As it covers the coronavirus, this small newsroom is reminding readers ‘this is a local business’

Mahoning Matters launched six months ago in Youngstown, Ohio. Last week, it launched a reader support program

April 14, 2020

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This was supposed to be a story chronicling the infancy of a local news site born from the death of the local newspaper. In Youngstown, Ohio, Mahoning Matters launched shortly after The Vindicator stopped printing and closed in all but name and domain.

In early March, I spoke with the publisher Mandy Jenkins about what the four-person team, who all came from The Vindicator, was learning about making a local site work.

It had been a slow start, she said then, but so far the site was finding success in getting revenue from underwriting and newsletter sponsorships with local businesses instead of display ads.

In February, the site had its best month yet, she said, but “we didn’t build this site for scale, and I think talking about that and being honest about that with local advertisers is great, and it’s not what they’re used to.”

Also, she said, “I don’t think it will be enough.”

Later this year, Jenkins told me, they planned to launch a membership model.

She and I spoke again last week, mid-pandemic, and “later this year” became now when the site started a funding drive, asking people to help support it with between $5 and $20 a month. Mahoning Matters doesn’t have a paywall. It’s funded through Google News Initiative’s Local News Experiments Project and McClatchy has editorial control.

The newsroom hasn’t lost ad revenue yet, Jenkins said, “but we had a lot of on-the-bubble deals that I think are probably gone now.”

Times are rough for a lot of people, and the newsroom isn’t pushing its funding drive hard, but with higher-than-ever readership numbers and continual coverage of the coronavirus bringing in new audiences, “we figure it’s a good time to be able to tell readers they can keep us around.”

The Membership Puzzle Project, which studies and reports on membership models for news around the world, recently wrote about how newsrooms were adapting membership appeals during the global pandemic. It included this advice from News Revenue Hub:

“If your newsroom is providing a true service to your community at this moment, there are appropriate ways to ask for support.”

Mahoning Matters is in a unique position right now, Jenkins said, because of how it started and the still-small staff. People might not pledge financial support, she said, but getting them to come back and to subscribe to the daily newsletter, that’s also a measure of success.

The reader drive is not, yet, a plea to keep the lights on.

“But we wanted to let them know, this is something we’re gonna need,” she said.

Local businesses, including advertising partners, are struggling. And no one knows when that will end or what recovery will look like.

“This is a local business,” Jenkins said. “If we’re gonna be successful, we’re gonna have to have local funding.”

In the midst of this, the newsroom is unable to gather and mourn the death of Mahoning Matter’s business executive Mark Eckert from the coronavirus. Like the rest of the staff, he came to the site from The Vindicator, and was critical for introducing the new site to the community, Jenkins said.

“He knew everyone.”

The day before he got sick, over coffee at Mocha House downtown, Jenkins said Eckert worried that he wasn’t bringing in ad dollars fast enough.

It will take time, she remembers telling him.

On Monday, Mahoning Matters editor Mark Sweetwood told readers about a new feature, “and there is a backstory.”

He continued:

When we sat down to plan the rollout of Mahoning Matters last September, we conceptualized a section devoted to those who made a difference in our community. The working title was “Difference Makers.”

We focused on building out other areas of MahoningMatters.com as our Business Executive Mark Eckert set out to find partners to help fuel our ideas. We also evolved the original Difference Makers idea to tell the stories of the unsung heroes of the pandemic. On Friday before he was hospitalized, Mark broke the news: Eastwood Mall was going to partner with us to launch Difference Makers.

Then we lost Mark. We were still deep in our grief when the folks at Eastwood Mall asked if they could dedicate the series to Mark. So each week you’ll see this editor’s note: “Difference Makers articles share stories of the local heroes making a difference during the extraordinary times of the COVID-19 pandemic. This section is made possible by Eastwood Mall and named in honor of Mark Eckert, who made a difference in the Mahoning Valley.”

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org and writes a weekly newsletter on the transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

This daily look at coronavirus coverage by local news and resources for them is made possible with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that funding comes through Google and editorial control through McClatchy.