Big changes ahead for The Compass Experiment

Mahoning Matters and The Longmont Leader pivoting to further sustainability

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Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

When we kicked off The Compass Experiment 18 months ago, we knew our mission was a tough one. We set out to create local, independent news websites that can become financially self-sustaining. We did this to bring local news to communities without robust local news resources and experiment with revenue and audience-building practices that could benefit the entire information ecosystem.

In this time, we have launched Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio, in October 2019 and The Longmont Leader in Longmont, Colorado, in May 2020. Small, local teams of reporters, editors, and business development professionals operate these sites with support from a central staff of three on strategy, sales, fundraising, events, and audience growth.

Originally, The Compass Experiment was intended to create three local news properties, but market conditions changed dramatically over the course of the past two years, and McClatchy and the Google News Initiative Local Experiments Project agreed to resize the lab to two digital news sites.

One of the hardest lessons we have learned so far is how difficult it is to efficiently operate local news sites without the benefits of a network. We built our sites to loosely emulate the playbook of our partners at Village Media. We found it challenging to replicate their output, growth, and revenue options without the resources made available through their shared central team and network of websites.

To that end, The Compass Experiment is pivoting to continue a path toward sustainability. The project will shift to test the experience of Mahoning Matters and The Longmont Leader as part of larger news networks.

In this move, Mahoning Matters will shift to be directly operated by McClatchy’s news division. Eric Nelson of the Kansas City Star will be taking on the role of Senior Editor for the Compass Experiment. He will be shepherding the local team into McClatchy’s structure and supporting their efforts for what promises to be a very busy 2021.

Our partners at Village Media will take over The Longmont Leader, which will become part of its network of owned and operated local news websites. Since the very beginning, we’ve been working closely with Jeff Elgie, Village Media’s CEO, and David Turkstra, its Chief Strategy Officer, and the rest of their staff as we launched and operated our sites. I have no doubt they will be excellent stewards for this team and community, particularly as they eye their own expansion into the U.S.

The Compass central team, including yours truly, will be departing the project and the company in the coming weeks.

The most important takeaway from all of this, and what has been my top priority since starting with Compass in June of 2019, is that these two local sites will continue to grow and serve their communities.

I am incredibly proud of the work our team has done in this short time together. This group built and launched two local news sites, each in about a month (one of them in the middle of a pandemic). Post-launch, the team built growing audiences of daily readers, converted them into paying readers, and launched a journalism impact fund in Youngstown, Ohio. Most importantly, both local news teams have reported stories that started conversations and led to change in their communities.

In our work in Youngstown and Longmont, we have already learned so much about starting and operating independent local newsrooms. We’ve shared many of these learnings here on our Medium site, on Google’s project site, and at industry events around the country and the world. From conducting audience research to holding virtual events, creating a successful morning newsletter, and establishing a community impact fund in partnership with local donors, I hope what we’ve learned can benefit others looking to start and grow their own operations.

The Compass Experiment will continue to share the lessons learned by these news startups with the industry as they continue their growth and development. I’ll be eager to watch and learn from their experiences in the years ahead.

Mandy Jenkins is the General Manager of the Compass Experiment.

The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google News Initiative’s Local Experiments Project. This Medium site is set up to share news and learnings from The Compass Experiment’s local news websites, which include Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio, and The Longmont Leader in Longmont, Colorado.

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