Chris Horne remembers the specific story that broke him. It was June 2014, and Horne was working as a social media producer at News 5 Cleveland. A Cleveland man, Derrice Alexander, got into an argument with his girlfriend, pulled out a gun and fired a shot, killing his 2-year-old son, Derrice Alexander Jr.
Horne watched News 5 Cleveland cover the story, and something in him cracked. He knew why his station, and all the other news outlets in Cleveland, were publishing stories about the horrific crime. It was news, and they were bound by their duties to viewers, readers and shareholders to report it. But Horne couldn’t understand why what led up to and followed the crime did not warrant the same attention. “Everybody did a story on it, but there was this impact on the community that wasn’t being measured at all. Nobody was going in there and talking about domestic violence or any of the conditions that would have led to this situation,” he says. “It was just exploiting it for traffic. And I got tired of being a part of that.”
So Horne quit, and in 2014 set up an alt-weekly magazine, The Devil Strip, in Akron. But the magazine could only get so far on advertising revenue alone. In 2019, Horne set in motion a plan for the first-ever community-owned news co-op in the nation.
The for-profit model of publications like The Plain Dealer or the Akron Beacon Journal, and even of stations like News 5 Cleveland, was leaving gaps in local news coverage, Horne realized. And even when the business side of those publications held to the tradition of not interfering with news coverage, its decisions inevitably shaped the way publications covered their communities. “If the goal of the business model is to make as much money for a hedge fund as possible before it all collapses, then it’s going to shape the journalism,” says Horne.
The co-op model, Horne thought, could serve the needs of the community directly by making community members its shareholders. “It’s literally not going to make anybody any money,” Horne says. “That’s the point of it, to take the profit motive out of the reporting.”
The model calls for The Devil’s Strip’s revenue to come almost entirely from readers, who are encouraged to become active participants in The Devil Strip’s governance. Content is offered for free online and in its printed publication, and readers support the magazine by purchasing memberships. The publication has also continued to sell ads and sponsorships. The memberships are set up on a sliding scale, from $11 to $144 a year, to make them accessible to the widest possible audience. Once a member pays a total of $330, they become a shareholder, which means they can run for a seat on The Devil Strip’s governing board themselves or cast a vote for a board member who supports their views. Shareholders get a say on issues such as the publication’s budget and coverage topics.
Horne considered the traditional nonprofit model, where money to pay for journalism would be raised from wealthy individuals, foundations and the public. But he found it imperfect. Fundraising is time-consuming and arduous. And to Horne, the nonprofit model would have replaced an inaccessible group of shareholders with an inaccessible group of donors. “The intentions are better,” says Horne. “But without that public input and participation, how do you know you’re not going to bend the editorial mission toward whatever the Knight Foundation wants, or whatever MacArthur [Foundation] wants or Ford [Foundation] wants, or whoever is giving you money?”
Initial costs for the co-op were covered by a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, a $50,000 grant from the GAR Foundation and a $30,000 grant from the Membership Puzzle Project. Horne is grateful for those donations, but he sees them only as startup investments. He hopes the co-op will not be reliant on foundations for its funding in the future.
The Devil Strip currently has 11 staff members, including two Report for America fellows. Seven are full-time, including three reporters and an editor. They and a crew of freelancers cover a wide variety of stories, including the fallout from accusations of racism at the Akron Art Museum, one family’s experience with eviction, local Black Lives Matter protests and how Akron artists are taking performances online during the coronavirus.
The co-op launched in February, months after GateHouse Media, which owned the Akron Beacon Journal, purchased Gannett. So far, the co-op has more than 500 members. The Devil Strip has enough money on hand for about seven more months of operations at its current level, says Horne. If it were to reach about 3,000 members, the publication would be able to pay its bills on memberships alone. “I wanted something that would give Akronites a little skin in the game,” says Horne. “It’s not just our financial longevity that’s at stake with the co-op. Their participation shapes whether or not we’re a good publication.”
There are far fewer reporters in Cleveland than there once were.
In the early 1980s, The Plain Dealer alone employed about 400 newsroom staffers, including reporters, editors, layout artists, illustrators and cartoonists. That number stood at more than 300 well into the mid-1990s.
Between Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene, Cleveland.com, Cleveland Jewish News and Crain’s Cleveland Business, there are just over 100 editorial staffers working in Cleveland today. Fewer than that are full-time reporters. If one includes in that estimate traditional print publications such as the Medina Gazette and Lorain’s The Morning Journal, regional sites such as Belt Magazine and the small community of frequent freelancers, there are perhaps 200 editorial employees dealing primarily in the written word in various capacities. They serve a region of more than 2 million people and, even combined, their number pales in comparison to what The Plain Dealer once had alone.
Those reductions are tied to the shrinking paper medium. Between 2004 and 2017, Ohio lost 60% of its newspaper industry jobs, according to a report by the local think tank Policy Matters Ohio. Cuyahoga County experienced the sharpest decline of overall newspaper jobs in the state, losing 80% in that time. The number of newsroom employees experienced a similarly precipitous decline between 2012 and 2018 in the state, dropping by nearly 43%. “That’s a huge amount,” says Caitlin Johnson, one of the report’s authors.
Even winnowed by a still-sliding print subscriber count, Cleveland’s largest employer of reporters remains the Cleveland.com/Plain Dealer monolith. Advance Local is a private company and does not disclose specific figures, but Harmon says that a “decent portion” of its revenue still comes from print.
Harmon expects print subscriptions to plateau. The strategy Cleveland.com uses to pay its bills instead is to offer stories for free online to run up large traffic numbers, against which ads can be sold. And traffic has, indeed, grown. In May, Cleveland.com pulled in 9.9 million hits and 4 million unique visitors. A story about the resignation of Ohio health director Dr. Amy Acton in June netted 540,000 views alone, says Harmon.
But after offering a free lunch since 2013, this spring, Cleveland.com learned the value of portion control. Advance Ohio is not abandoning the advertising-supported digital model, but, in the midst of the coronavirus downturn, it started to solicit voluntary digital-only subscriptions from Cleveland.com readers. About 1,400 people subscribed, says Harmon. Quinn also announced on Cleveland.com that starting in July some of the site’s stories will be labeled “exclusive” and be accessible only to people with Cleveland.com accounts. Exclusive stories will eventually be put behind a subscriber-only paywall, though Quinn wrote that “90%” of the site’s stories will remain free. (Harmon is unsure yet what proportion of stories will eventually be paywalled.)
With fewer reporters working in Cleveland, the quality of individual stories is not lost so much as the scale of coverage. There are still many excellent reporters working at places such as Cleveland.com, investigating wrongdoing and holding public officials accountable. But when there are fewer of them, says Poynter’s Edmonds, important subject areas, such as education, get less attention. “A lot is gone,” says Edmonds. “Sometimes investigative reporting is something they keep, but you lose a lot of people at meetings, keeping an eye on what’s going on.”
Cleveland.com will be beefing up its coverage of areas such as education and health care soon, Harmon says, though he said additional staff will not be hired. “In the next several months, we’re going to start focusing on certain categories that are very, very important to the community at large that we haven’t done as good a job as we could have in the recent past,” Harmon says.
Policy Matters, in its report, pointed out the ways that reduced local news coverage impacts cities like Cleveland. Studies show that less coverage of local politics correlates with lower voter participation, especially in midterm years, and tends to favor the incumbent. When newspapers shut down, municipal borrowing costs go up. And epidemiologists often use local news reports to track the spread of viruses. With fewer reporters, those reports lose their impact. “A lot of times you think of newspapers as the Fourth Estate, the watchdog, important for democracy. And it is of course,” says Johnson. “But there’s much more to it.”
If there is a positive from such a decline of Cleveland’s mainstream media, it is that it has recently fostered a culture of experimentation in niche media. Neighborhood Connections is launching a one-year pilot program to pay locals $16 an hour to document local public meetings in partnership with Chicago-based City Bureau. Ken Schneck, a Cleveland Magazine freelancer, recently launched The Buckeye Flame, which covers the LGBTQ community statewide. The Cleveland Review of Books, established in 2018, gives writers a chance to critique art, books and more. And freelancer Lee Chilcote and former Freshwater Cleveland publisher Tammy Wise have launched The Land, a news startup that covers Cleveland’s neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. A group of former Plain Dealer reporters, including Dissell, have also begun to investigate the possibility of creating a new nonprofit reporting and civic engagement outfit.
For Horne, he hopes his co-op model will spur a structural change in Northeast Ohio, one that divorces publications from their uncertain business models and joins them at the hip with the communities they serve. “Can you do it?” he says. “Yeah. It just means thinking very differently about what a newsroom is.”
Feran, for his part, is resigned to the further decline of newspapering. He is semi-retired, but is also an admirer of the historian Robert Caro, who has continued doing journalism into his mid-80s. So he continues to work. He recently finished co-writing a book. The House That Rock Built, which tells the story of the creation of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, comes out in September.
There are still moments since he was laid off from The Plain Dealer when he finds himself reaching for his phone — seeing a story that needs reporting. Then he will pause.
“The trouble is, I don’t know who to call in [to],” Feran says, “or there’s nobody to call anymore.”