by Will Fischer
It’s not easy running a local news outlet in the middle of a pandemic. For the Erie Chinese Journal, a Cleveland-based publication that serves Chinese communities in the Midwest, distribution became a major problem. People weren’t picking up newspapers like they usually did.
Fortunately, the journal belongs to the Neighborhood & Community Media Association of Greater Cleveland (NCMA-CLE), a collaborative of 14 local media outlets in Northeast Ohio. NCMA-CLE and its members share access to resources provided by the Neighborhood Media Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Rich Weiss to support small media producers.
Weiss saw that many of these small local publications were struggling with distribution during the pandemic, so he wrote and applied for a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project to help pay for new methods like direct mailing.
In May, the Erie Chinese Journal was awarded the grant — nearly $65,000 — to fund direct mail home delivery of newspapers, three weekly email newsletters and text communications. It was the first grant the Erie Chinese Journal had ever received.
In fact, Weiss applied for grants on behalf of all 14 member outlets in NCMA-CLE, a service that many of these hardworking local journalists cherish — and might not have the time or expertise to do otherwise.
“I wouldn’t have the confidence to apply for grants myself,” said Jessie Schoonover, associate director of the Neighborhood Media Foundation and founder of the West Park Times, a NCMA-CLE member outlet. “But when a person like Rich says we’ll do it as a group, as this combined voice, it really helps to get it done.”
Providing support to local journalists
There are few things Weiss loves more than local journalism. In 2011, he and his wife launched The Tremonster, a small newspaper for their Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont. Soon after, Weiss realized that a nonprofit foundation was necessary to support local journalists like himself.
Weiss previously had worked in nonprofit fundraising for community organizations and festivals, and said the challenge of supporting his grassroots newspaper and similar ones around Cleveland seemed identical to raising money for nonprofits. So, by 2014, Weiss set up the Neighborhood Media Foundation to better serve local journalists around Cleveland.
Soon Chuck Hoven, a longtime editor for the Plain Press, a local newspaper for Cleveland’s west side, suggested they restart a small Cleveland newspaper association from the 1980s. Weiss looked throughout the city for surviving member outlets, set up meetings, put together a new charter and bylaws, and revived an official group of nine local publications in 2018.
“NCMA-CLE was a vehicle for our outlets to work collaboratively instead of competitively to deliver better quality information to our separate audiences, and to assist each other in navigating the new media landscape,” Weiss said.
Today, NCMA-CLE numbers 14, and membership is a prerequisite to receiving services from the Neighborhood Media Foundation. In addition to submitting grant proposals — like the one the Erie Chinese Journal received — the foundation coordinates group advertising sales, hiring extra editors, reporters, or freelancers, and both print and digital content distribution.
Many of NCMA-CLE’s member outlets are print-only, or still rely heavily on print newspapers for distribution. While this is both a point of pride and perhaps a fading reality, the pandemic has forced the local publications to find new distribution methods in place of lost foot traffic.
As a result, the Neighborhood Media Foundation has dedicated extra attention to setting up robust direct mailing and texting lists, a stronger social media presence, and better websites for many of its outlets.
The foundation’s resources, paired with the association’s support, have been invaluable for the survival of these small local outlets, especially during the pandemic. “If you have a need, you go to the foundation or association,” said Schoonover.
The Neighborhood Media Foundation also provides NCMA-CLE with other unique opportunities. For example, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has agreed to several exclusive press conferences with the member outlets of NCMA-CLE, on topics ranging from the location of a new Cleveland Police Department headquarters building to vital pandemic concerns.
“The mayor wouldn’t necessarily think any of us worthy of doing an interview,” said Rich T. Andrews, current president of NCMA-CLE and founder of the Real Deal Press, a NCMA-CLE member outlet. “But when we combine and say there’s 12 of us, it’s a way to reach 85,000 to 100,000 people, and then that gets more interesting.”
In addition, the Neighborhood Media Foundation has organized press conferences with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO, arranged wire reports for its member outlets to share, managed collaborations among local publications, and set up a pipeline with Cleveland State University for student journalism and video internships.
But for Weiss, all of these achievements serve one larger purpose — creating a more diverse, representative, and trusted local media ecosystem in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.
Building trust with representative neighborhood media
Even though diversity is now a buzzword in every big city newsroom, it doesn’t seem like legacy media is actually becoming more representative of the communities many outlets purport to cover. Weiss believes many efforts have failed because of a single truth: It isn’t possible for just one or two newspapers to accurately cover all of the neighborhoods in a major city.
“The answer isn’t to continue going down the same direction of one newsroom covering this entire area,” Weiss said. “That in itself is a paradigm we want to shift. Instead, we need to diversify the media sources. We need to create new community media — grassroots media — that starts with the residents that you’re missing.”
Weiss knows that most people are going to trust their own community members more than they do big media companies. A 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey found that 73% of people say they trust local newspapers, with only 59% for national newspapers and 47% for online-only news outlets.
The member outlets that make up NCMA-CLE represent a wide range of neighborhoods and populations — and they are trusted by their readers because they understand and typically belong to the communities they report on. In addition to the Erie Chinese Journal, which publishes in Chinese, Profile News Ohio publishes in Arabic for Cleveland’s Middle Eastern communities, and La Mega Nota Cleveland publishes in Spanish for Cleveland’s Hispanic communities.
Moreover, Andrews says that his publication is for a majority Black audience, while other member outlets, like the Cleveland Street Chronicle, are almost entirely written, published and distributed by people who have the lived experience of homelessness. The diversity of NCMA-CLE’s members enhances the sharing of perspectives at meetings, improves the range of coverage areas and story ideation and makes for better journalism.
“I can sit in a meeting like that and hear something about a neighborhood that I didn’t know about, and that can give me an idea for pursuing that same topic in a different geographic area,” Andrews said.
Replicating the collaborative model
Weiss is intent on expanding the success of NCMA-CLE and the Neighborhood Media Foundation — and he has found supporters to help him on this mission.
Lucia Walinchus, executive director at the Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism (Eye on Ohio), is a frequent collaborator with NCMA-CLE. In addition to sharing content and organizing collaborations with NCMA-CLE, Walinchus shares a larger vision with Weiss.
“Our ultimate goal is to attract funding and sponsorships from people to care about local journalism, and to use that to power community reporting by giving extra resources to local outlets,” Walinchus said.
To that end, Weiss, Walinchus, and others are exploring the idea of expanding the Neighborhood Media Foundation and NCMA-CLE model to other cities in Northeast Ohio. They call these Media Ecosystem Support Hubs — or MESH — and have identified Akron, Kent, and Youngstown as possible destinations ripe for collaboration.
All of these locations are on or near state university campuses, and Weiss is hoping to lean on their journalism programs to build better local media ecosystems across Northeast Ohio. The model would be largely the same — connect small neighborhood outlets, create strength in numbers, and figure out how to provide local journalists with whatever they need to survive and thrive.
“For example, a bank might not want to take out an ad in one small newspaper, but could be attracted to an ad that appears in 13 different newspapers,” said Walinchus. “A small news outlet might not have the time or money to consult a media lawyer on a project. But they might be able to access one through MESH.”
While the conversations are still preliminary, and funding has yet to be secured, there is much reason for excitement, as many of these local journalists are already working together. Currently, there are 19 publications (including many NCMA-CLE outlets) participating in the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism collaborative, and last December, five Ohio foundations put $110,000 toward nine collaborative journalism efforts that involved more than 50 media and community organizations. (In full disclosure, the Center for Cooperative Media ran two workshops in Northeast Ohio in 2019 to help seed those nine collaborations).
Local journalists are becoming accustomed to collaboration in Northeast Ohio—and working together will be necessary to connect the dots and build community-powered, representative neighborhood media across the region.
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Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine, and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at email@example.com.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.