The best we can do right now is be useful

On being a local news startup amid a global pandemic

A stylized heart made up of gears from Getty Images stock

At Mahoning Matters, we make it our mission, above all, to be useful to our readers in Northeast Ohio. In the midst of the public health and economic crisis created by the arrival of COVID-19, we’ve found ourselves constantly evaluating if we are keeping to that mission.

Like many newsrooms across the nation and the world, we’re in a constant state of upheaval in covering the biggest story of the century (so far). Our day-to-day has become anything but, and it’s forced a shift in our editorial strategy while attempting to keep to our mission.

Prior to the arrival of coronavirus to our nation’s consciousness and living rooms, we were just really getting our footing as a news organization and small business in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley. We set out to differentiate ourselves from other local media, which includes three TV news stations, a business journal and a daily newspaper out of nearby Trumbull County. We tried to avoid chasing the same stories as everyone else, instead linking to them in a new curated email newsletter called “Morning Matters”.

Instead, we spent our limited staff’s time focusing on telling exclusive stories through an accountability lens and featuring information that was, above all, useful. In February, we had what was, by far, our highest traffic month yet, driven largely by extensive coverage of local nursing home inspections and a guide to Lenten fish fries in the area.

Part of a virtual team happy hour on March 20. It was, necessarily, BYOB.

Then came March, and with it, news of the coronavirus closing local businesses and schools and generally throwing life as we knew it into a tailspin. Now, we have found ourselves chasing the same story as everyone else, because there is only one story. Our readers are coming to us more often than ever to find out the latest developments in regards to the coronavirus and its effects on the community — and we struggle to support that bottomless need for information while attempting to stick to our principles of what news we cover.

So every day we look at our coverage and ask, “Is this useful?”

That led us to create and maintain a variety of resources for Mahoning Valley residents to make smart decisions and connect with their fellow community members in these uncertain times. These include:

We’ve been sending regular weekly emails to our readers where we ask how else we can help and encourage them to share their stories of dealing with social isolation. They’ve been sending in words of encouragement and suggesting story ideas that are becoming reality every day. We are still out there finding the untold stories and featuring the voices of those in the community who are finding a new way of life.

Like many other local news organizations, our fate is tied to that of the local businesses community, which is under threat due to labor shortages and closures. To help them out, we launched our Look Local initiative, which gives local businesses a free listing in Mahoning Matters’ business directory and $200 in free classified advertising credits to post sales, modified hours, job listings and other customer announcements.

For Mahoning Matters to stay relevant in rapidly changing circumstances, we will have to keep experimenting. Once the breaking news relating to COVID-19 becomes routine, we will have to re-evaluate what stories we can tell to help connect our community even as they are isolated in their homes.

In the meantime, we’ll be here, at a safe virtual distance, finding what answers we can and trying to be helpful. It’s the best we, or anyone, can do at a time like this.

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.

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