A coalition of philanthropies announced plans Tuesday to launch a nonprofit newsroom that will provide coverage of Cleveland, kicking off an effort to help fill a void left by the shrinking of news organizations in Ohio.
The donors say theirs will be one of the largest local nonprofit news startups in the country. The American Journalism Project, one of the funders, has launched three other nonprofit newsroom startups and supported 26 others across the country.
A broader effort, called the Ohio Local News Initiative, is set to establish a network of nonprofit newsrooms across the state that would share a back-office infrastructure, with each community having a newsroom to serve local needs, said Sarabeth Berman, CEO of the American Journalism Project.
To date, $5.8 million has been raised for the Cleveland newsroom from seven donors. In addition to the journalism project, the donors include the journalism funder Knight Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation, which holds $2.8 billion in assets. Berman says the journalism project is in talks to expand the initiative to other parts of the state and expects a flow of further donations.
The newsroom in Cleveland is expected to hire 25 staffers to launch by mid-2022. The donors said it will produce "original, in-depth, non-partisan reporting" that will be free to access digitally and through various content partnerships. The newsroom will raise revenue from those partnerships, subscriptions, events and other sources, but philanthropy will continue to play a prominent role in the coming years.
The donors described their initiative as a "culmination of years of work by local community leaders to identify and determine information gaps left from declining volumes of original reporting in Northeast Ohio."
Dale Anglin, vice president of programs at the Cleveland Foundation, says the foundation decided to fund the Cleveland newsroom to strengthen democracy building in the community.
"We're prepared to support them," Anglin said.
The foundation had approached the American Journalism Project about 18 months ago and asked it to gather data on how the city's residents typically obtained news and information. Berman said the organization reviewed the city's local news landscape, ran focus groups and conducted surveys.
It found the same trend it has seen across the country: As the news staffs of traditional metro news organizations have dwindled in the face of advertising losses, many residents no longer have adequate information about their communities that they need to make decisions in their lives. Berman said residents wanted more information about, for example, how to access city services, among other things.
In a trend that has been repeated across the country, newspapers in Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio have laid off many journalists in the past decade. A 2019 estimate by the research group Policy Matters Ohio showed that between 2012 and 2018, the number of newspaper journalists in Ohio had declined by 43%. That includes cutbacks at the Plain Dealer, Cleveland's lone daily newspaper. The Plain Dealer laid off its few remaining staffers last year or shifted them to the non-unionized Cleveland.com, which continues to publish a daily paper that uses the newspaper's masthead.
Anup Kumar, director of the journalism program at Cleveland State University, says other initiatives have also been trying to fill the gap. One is the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, an effort by nearly 20 northeast Ohio news outlets that dedicates itself to solutions-based reporting. The Knight Foundation has been backing that collaborative, as well as the Documenters program, started by the City Bureau in Chicago, through which citizens are trained by journalists and cover local government meetings.
The donors said the forthcoming newsroom in Cleveland will work closely with the Documenters program, which is active in the city.
"The goal is to create a newsroom that is not just sort of saving local news but really reimagining how local news is created," Berman said. "In addition to collaborating with the Documenters program, their goal is to really, from the beginning, be anchored in working with residents to set the editorial agenda."
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