On a night when Micah Kraus was opening his exhibit at Akron Soul Train and young professionals were being honored for their work at 30 for The Future, we hosted about 50 folks for a public conversation at Musica about the direction of The Devil Strip.
Our core staff — editor-in-chief Rosalie Murphy, senior reporter Noor Hindi, community outreach manager Floco Torres and business development manager Jessica Goldbourn — shared what they’ve been doing over the last year, what that means for The Devil Strip’s future and why this work matters to them personally.
Thanks to New York University’s Membership Puzzle Project, we’ve been coached for the past few months by Alec Saelens, who gave a broader context to our efforts in Akron from his perspective as a co-founder of The Bristol Cable in England, a local news co-op.
Then I ran my mouth for a while. This is a reader-friendly version of my presentation. — Chris
I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that I’m most definitely going to ask you for a favor. A big one. The good news: I’m not asking you for your money. Not tonight. So you relax. Take your hand off your wallet and just enjoy the conversation.
As you know, I snuck off for a year to Stanford University where I was a JSK Journalism Fellow, one of the most prestigious programs in our field, in my opinion.
Just to explain how deep the water was that I was swimming in, if you’ve heard of the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, not only were multiple journalists in my cohort part of that Pulitzer Prize-winning work but the woman here beside me, Marina Walker Guevara, ran those 200-country secret investigations into the finances of the world’s elite. Yeah. It’d take an hour just to skim everyone else’s body of work, but trust me, this JSK class runs deep.
Then your boy Chris walks in from Akron, Ohio talking about The Devil Strip. So, in the beginning, I felt way in over my head. Thing is, I never felt far from Akron because the J-S-K in the JSK Fellowship stands for John S. Knight, an Akronite who built his respected local news empire from this city.
This is one of my favorite quotes by Jack Knight — I call him Jack because we’re cool like that. This wasn’t just a place where he made his money or did his work. He cared deeply about Akron and his love of this place elevated his work. I believe the same is true for our work.
So, I’ve been back in town for almost two months now, and I’ve heard two questions a lot.
The first question is usually, “Are you back?” Followed by, “For good?” And sometimes, “Why?”
That’s easy to answer. Yes, yes and it’s my home. The second question is harder: “What did you learn?” Um, a lot…
It’s tough to answer because it was one of the most intense years of my life, professionally and personally.
For one, I‘m a college dropout taking classes at Stanford, from the famed Hasso Plattner Institute of Design to the Graduate School of Business. I studied social psychology, graph theory, design thinking and scaling social innovation. Every week the program brought in high-profile guest lecturers, like journalists Daniel Dale and Jill Abramson, and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. And of course, I was learning constantly from the 16 world-class journalists in the fellowship.
It’ll take a while to unpack everything, but I come back with three immediate takeaways to share now.
#1) There’s no place like home.
Which is to say, there’s no place like Akron. I couldn’t wait to get back here.
#2) No one in Silicon Valley is, on average, smarter, more creative, more talented, more dedicated or more passionate than people in Akron.
It may seem like it from a distance, but the difference is they have resources we don’t have. That means their smart, creative, dedicated people can get things done faster or more thoroughly while we have to do things the hard way on purpose.
#3) Nothing is as powerful as community.
One, it’s just a basic human need. We’re wired to connect. We’re predisposed to trust and cooperate with each other. It’s how we’ve survived as a species when we’re softer and slower than our predators. How else could we survive winter in a place like Northeast Ohio without passing around knowledge about building fires and houses to keep us warm?
It’s also deeply personal to me. By the time I left Akron, I was so burned out that I’d effectively turned my back on my community here, even as I preached the power of community. But as my resources ran lower — mental, physical, emotional and financial — I turned inward trying to protect myself. That made it worse. Anxiety and stress consumed me, so much that I’d routinely close the door to our office, turn out the lights and lay on the floor just to try getting enough of a grip to keep going.
Turns out, my co-fellows aren’t just world-class journalists but amazing human beings. My friends helped me remember how to be myself again.
There’s also a practical reason to build community. It’s not just the warm fuzzies we get from connecting with people because we’re wired for it but that we get more done when we work together. Think about the issues affecting you and the people you care about most. You can’t put a dent in it by yourself.
This past April, while I was gone, Your Voice Ohio brought us together with the Akron Beacon Journal and WKSU for a series of community conversations. The first question they asked each of the 200-something people they surveyed was: “What would your community look like if it were a happy place for everyone?”
Maybe it sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, a little utopian. But the responses were almost universally concrete and practical.
People talked about economic inclusion and equality. About adequate and affordable housing. About public education, public art, public health, mental health. Quality of life issues, lower crime, better streets — you know people complained about potholes! A lot of people talked about neighbors greeting neighbors, neighbors helping neighbors. This wasn’t just something they wanted to see happening more. It’s something they want for themselves. That’s because, I believe, we’re experiencing epidemic loneliness.
You can see in these comments a vision of the Akron we want. It isn’t exactly utopian, but it’s still a heavy lift.
The big question is how the hell do we get there?
To make up the vast distance between where we are and where we want to be, we need more people to be involved. The single greatest untapped resource in Akron are the people who already live here. It’s tempting to think first of attracting people to town, but that’ll be a waste of time and effort until we’re engaging and empowering our neighbors.
But how do we do that? This is that favor I was telling you I’d ask: We need you to be those people, and we need you to help us meet the people you know. Each of you can think of at least one person you could introduce me to, someone we don’t know yet but should.
Okay, let’s say you do that. You connect us to the smart, creative, talented, passionate people you know. Then what? What good does this do?
Think of a football team. It takes a ton of people to put on a game: players on offense, defense, special teams; a lot of coaches, one for each position; coordinators, a head coach. Then there’s the front office, from the general manager and VPs of marketing and personnel down to the field crew, maintenance, merch, concessions, etc.
That game draws tens of thousands of fans in person and hundreds of thousands more on TV, each fan coming from different backgrounds with different experiences and skills and resources, all gathering under the umbrella of that team.
What could you accomplish if the purpose of the game was to encourage and empower some portion of those folks to do something for their community?
The purpose for almost every NFL team is to make money for a billionaire owner or collection of multi-millionaire owners, which is fine because that’s how it works, even though the NFL itself is somehow a tax-exempt nonprofit.
However, there is one NFL team that operates differently, whose incentives aren’t designed for the greatest possible profit margin. That’s because it’s owned by its community. Any guess which team that is?
It’s the Packers. The main reason the team is still in Green Bay, WI, which is about half the size of Akron, is due to being a community-owned football team. Otherwise, some owner would have moved the team to a bigger metro in a city willing to put up public funding to build a new stadium.
When the Packers want to make improvements to Lambeau Field, they sell shares to the community.
The Packers started around the same time as the Akron Pros, who — trivia time — were one of the original teams in what would become the NFL and won the first championship in the league. The Akron Pros were led by the first black head coach in the league, Fritz Pollard, who also played on the team. One of his teammates was Paul Robeson, the famed athlete, actor, singer and civil rights activist. Had the Akron Pros become a community-owned franchise, maybe they’d still be around.
So, by 1923 the Packers were on the verge of folding when they sold shares to raise money to save the team. No one can buy a controlling number of shares. You can’t sell your shares; you can only pass them to relatives. They put professionals in charge so shareholders can’t call in plays to Aaron Rodgers or demand the GM trade players after a bad game. Shareholders don’t even get priority for season tickets. If you put your name on the waitlist for season tickets today, you’ll be behind more than 130,000 other fans.
On paper, it looks like a terrible investment because there’s no financial return or any real perks, but they do get to keep a team they love in the city they call home. Since the Packers aren’t built to make money to buy a billionaire a new yacht, they put millions of dollars back into the community through nonprofits that address social issues, not just fixing up youth football fields for good PR. They give away another $1.5M to charitable groups that staff their concession stands. The stadium is also a social hub for the community, and the team, in addition to being a source of civic pride, organizes employees and fans to volunteer in Green Bay.
What does this have to do with The Devil Strip?
In my opinion, the crisis in local news isn’t that the industry is struggling, or in some places dying, but that in this diminished state, it’s doing harm to communities by prioritizing headlines and stories that generate clicks, likes, shares and comments over public service. This has happened because the business of news operates on your attention, which it gathers and sells to advertisers. You are the product, not the customer.
If we’re going to have local news that serves our community, we believe it should be owned by our community. That’s why we’re becoming a community-owned local news organization.
Other outlets are accountable first to bosses in out-of-state headquarters where decisions are made to benefit private owners or wealthy stockholders, but as member-owners in our local news co-op, you will have a voice and a vote in the way The Devil Strip operates so the decisions, control and money stay right here in Akron.
For my birthday this year, my friends had an artist hand-draw that Jack Knight quote I shared earlier. Beneath it, they added: “But what if we all got to help run Akron?”
That’s what this really is about for me. When I say that “we” need more people to be involved, engaged and participating, I don’t mean just so The Devil Strip can keep existing but so we can help affect real change in Akron. For us, that means giving Akronites a voice and a way to participate in the processes, big and small, that shape our lives here, to expand access and opportunity, to rethink civic engagement beyond election season.
Journalism’s prevailing attention-based business model competes against and sometimes undermines the best intentions of our newsrooms by prioritizing the needs of the advertisers or stockholders over the best interests of the community. Becoming a local news co-op allows us to do that by aligning the incentives of our business and operations in a way that protects our reporting and supports our mission to connect Akronites to their neighbors, to our city and to a greater sense of shared purpose.
We believe the most important story is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves, which is as true for cities as it is for individuals. We want to help you fall in love with where you live and then empower you to do something about it.
I told you the good news is that I wouldn’t be asking you for money tonight. That’s still true.
However, we will starting November 1. That’s when we will begin offering shares of The Devil Strip, which will give you a vote and the opportunity to run for our board of trustees. Everyone who has donated to us previously, whether via Kickstarter way back in the beginning or as Devil’s Advocates last spring, will be member-owners from the start and will get credit for their earlier contribution. Hopefully, you’ll all feel like giving again.
That’s because, from November 1 until December 31, we’re participating in a national campaign called NewsMatch where every dollar donated to us gets matched up to $1000 per person. This is money that will help us increase our coverage of Akron so we can add more in-depth reporting of serious topics alongside our long-standing commitment to the area’s arts, music and culture.
We have more big news to share, but we’re not quite ready to let that cat out of the bag. From now until the end of the year, we’ll provide updates and details in our newsletter as well as on our website. We’ll take questions from tonight and those we pick up along the way into an FAQ so even if you can’t think of anything to ask now, you always can later.