Nov 15, 2022 - Economy

New nonprofit newsroom launches in Cleveland with $7.5M in funding

Illustration of a newspaper-covered location icon casting a dollar sign shadow

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Around 17 people are coming together today to launch Signal Cleveland, a new, nonprofit newsroom that plans to fill the void left by the pandemic-era gutting of the city's hometown paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Signal Cleveland's editor-in-chief Lila Mills told Axios.

Why it matters: Community-based nonprofit newsrooms are increasingly being set up across the country in cities like Houston, New Orleans and Baltimore to fill the void of dying newspapers.

  • Today, around 40% of nonprofit news organizations are local, up from about 20% in 2017, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.
  • By 2024, INN estimates that local outlets will make up the majority of nonprofit news organizations.

Details: Signal Cleveland, which is named as a nod to Cleveland native Garrett Morgan — the inventor of the three-way traffic signal — launches Tuesday with $7.5 million in funding from a group of local philanthropies and journalism nonprofits, including the Cleveland Foundation and the American Journalism Project.

  • The newsroom is led by a group of longtime Cleveland journalists, including Mills, community managing editor Lawrence Caswell and news managing editor Mark Naymik.
  • Mills, a former Plain Dealer reporter with deep ties to Cleveland's civic community, said Signal aims to win back the trust of Cleveland residents.
  • "We can have a more nuanced and authentic representation of what's happening in Cleveland," Mills said, noting that there's not going to be "yellow tape" and "mugshots" all over the website. "People are turned away from it."
  • In building the new outlet, Mills said she found that Cleveland's community is very interested in local government and coverage of things like school boards. "Those kinds of things we think we can layer in with more traditional reporting."

Signal's goal is to make its reporting fully accessible by making its journalism free and available via its website, email newsletters, text messages, and through radio and TV partnerships with local stations.

  • In addition to original reporting, Signal will produce civic resources, like guides and explainers, about topics such as making government meetings more accessible and how Cleveland's new public comment system works.
  • Eventually, the outlet plans to build a membership model and make more money from corporate sponsorships so it won't be totally dependent on philanthropy.

The big picture: The number of local nonprofit newsrooms has more than doubled in five years, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News, launching at a rate of more than one per month in that time period.

  • “Local, nonprofit news is driving a major industry shift — a fundamental change in how we finance and sustain local news," said Sarabeth Berman, American Journalism Project CEO.
  • "Injecting philanthropy into the local news industry is a powerful source of revenue that changes the entire local news ecosystem."

Between the lines: Many of those nonprofit newsrooms are focusing on serving communities that have historically been underrepresented in newsrooms.

  • Verite, a new nonprofit focused in New Orleans, provides free content that focuses on systemic and cultural issues "that have left a majority of the population underleveraged," its editor-in-chief Terry Baquet said.
  • "Underserved communities historically have been ignored by legacy media in New Orleans. And both sides know it," he said, noting that New Orleans is 60% Black, with roughly 32% of this population living in poverty.

What to watch: Like Signal, most local nonprofits launch with philanthropy funding but aim to diversify their revenue streams over time.

  • Verite, for example, plans to include underwriting, advertising and events revenue as a part of its business model, its executive director David Francis told Axios.

The bottom line: "Local, nonprofit news is driving a major industry shift — a fundamental change in how we finance and sustain local news," Berman said.

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