November 15, 2022

Signal Cleveland, with $7.5 million in startup funding and carefully cultivated community engagement, launched today with big goals. If all goes well, it will expand throughout Ohio within a few years and help map a way for other nonprofits to get news to the underserved.

For now, the program is more modest. Editor-in-chief Lila Mills told me she had been convinced to begin with a “minimum viable product,” – a web site and a newsletter with 15 professionals on staff and three freelancers, supplemented by a corps of citizen journalists.

Signal Cleveland has in place a partnership with WOVU, a community radio station. Plus an affiliation with The Marshall Project’s Cleveland local news site, covering criminal justice under the direction of veteran editor and publisher Jim Crutchfield already up and running. Plus an agreement to collaborate with a commercial TV station.

The newsletter last week previewing the sort of content Signal’s staff will produce included stories on the mayor’s worsening conflict with unions, enrollment shortfalls in higher education, and a glitch in the production of winter road salt.

Another pillar will be Documenters, a reimagining of the concept of citizen journalism, which had earlier runs in the 1990s and late 2000s. The Documenters approach, originated by City Bureau of Chicago in 2018, has since spread to half a dozen cities. Mills ran the Cleveland version before taking the Signal Cleveland job and bringing Documenters with her to the new venture.

Documenters sends interested citizens to public meetings and pays them for a rudimentary account of what happened. Nationally there have now been 1,700 Documenters, 600 in Cleveland. The object is not just a story but an archive and the accountability of having someone there watching the proceedings.

Earlier versions of citizen journalism foundered when newspaper sponsors provided extensive training only to see volunteers lose interest and move on. The Documenters training window is much shorter with reports based on a simple template and turnover therefore much less of a problem. “If they go to one meeting, collect their $56 and don’t come back, that’s ok,”  Mills said.

Her affinity for the sort of coverage Signal Cleveland aims at, Mills told me, dates back to the beginning of her career as a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She thought the city’s minority community was not covered well at all.

Lila Mills is editor-in-chief of Signal Cleveland. (McKinley Wiley, The Dark Room Co.)

“There were a lot of things we (didn’t) know,” she said, “and trust gets eroded. … Reporters always end up talking to one guy. I used to talk with that one guy. Stories aren’t very well-sourced, and the work is limited as a result.”

A decade ago, her career verged into community action groups. The Signal Cleveland job, she said, is “the marriage of the two worlds I’ve been in.” 

The Signal Cleveland name comes with a story. It’s a tribute to Garrett Morgan, the Cleveland African-American inventor and businessman who built the forerunner of the three-color traffic light. Signal also is meant to have an overtone of informing and pointing the way.

The launch marks the climax of a planning process that began in spring 2020 under the direction of the American Journalism Project. As I wrote in earlier coverage of a comparable Houston initiative, soon after it started in early 2019, AJP drew interest from local as well as national foundations  – but the locals wanted a focus on their own communities.

AJP has conducted a long feasibility and listening runup with community input at each stage and for key hires (a business side executive will be coming on board soon).

Michael Ouimette, AJP’s senior vice president for strategy and startups, has filled that role in the meantime. 

The launch process is time-consuming for several reasons, he told me. “We are a startup studio, not an incubator,” he told me. That means aligning philanthropic support and community input into an editorial and business plan – but then hiring others (with a strong preference that they be local) to run the thing.

Also, the listening exercise “is not a one-and-done thing. It needs to be intentional about creating a set of feedback mechanisms.”

While three more initiatives in the mold of Ohio and Houston are in the research and development phase, Ouimette said, not every exploration leads to a go. In Pittsburgh, for example, the elements simply did not come together.

AJP, created by John Thronton, co-founder of the Texas Tribune, and Elizabeth Green, co-founder of Chalkbeat, has a $1 billion ambition to build out the nonprofit news sector to replace and improve on what’s gone missing with the decline of newspapers.

A core principle is that the main news product will be free given that rising subscription rates, and now paywalls, are elitist, pricing out sections of the community from reading the journalism.

Editorially, Mills said, she plans “a fairly standard beat structure,” but with a steady focus on steering away from arcane policy debates. For instance, a city hall story might be all about leaf collection. Or in the case of charter schools, “what that would mean to a parent, how would they choose.” 

One complication: Targeting underserved communities means there will likely be literacy issues for some. That means audio (provided by the radio partner) and video will be an important part of the mix, Mills said – though more of that multimedia is planned for later rather than right at the start.

AJP has built a portfolio of 33 grantees, most of them already established, with more than $120 million pledged. It focuses on building business functions (including donor development), with only a light hand on editorial details, which will look different in different markets.

CEO Sarabeth Berman told me that the Ohio Initiative is the biggest and most consequential to date. (Houston, less far along, has $20 million pledged). “We’re really excited,” she said.  “This marks another milestone in … (creating) a bridge from this crisis moment to (a better) state.”

The business flight path looks tricky to me, and Berman didn’t disagree.  She, Ouimette and Mills all said that the goal, a few years out, is to have a third of revenue come from philanthropy, a third from memberships and individual donors, and a third from business sponsors.  

That has been a tough balance for others to achieve. The target community seems to have fewer potential donors and possibly less appeal for corporate marketers. One third, one third, one third, “is a great guardrail,” Berman said, “but that really means to get (the revenue) as diversified as possible.”

She is unapologetic about how long it has taken from concept to launch.  “Yes, we are going slow. Our take is that this is a fundamental shift, and you can’t do it in a quick and dirty way; it takes a few years.” The process “will definitely go quicker” with subsequent startups.

Mills’ immediate focus is on getting out today’s daily report and tomorrow’s, but she has eyes on a bigger prize. “I think we have an opportunity,” she said, “to build out a model people will really respond to.”

Nov. 15, 2022: The story was updated to correct CEO Sarabeth Berman’s title.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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