A study by the American Journalism Project found diminishing original local reporting in Northeast Ohio
In 2020, a coalition of northeast Ohio organizations asked the American Journalism Project to do an assessment of local information needs in the Cleveland and Akron areas. The coalition had been exploring the impact of information gaps in their communities, and, like a growing number of philanthropies around the country, they saw a few themes:
A trusted source of independent, verified information is vital to the foundation of any community.
People want and need information to be civically engaged.
The absence and/or decline of such information sources make it harder for change to happen on any issue they may care about, whether it’s education, health, economic development, or something else.
To better understand what residents of Cleveland and Akron wanted from their information sources, the American Journalism Project spoke to over 130 people across dozens of professions, including teachers, musicians, clergy members, and government employees. Interviewees and focus group participants represented a cross section of neighborhoods, income, race, ethnicity, language or literacy level, residency status, gender and sexuality, broadband access, and experiences with poverty, the justice system, sexual assault, and more.
The research team also assessed the existing reporting resources in Northeast Ohio, such as local newspapers, TV, public broadcasting, radio, community media, and non-traditional information sources such as social media pages with large followings, and offline social networks.
A need for verified information people can use in their daily lives
When asked about the kinds of information they wanted, residents had a lot to say.
Many told us they wanted to see more coverage that pushed for accountability from the agencies and institutions serving them—reporters who would ask tough questions on behalf of their communities, who would consistently follow up, and make it more difficult for decisions to be made without transparency. They said they want coverage of government meetings to help them understand how or why decisions were made, rather than just reporting on the decisions.
People said they wanted more followup on community-level risks, such as unsolved crimes, failed public services, and environmental and health risks. They also wanted actionable information about what to do about those risks, such as understanding their rights when dealing with lead and other toxins.
Residents also said they wanted information about how to get in contact with local agencies, or to get basic questions answered about things like their taxes. They wanted guides for how to get basic needs met and access public services, affordable housing, jobs, food, or financial literacy help. Some residents who work in fields providing services told us they wanted ways to let communities know their services were available.
People said they wanted information about how to navigate local school systems so their children could access full educational opportunities, or how to protect their children from violence and addiction.
Residents affected by the justice system said they don’t have a trusted source for information about job opportunities, changing regulations that affect their livelihoods, or basic information about what to expect in court. They said most stories they see about people who are formerly incarcerated are negative, instead of positive examples that might show the way for returning citizens. Meanwhile, people working in the justice system, including corrections officers and judges, said they rarely see nuanced coverage of their perspectives.
Black and Latinx residents told us they wanted more holistic coverage of their communities, that acknowledges the full diversity within their communities, and tells the full spectrum of stories about the neighborhoods they live in. Many told us they feel there is disproportionate focus on the sensational aspects of crime and other negative stories in their communities, that it is difficult to find follow-up about implications for safety, while stories about people, culture, opportunity, and solutions have largely been left untold.
We heard from people working in community organizations that information can be difficult to access, due to literacy, language, and Internet access challenges.
These desires were expressed to us in interviews, focus groups, and spaces we created for people to speak openly, and anonymously, about their information needs.
Homegrown assets, heroic efforts, and an opportunity to fill the gaps
The story of local news in most places in the country are similar—many cities as large as Cleveland once had robust local newspapers that have either disappeared or made significant cuts to staff, leading to less original reporting in the overall ecosystem. Since 2008, newsrooms have let more people go than they currently employ today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Cleveland has been no stranger to this trend. The largest newsrooms serving the region—while storied institutions that have traditionally contributed an important volume of original reporting—have faced market headwinds. Around the time the American Journalism Project’s research started last year, Advance Local announced that 22 people had been laid off from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, leaving the once bustling newsroom of hundreds with a single digit staff count, though Cleveland.com still employs over 60 journalists. Later in the year, Ideastream announced layoffs due to COVID-19. Cleveland Scene has also announced staff cuts in the midst of the pandemic.
Such dramatic cuts to reporting resources reverberate throughout information ecosystems. While different outlets may play critical roles in specialized reporting, telling stories through the lenses of specific communities, or in packaging and distribution, most ecosystem players suffer when the volume of original reporting in a place is reduced to a small fraction of what it once was.
Cleveland is home to bright spots, however—a number of local programs have strived to fill the gap left by overall shrinking reporting capacity, from community media initiatives such as WOVU 95.9FM and the Cleveland Observer, to networks of community members who’ve stepped up to be information sources for their neighbors. We learned that it was assets such as these that enabled the successful launch of Cleveland Documenters at Neighborhood Connections, which has trained over 400 residents to document public meetings in just its first year. A long list of publications are working every day to serve and connect different communities, including La Mega for Cleveland’s Spanish-speaking community, the Buckeye Flame for the city’s LGBTQ+ community, longtime community media outlets in neighborhoods across the city such as members of the Neighborhood and Community Media Association, and many journalists who continue to work tirelessly to serve Greater Clevelanders.
With these assets in place, and a coalition of philanthropies and community leaders who see the value of supporting independent, local journalism, the American Journalism Project identified a strong opportunity to support the ecosystem, and Cleveland communities, with a newsroom staffed to be responsive to all the things we heard residents wanted as it grows. Our recommendation was to leverage the benefits of a nonprofit model, seeded by philanthropy, to create a statewide network that enable local newsrooms to share business and operations resources, and replenish original reporting resources in Cleveland and throughout Ohio.