When Their Local Paper Closed, These Journalists Got Busy

Local news is facing a crisis… at a time when trusted coverage of the events in this country and our world is more critical than ever.

Local libraries have been stepping into the breach, with projects like the four-page weekly published by Mike Sullivan, a librarian in Weare, NH, and a group of college interns in San Antonio that are mapping local news resources and publishing local stories.

These noble efforts are certainly worth applauding, yet with Pew Research Center estimating nearly 34,000 newspaper jobs lost in the last 16 years (one third in the last three years), community reporting faces a crisis across this country.

This isn’t just a small-town rural America problem; Youngstown, Ohio recently lost their 150-year-old daily newspaper The Vindicator, giving the town the dubious honor of becoming the largest city in America without a daily newspaper for its 70,000+ residents.

In its wake, a group of local journalists has launched Mahoning Matters, a news site dedicating itself to local watchdog journalism, according to Mark Oprea writing for NPR.

“Made up of a tiny life raft of Vindy veterans, Mahoning Matters may be an example par excellence of the nearing future of digital as print replacement,” Oprea writes. “With its cost-saving distribution — being online only — the Youngstown-based publication not only flexes hard its investigative bent, but hones a type of revenue model that pairs well with its for-the-reader philosophy. That is to say: quench locals’ thirst for good watchdog journalism using Silicon Valley seed money, all while fine-tuning a donation-and-ad finance model. The goal: to make sure it’s self-sustainable by 2021.”

Editor Mark Sweetwood plays a balancing act familiar to any mid-size market journalist — remaining helpful, especially during the pandemic, while continuing to call out local business and political corruption.

This kind of watchdog journalism is incredibly important to local communities, where incumbents are increasingly re-elected without significant challenge and high-powered business people are often shielded from scrutiny without local investigative reporting.

Oprea gives an in-depth account of an incident earlier this year involving a possible scandal inside a local police force. When the team at Mahoning got a hold of the story they were able to uncover the truth that was being swept under the rug, thanks in large part to an anonymous tip and a long conversation with the local mayor.

The five-person team pales in comparison to its former team strength — yet whatever investigative reporting they can manage is vital.

While there is no one model for local journalism that can be held up as the standard, one thing is absolutely sure — there is an undeniable need for local reporting that aims to get beyond the press release and the cover story. And for this, we need local journalism teams.