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Compass Experiment Seeks Coverage Input Before Launch

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Since The Vindicator announced that it would end publication Aug. 31, there’s been a rush to fill the void. Announcements have come both locally and from the national stage.

Publications like The Business Journal and the Tribune Chronicle in Warren have announced plans to expand coverage and The Compass Experiment – a project led by McClatchy and backed financially by Google – hosted a forum Thursday to gather ideas from the community on what its online news site should cover.

“We know we’re not the only people in town and we don’t want to be,” said Abby Reimer, user experience manager for McClatchy. “The idea in talking to people is to find what needs are unmet. We can’t do everything, so we want to know the biggest stories that are missing and what will be useful.”

Over the course of the 90-minute brainstorming session, about 20 Mahoning Valley residents offered their ideas on the stories that need to be told and the information that would help them in their day-to-day lives.

Many of the suggested areas of coverage are newspaper mainstays: arts and entertainment, sports, new businesses, weddings, investigative reporting, community events, citizens doing good in their communities and more.

Another forum will be held noon to 1:30 p.m. today at the Boardman branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.

Divided into two groups, the participants hit on common threads throughout their discussions, primarily the idea of positive news about Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

“Everybody wanted to talk about the success of the community, the successful things that are working right. They want a cheerleader for the community and see the power of positive thinking,” said Kim Urig, program and special event coordinator for Junior Achievement of the Mahoning Valley. 

“We have to be realistic about what’s going on in the community. There’s a population decline,” she continued. “We have to figure out why that’s happening, and that ties back into the cheerleading and being positive.”

McClatchy announced July 18, about two weeks after The Vindicator said it was closing, that it would launch a local news website with financial backing from Google. The Compass Experiment, Reimer said, has two goals: “create really great, useful local journalism” and gain insight into creating a sustainable model for digital news.

“We’re really focused on what we can learn about creating a financially sustainable local news site that we can share with the journalism industry at large and build these communities as we go,” she said, noting that the project will also launch in two yet-to-be-named cities. 

Staff are still being hired, but The Compass Experiment will employ five: an editor, two reporters, a content manager and a business leader.

Half the staff has been hired, said Compass general manager Mandy Jenkins in a phone interview after the forum. Among the requirements for applicants is that they have a local connection, whether they already live here or moved away and want to return.

Beyond just news stories, though, participants in the forum also said they’re looking for information. The second question Reimer posed was what information they need for their daily lives. 

“I was really surprised at the amount of mundane information people are having trouble accessing. I work in social services and people don’t know where to go online to find information on how to access those services,” said Elizabeth Napela of Youngstown. “As a digital native, I’m well aware of it and know how to navigate it, but a lot of people have trouble.”

On her group’s Post-It notes for ideas on items The Compass Experiment could provide updates on were weather, fundraising events, sports, traffic and food safety.

Not all ideas brought up will be included in the site’s coverage, Reimer said, but suggestions from the two sessions – and more may be held in the future, she added – will be crucial in determining The Compass Experiment’s path.

Outside of the forums, Jenkins said she’s heard of interest in stories on hydraulic fracturing, education and government. With some story ideas and services covered already by local news outlets and The Compass Experiment’s small staff size, she added that there’s work being done to ensure there isn’t too much overlap. When a local editor is hired, she said, that will be among their discussions.

“What are the things we can do and do well? We won’t be able to be everything to everyone in the way a daily newspaper is,” Jenkins said. “What are the things we can pick up that will be unique to what we can do and what will others pick up? One thing people desire is to see that cooperation between local media and make sure that these things are getting done. That’s very important to me too.”

When launched in late September, The Compass Experiment – Jenkins noted that the site will be given a local identifier, with “The Compass Experiment” serving as the name for the larger project – will face local competition for written news. On Aug. 16, The Vindicator and Tribune Chronicle announced the latter had purchased the closing paper’s name, internet domain and subscriber list. The Tribune had earlier announced its intention to launch a Mahoning County edition of its paper.

The Warren newspaper’s publisher, Charles Jarvis, said he hasn’t seen much of what the McClatchy project will entail.

“I’ve been totally immersed in what we’re trying to get done, which is a monumental task between now and the first day of September and delivering to 30,000 new people,” he said. “There’s no rocket science to what we’re going to cover. It’s the daily news happenings of Mahoning County. We’re adding the resources to do that.”

The Tribune-Chronicle has been adding staff and working with The Vindicator’s delivery workers in anticipation of the inaugural issue due out Sept. 1.Combined, the two newspapers will have a circulation of more than 50,000. 

“We don’t have to build it, but we have to add to it. We have management, we have staff. Right now, we’re contracting with the various carriers that The Vindicator used to make a seamless transition,” he said.

The news appearing in the pages of the Ogden Publications-owned paper will be the same kinds of stories The Vindicator’s readers have seen, he said. 

“There’s the police news, hard news, community news,” he continued. “As a daily newspaper, you go day to day to day. Whatever happens, we’ll be close enough and cover it for the first day. I don’t have a clue as to what the news is going to be, but I know that if it happens, we’re going to cover it.”

Pictured: About 20 area residents take part in a forum hosted by The Compass Experiment for suggestions on the news site’s coverage. Operated by McClatchy, the site will launch in late September.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.