Lila Mills leads a staff of 19 reporters and editors at the brand-new nonprofit newsroom, not to mention freelancers or the robust 600-person Cleveland Documenters team. It’s clear, from the get-go, that Signal isn’t duplicating the design of a classic media outlet. While it works to build up its reporting, it also aims to build up the community, too.
“I can’t over-emphasize enough how much we want to be hearing from people,” Mills says. “Our primary goal, right out of the box, is just to build trust with people.”
With her background in both reporting and community building work, Mills culminates the many facets of her career into this new role.
But let’s back up a little. Mills was first pulled into journalism while getting her bachelor’s degree in film at Columbia College in New York. During a Disney internship, Mills felt acutely aware of the mid-1990s welfare reform affecting her community back home.
“I grew up on the southeast side of Cleveland, and my mom was a Head Start teacher. I would come home on my breaks, and I would sub into the classroom so folks could take time off,” Mills says. “It was massively impacting parents and children, and meanwhile, I was in New York in an office building. It was totally disconnected. I got interested in journalism, really, from the perspective of wanting to tell real stories that were happening in Cleveland.”
She got her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and started her career in TV, then worked as a police reporter at The Plain Dealer, which employed hundreds of reporters at the time.
Later, she became editor of the Greater University Circle Neighborhood Voice, a community newspaper run by Neighborhood Connections. Mills stayed on at Neighborhood Connections, an organization focused on community building, for more than a decade. Through her roles as communications manager and associate director, she worked with the Cleveland Documenters, a part of the national Documenters network that pays people to attend and report on public meetings.
When Signal came together in 2021 and 2022, the Documenters folded neatly into the publication’s ethos.
So did Mills.
“Really when we started, we just thought, 'Hey, if we get some people who are interested in this like we are, that’d be a huge win.’ So to have so many hundreds of people come out and be interested in this has been mind-blowing,” Mills says, “but then to have the opportunity to say, 'OK, you can build a team around this that’s directly responsive to what people are interested in’ — we could never have imagined that.”
The project found widespread support, gaining $7.5 million in seed funding from organizations like the Cleveland Foundation, the American Journalism Project, Visible Voice Charitable Fund and more.
Mills says Signal is designed to make Cleveland’s news as accessible as possible. In its initial weeks, Signal published stories about wage theft, literacy rates, local entrepreneurs and governmental organizations’ inner workings. Along with its stories posted online, Signal aims to utilize text messaging services, pamphlets and fliers, videos, podcasts and social media for its storytelling and news-sharing.
It’s not your average media outlet, and it’s not trying to be. Mills says Signal doesn’t compete with other local media outlets directly.
“We want to be additive,” Mills says. “If we get up to a staff of 20 — you could drop 10 Signal Clevelands — and you still wouldn’t be at the level of original reporting that was out in the Cleveland media landscape 10 to 20 years ago. I think there’s enough room for us to be added.”
In a lot of ways, Mills sees Signal as a potential path forward in navigating a news climate that’s seen shrinking newsrooms here in Cleveland and across the country. If it can prove its concept after an initial four-year run, Mills hopes to see the model catch on and ripple into new markets.
Named after Cleveland inventor Garrett Morgan’s traffic signal that’s still widely used today, Signal Cleveland’s name taps into its spirit. In her editor’s note introducing the publication, Mills wrote: “A signal — similar to a lighthouse — can be a beacon, a trusted guide that lights the way. We aim to be just that, a trusted source of daily news and information for Greater Clevelanders.”