Growing Pains and Daily Gains

Early lessons and challenges from Mahoning Matters’ early days

Mandy Jenkins
Nov 14, 2019 · 7 min read
The Mahoning Matters team cuts a symbolic ribbon at the website’s launch party on Oct. 10, 2019.
The Mahoning Matters team cuts a symbolic ribbon at the website’s launch party on Oct. 10, 2019, joined by representatives from McClatchy, Google and the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce. Photo/William Lewis for Mahoning Matters

A little over a month ago, we at The Compass Experiment launched Mahoning Matters knowing it was going to be a work in progress. Our team had started only five weeks earlier, just after they finished printing the last edition of The Vindicator. We had only known we were even going to Youngstown for about three months.

That time spent hiring staff, doing market research and working with our partners at Village Media to build up the site had flown by.

We could have used a few more weeks of preparation to onboard the staff, prepare more stories, sell some ads and determine a workflow, but we knew that all of the practice in the world wasn’t going to teach us much until we were actually doing it. So we went to market in early October with a rough draft of all that Mahoning Matters could be.

Swiftly launching a website and building a business around it has been both exciting and sometimes overwhelming. In these first few weeks, we have had a crash course in every aspect of operating a local news publication. Some things didn’t go as expected and we had to adapt. We also had some pleasant surprises along the way.

Working within the system (or finding a new one)

The Compass Experiment is owned and operated by McClatchy, essentially we are a startup within a much larger company. This affords us a lot of advantages, but also brings its own set of challenges. Since we started building out Mahoning Matters, we’ve had to figure out where we fit with the rest of McClatchy and where we can and should stand on our own. It’s a no-brainer to tap into McClatchy’s HR, IT and legal teams, for instance, but it’s been more difficult to find out how to handle our advertising operations.

We’re finding there’s no easy way to build out advertising operations as a startup; you either have to do it all internally, taking up the time of people who have (many) other pressing duties; outsource the work (often at great expense) to a vendor; or fit your (tiny) system into someone else’s much larger one.

We are powering our local digital sales and sponsorships using the advertising operations team of our platform partner, Village Media and the billing and accounting departments of McClatchy. This is new to everyone involved, so we are all learning and evolving this system together as one team.

We’re off to a great start. Mahoning Matters recently signed its first annual partner in Farmers National Bank, whose sponsorship is powering a new section on our site called “Movers and Makers”, a spotlight on entrepreneurism in the Valley.

No office, no problem

The entire Compass team works remotely, which is a bit of an anomaly for McClatchy and the Mahoning Valley. We don’t have an onsite HR or IT person to onboard staff in Youngstown because there is no “on-site”, so we had to find a new system for doing that. When locals want to know where to find our office, we refer them to the library or a local coffee shop where our staff works most days. It raises some eyebrows, but we really like being out in the community in a way that wouldn’t be possible in most of the potential office spaces that would fit a team of five.

Reporters Justin Dennis and Jess Hardin work from Stonefruit Coffee in Youngstown. Photo/Mark Sweetwood
Reporters Justin Dennis and Jess Hardin work from Stonefruit Coffee in Youngstown. Photo/Mark Sweetwood
Reporters Justin Dennis and Jess Hardin work from Stonefruit Coffee in Youngstown. Photo/Mark Sweetwood

More digital than you think

When we were first researching Youngstown as a potential option for a Compass city, several local people we spoke to said a digital publication would never work because residents don’t use the Internet very much and definitely do not use smartphones. I didn’t necessarily believe that (or else we probably wouldn’t have opened a site there), but I have been pleasantly surprised by how much mobile dominates our overall incoming traffic to Mahoning Matters. More than 75 percent of our site’s users are on mobile devices, with an additional eight percent on tablets.

Redefining success every day

One thing I’ve learned is that it is difficult to truly measure our success against anything other than ourselves. None of us has started a brand-new news website in Youngstown, Ohio before. Benchmarking against other sites here or startups in other cities will only get us so far in setting our benchmarks. Instead, we have to look at how we did yesterday and last week and (now) last month to see our trend lines moving upward and discern what insights we can from those results.

I asked others on the team to offer up their lessons learned so far.

Planning big and thinking small

Julie Westfall, Compass Central Editor

One thing that has definitely been cemented in me during the last month or so is the extent to which even small scale operations still require big time execution. Launching a local digital journalism enterprise requires both a broad vision and a commitment to executing daily details that might challenge even the most seasoned logistics firm. Building a strategy and executing against it on all the platforms where you meet your audience and using all the tools needed to get there is a challenge no matter your size.

Finding the right community helps

Emily Dresslar, Compass Business Operations

It’s been great to see how much a brand-new launch like ours means to the community and business leaders of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. From this outsider’s perspective, this is a community that clearly understands its challenges and is excited and hopeful about the wave of revitalization that has started in the area. For those reasons, we are finding out that we are in a great place to be in the local news business.

Mahoning Matters held a Story Pitch Night for readers to share story ideas and feedback at Westside Bowl in Youngstown on Oct. 24. Photo/Jess Hardin

Establishing a new normal for local news

Mark Sweetwood, Mahoning Matters Editor

As a 37-year veteran desk-dweller in traditional newsrooms, I have to admit I’ve had to adjust my expectations about Mahoning Matters a few times in the past month. By “a few” I mean like 30 or 40 times a day.

I’m pushing 60 and had just spent 11 years with a company that afforded me a messy desk within shouting distance of the newsroom team, a machine that spat out bad coffee for 55 cents and what I once considered dwindling resources as we maintained our brand as the top news website in the Mahoning Valley and the daily newspaper of record.

Then The Vindicator closed. Within five days of my last day at Youngstown’s newspaper, I was swept up in a new company, with new bosses, a new computer, a new CMS, friends in Canada and literally endless new layers of stuff to do: Corporate stuff, technical stuff, staff stuff and office stuff (like finding the best power strip for four laptops and four iPhones that works in a busy coffee shop).

But I got to pretty much pick my awesome team of Justin Dennis, Jess Hardin and Jeremy Harper — and we Vindicator ex-pats charted a new path with Mahoning Matters.

Now, I don’t shout in a newsroom — I Slack or get on a Google Hangout. The coffee now is whatever is in the kitchen or whatever the coffee shop is serving. When I consider our small-but-mighty crew, I get a real lesson on how to evaluate resources in the busy news scene of the Mahoning Valley.

In the last month I’ve learned:

  • Data-driven, solution-based stories are audience favorites. They also require a lot of time, all while other things are happening that need to be covered now. We have to find the balance between these forces of opposition every day.
  • That Eagle Scout announcement might matter more to the audience than that great story you spent hours finessing. We have to be open to feedback and analytics.
  • The same people demanding you be an apolitical media outlet are likely to turn a story on plastic grocery bags into a debate on the merits of President Trump on Facebook. This isn’t so much a revelation as it is a mystery.
  • Occasionally we have to be a bit audacious. We might have to chase down local news 240 miles away or host a story pitch night in a bowling alley. We’ve tried to replace he said/she said reporting by having inviting people on opposite sides of an issue to sit across a table to find common ground. When a story seems difficult, we’ve had to be receptive to new ideas — even if they seem scary or unconventional.
  • When we reach out to underserved folks in the market, we can’t be surprised if there is some push back. When you’ve been underserved, trust is not automatic. It has to be earned.

The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google and is part of Google’s Local Experiments Project. This Medium site is set up to share news and learnings from The Compass Experiment’s local news websites.

The Compass Experiment

The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded…

The Compass Experiment

The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore new sustainable business models for local news.

Mandy Jenkins

Written by

GM at The Compass Experiment/McClatchy. Publisher at Mahoning Matters. Formerly of ambitious news startups and legacy newspapers alike. Survivor.

The Compass Experiment

The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore new sustainable business models for local news.