By Mandy Jenkins
Publisher, Mahoning Matters
YOUNGSTOWN — What a difference a year makes. At the start of 2020, Mahoning Matters was a brand-new local news website in the Mahoning Valley. Today the site attracts more than 200,000 users every month and has forged key relationships with local readers and funders to carve out a sustainable future for local news.
From its launch in October 2019, the team focused on telling exclusive stories through an accountability lens. In February 2020, Mahoning Matters had its highest traffic month yet, primarily driven by extensive coverage of local nursing home inspections. Then, coronavirus hit the Mahoning Valley and changed everything.
Suddenly, local readers were seeking rapidly-changing information about the virus and its effects on schools, public services, and businesses. Editor Mark Sweetwood had to shift his staff to cover more hours and days to ensure the latest information was made available to readers.
Hewing to Mahoning Matters’ mission of solutions-oriented journalism, the staff created resources for the community to navigate the confusion of the early days of COVID-19, including compiling lists of local restaurants offering delivery and takeout services answering incoming coronavirus questions.
Reporting on the coronavirus hit close to home for the Mahoning Matters team when Mark Eckert, the site’s business executive, succumbed to the virus in late March.
The setbacks posed by COVID-19 for local businesses posed a challenge for Mahoning Matters’ advertising-dependent business model. So, on the publication’s six-month anniversary on April 9, Mahoning Matters launched a reader funding initiative, inviting dedicated readers to directly support local news with a one-time or monthly contribution. Since the start of that drive, more than 250 members of the community have contributed.
The local philanthropic community has also become a key ally in sustaining Mahoning Matters. The Thomases Family Endowment of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, Youngstown Foundation, and the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley have all generously contributed to Mahoning Matters. These contributions helped Mahoning Matters on a path toward sustainability and, at the same time, grow its reporting team with a new reporter hired in collaboration with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
For many news startups, audience growth happens through repeated interactions in the community. With most events canceled due to COVID-19, Mahoning Matters created a series of locally-focused virtual events in partnership with Stambaugh Auditorium to convene experts and newsmakers around the top news stories of the year.
In 2021, Mahoning Matters plans to continue these events with Stambaugh and other partners, eventually allowing for in-person participation once COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease.
In the next year, the Mahoning Matters team will focus on the Mahoning Valley’s recovery in the wake of COVID-19. Report for America has extended their partnership for an additional year, allowing for an additional reporter on the team through spring 2022.
As the local economy opens back up, Mahoning Matters will grow its partnership offerings with local advertisers, focusing on special sponsored sections such as “Movers and Makers,” which highlights local entrepreneurs in the Mahoning Valley, sponsored by Farmers National Bank.
Local fundraising continues in 2021 with The Mahoning Matters Journalism Impact Fund. This fund with the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley ensures future contributions are managed professionally in the community. This impact fund also allows Mahoning Matters, a for-profit business, to accept tax-deductible donations in partnership with a fiscal sponsor, the McClatchy Journalism Institute.
The Mahoning Matters team includes editor Mark Sweetwood, assistant editor Jeremy Harper, reporters Justin Dennis and Jess Hardin, and Thea Nixon, business development & community partnerships.