came next. Before The Compass Experiment launched a site, published an article or even picked a name, we wanted to hear from potential readers about what they needed and wanted from a local news site.

Armed with Post-its, pens, and Kravitz Deli pastries, I drove to Mahoning County to hear directly from community members. Roughly 60 people gathered at the Youngstown Library Central Branch, Poland Library and Boardman Library to answer three questions:

What stories need telling in Mahoning County?

What information would improve your day-to-day-life?

What do you think is most important in a local news site?

Themes emerged quickly. Attendees wanted to easily access and understand public resources, such as job listings, veterans’ resources, and affordable housing. They wanted a local news site to tell the full story of Youngstown through both spotlighting successes and uncovering corruption and misdeeds.

Some topics were specific to the region: The Youngstown State University adjunct professor experience, hydraulic fracking’s impact, population decline, “specific and insightful” stories about black families in Youngstown, public funding distribution between Youngstown and its suburbs, and Mahoning County’s abolitionist history. Some attendees even sent over input gathered from friends and neighbors after the event.

When you ask readers what information they need, their answers don’t necessarily fit the traditional confines of a print newspaper or news site.

In the journalism world, we spend a lot of time thinking (or fretting!) over the future of media. What is and isn’t journalism? What’s essential and what can be released to history?

It was motivating and fascinating to see our forum attendees grapple with the same questions. Folks talked about the relative importance of features like comics and how to prioritize investigative journalism. They wrestled with subscriptions vs. advertising, and how The Compass Experiment could reach an audience with limited access to news or non-digital audiences. They also discussed how journalism shapes and preserves local history, and how journalism maintains the “first draft of history” in digital-only formats.

These are tough challenges. Finding answers requires us to step back, listen and create a new chapter for local news in Mahoning County in collaboration with our community.

The Compass Experiment’s Youngstown site, Mahoning Matters, will be launching soon. If you have questions or suggestions for the Mahoning Matters team, please reach out to them via emailFacebook or Twitter.

The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google and is part of Google’s Local Experiments Project.

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