Six months in and everything is still changing
In a time when nothing is close to normal, Mahoning Matters is planning for the future, whatever it brings.
It’s been six months since we launched Mahoning Matters and in that time, everything has changed.
Last October, we were hustling to get our site launched just 40 days after the Vindicator closed its doors to ensure that Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley still had accountability journalism. Today, we are finding ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented news event that will have untold implications for our community, our business and our very existence.
In the past 30 days, we’ve seen our traffic rise and our priorities shift to meet the needs of our readers. We’ve lost a member of our team to the virus that has been driving all of this change, and have been unable to mark his passing in any of the usual ways. We haven’t been able to stop.
This is simultaneously a terrible and inspiring time to be working in local news.
In the beginning, our five-person team was entirely made up of former Vindicator alumni who were eager to continue their work in providing vital news and information to the Mahoning Valley. Mark Sweetwood, Jeremy Harper, Justin Dennis, Jess Hardin, and Mark Eckert bravely threw themselves into something they’d never done before: Starting a local news website.
We launched Mahoning Matters about five weeks after the first staff members were hired. It was a frenzied time of hiring, onboarding, training on new systems and figuring out how everything they knew would translate to this new thing. And then we found out launching was just the beginning.
We had to find out how to structure a day of news coverage without the discipline of a print deadline and with a fraction of the Vindicator’s staff. As the new kids in town, it has taken lots of work — countless meetings with community and business leaders and deeply reported, exclusive stories — to prove we were sincere in our mission. It has taken more legwork and, frankly, more money than I ever expected just to get local audiences to know we even exist.
In our first six months, our reporters have uncovered stories that made a big impact, especially for our small size.
In December, Jess Hardin brought attention to the fact that the closure of a CVS would turn downtown Youngstown into a pharmacy desert. That story led to a local hospital opening its internal pharmacy to the public.
In February, Justin Dennis and Jess Hardin’s reporting on local nursing home inspections prompted readers to use our database to research the facilities housing their relatives and kicked off a community-wide discussion about eldercare.
We’ve all learned so much, and also have realized how much we still don’t know and can’t know until the future gets here.
So how is all of this working? In these anything-but-normal times, that remains to be seen.
We’ve met every audience goal we set for ourselves when we launched last October. February set a new record for page views and unique users, which was then broken in March. April is already looking like it will be an even bigger month than March.
Mahoning Matters has shifted our editorial strategy to accommodate our readers’ intense interest in the daily developments and effects of coronavirus on the community — and we have seen the audience shift with it. The current state of news is helping us make visiting our site a habit with more local readers. They are visiting more often, reading more stories and staying longer than ever. Our incoming audience is still driven largely by Facebook, but we’re seeing upticks in those repeat visitors coming directly to the home page or entering the website via one of our daily email newsletters.
This is all great news, but what we don’t yet know is how or if this will translate to sustainability. Local news sites all over the nation are seeing traffic surges due to the demand for coronavirus news. At the same time, the news industry is experiencing increased layoffs, furloughs and outright closures due to a dramatic drop in advertising.
So we are taking this time in stride. We can’t know if this audience will keep coming back as the news cycle changes. We can only hope our local advertisers and partners will be able to continue to support us in the economic environment that will face our community when the dust settles from the pandemic. We will have to keep adapting and try to stay one step ahead of whatever comes next.
Thanks to our startup funding from Google, we have a little more time than most to find a way forward, but that time is not without its limits. If we are going to keep Mahoning Matters going for the long haul, we need to establish more income sources sooner rather than later.
We’ve known since our inception that advertising alone was not going to be able to pay the bills. We had planned to launch a reader revenue stream once we had started building a user base of loyal, returning readers. We originally thought we’d do that this summer or closer to our first anniversary, but instead, we decided to launch a reader support program today.
We decided there was no time like the present to bring our readers in on our financial situation. After all, we can’t predict what is going to happen next week, let alone in a few months. We have no idea how a funding drive will play out in a community that was struggling even before COVID-19 hit our shores, but all we can do is ask.
Looking ahead, there isn’t a lot we can plan just yet, so we will keep on adapting.
We were looking forward to getting out into the community more this spring and summer and local events opened back up, but that might be delayed as social distancing continues in Ohio.
In response, we’re taking our semi-regular Pitch Night to Zoom, going all-virtual for the first time tonight. Depending on how that goes, we might try more virtual forums.
We will keep on listening to the community’s questions and information needs, and adjust as needed to meet them. Someday, when things start to reopen and we assess the damage from coronavirus on our community, we’ll be finding another new normal. Thanks for joining us on this journey.
Mahoning Matters is part of The Compass Experiment, a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google’s Local Experiments Project. This Medium site is set up to share news and learnings from The Compass Experiment’s local news websites.