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How 3 Creative News Agencies Reinvent Local News in the Midwest

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The article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

Ohio media owned by the readers it serves. A startup newsletter for black residents of Iowa. A student-reported website providing information about a Kansas news desert. And a digital-only Ohio newsroom modeling solutions journalism.

These are some of the innovative news organizations featured in a new video reporting project by students at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

Medill professor Craig Duff’s class of 14 students worked in pairs to visit seven Midwestern news operations as part of a spring project that emerged after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted others plans.

“We do something called Medill Explores every year, where the entire graduate school in the middle of the term takes a week off, does some kind of project, adventure, usually travel related,” Duff said. “In recent years, I have taken students to Buenos Aires. This year it was not possible. So we proposed this project instead.

Eudora, Kansas, is not Buenos Aires, but the students made the adjustment.

“I admit that a lot of our classmates, knowing that Medill Explores included international travel, were like, ‘What is this? Are we going to Akron and Iowa? ‘ But it ended up being very beneficial, ”said college student Melody Guernsey, who worked on the Black Iowa News profile.

Duff got the support of the Collective listening post, which helps journalists and nonprofits connect with communities. Jesse Hardman and Fernando Diaz of the Listening Post helped Medill students organize their tours and also helped edit the video afterward. The Medill Explores program is funded with the support of alumni and friends of Medill.

Here are three of the media featured.


The Devil Strip is a monthly magazine from Akron, Ohio that was largely focused on entertainment until the pandemic ended live performances, forcing staff to focus more on social justice and social justice. survey projects.

What sets the Devil Strip apart from many local media outlets across the country is how it is organized as a cooperative, with hundreds of readers as owners.

“We wanted to explore what it was, how it works and how it benefits the community and the organization itself,” said Laura Harris, a student at Medill, who produced the video with Yuhan Ma.

The Devil Strip was founded in 2015 by Chris Horne, taking its name from the phrase locals use to describe the thin strip of grass that lies between the sidewalk and the street.

In an age when hedge funds are taking over many mainstream media, grassroots ownership has its advantages.

“We can never be bought out by a big company or a person,” Devil Strip reporter Noor Hindi said. “No one owns the Devil Strip. “

“The current business model is completely broken for local news,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean of Medill and John M. Mutz president of local news. “The industry is therefore going to have to be creative in how it is going to finance its local journalism. I think co-ops are definitely one way to do it.

MORE FROM POYNTER: Funding models for the future Newsroom


Black Iowa News, which distributes its news only through Substack newsletter, is an example of how a single, determined person can make a difference in the modern news environment.

Dana James, a former Des Moines Register reporter, launched Black Iowa News at the start of the pandemic because she believed the state’s black population (about 4% of the population) was underserved by the media, in especially at a time when people of color were dying from the virus at a higher rate.

“She saw a disparity among blacks in Iowa and really wanted to fix it,” said Guernsey, a Medill student, who reported on James’ efforts with Isabelle Stroobandt. “… We have learned how a person can really do so much to make a difference.”

Black Iowa News offers three options: free news, more for a monthly subscription, and even more for an annual subscription.

James told Medill students that a newsletter rather than a website was the most convenient platform for her.

“When you’re building a website, these technical issues just eat up your time,” James said. “And here we are in the midst of a pandemic. People live and die by words and by what happened. I didn’t have time to spend two hours a day worrying about the backend of the website. I just wanted to write.

Silvia Rivera of Listening Post Collective said publishing newsletters can give voice to people who have often been on the sidelines.

“The Substack model and the subscription model it uses addresses a really important need and creates a very easy way for you to support it,” Rivera said. “So I think we’re going to see a lot more and that will hopefully be a game-changer for communities that have not traditionally been served by the media.”


A digital-only medium created 8 years ago in Mansfield, Ohio, Richland Source has become known both for its strong local ownership and for its focus on solutions journalism.

“They don’t just report stories, they report ways to solve problems in their community,” said Kelly Heinzerling, a Medill student, who presented The Source with Kayla McDermott.

Franklin de Medill said the Source must watch.

“Here we have in the middle of Ohio what I think is arguably one of the most innovative local news organizations in the United States,” Franklin said. “He does solutions journalism, so he’s telling the community that we’re not only going to report the issues that are happening here, but we’re also going to take a look at what is working.”

This place was actually solutions journalism before it was called solutions journalism, ”said Source City editor Carl Hunnell.

And at a time when many communities are seeing their local outlets shrinking on orders from the national chains that own them, the local nature of Source seems to be a big plus.

“It’s very important to have that local presence,” said Source reporter Katie Ellington, “and our readers know that not only do our reporters live here, but the owners of Richland Source live here. The publisher lives here. The publisher lives here.

Duff, the professor who runs the project, produced a documentary last year called “Newstown” on the closure of the Youngstown Vindicator in northeast Ohio; and on how various news outlets have taken creative steps to fill the void. Clearly, more creativity will be needed: Medill guest professor Penny Abernathy found that more than a quarter of American newspapers were gone in the 15 years before her. Report 2020 “current deserts”.

“In doing ‘Newstown’,” said Duff, “I was seeing some of these innovations happening there. I was really intrigued to see if these things were happening elsewhere and, considering all the disastrous things we hear from our colleague Penny about the state of the news and newspaper deserts in the country, what is it? who else works out there. “

Duff said the student project was “an opportunity to get out… and find out that there are some really interesting things out there that are solid solutions.”

Franklin, who heads the Medill Local News initiative, saw the video project as a showcase for inventive thinking.

“What I really like about it is that it brings together in one package a visual, in-depth look at some of the most innovative local news projects in the country,” Franklin said. “… I don’t think there is a single solution to the local news crisis. I think there is going to be a combination of models that work. One of the things I really enjoyed watching these videos was that they captured the range of possibilities for what the future of local news could look like. “

Duff believes the work can make his students optimistic because they “see the energy out there after being told so often as journalism students that their industry is in decline.”

Of course, not all of the students’ experiences were captured in the videos. For example, the team that visited the Richland Source sampled the local color.

“The students ate raccoon at the raccoon festival,” Duff said. “They didn’t make this history.”

Next in this series: How Students Boost Local News in Kansas and Indiana.