Lila Mills — founding editor-in-chief of Signal Cleveland — on starting a newsroom from scratch and building the trust required to be the source of daily news and information for Greater Clevelanders.
Lay of The Land's conversation today is with Lila Mills — founding editor-in-chief of Signal Cleveland (formerly known as the Ohio Local News Initiative Cleveland newsroom).
Lila has been working in community and media for more than 20 years. She most recently spent almost 11 years with the nationally-recognized community building program Neighborhood Connections where her work ranged from editing a community newspaper to serving as associate director. Prior to that, Mills was a student newspaper advisor at Cuyahoga Community College and a reporter at the Plain Dealer. Born and raised on the southeast side of Cleveland, Lila is a first-generation college graduate with degrees from Columbia University.
From 2000 to 2020, the newspaper industry's advertising revenue fell by an estimated 80%, from 2000 to 2018, weekday newspaper circulation fell from 55.8 million households to an estimated 28.6 million, 1800 communities have lost their local newsroom since 2004, over 2000 papers have closed since 2004 and there’s been a 60% reduction newsroom jobs since 2008 — needless to say, access to Local News across the country is waning.
Signal Cleveland — a nonprofit initiative formed by The American Journalism Project and a coalition of Ohio-based organizations like the Cleveland Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, Sisters of Charity Foundation, the Visible Voice Charitable Fund, and the Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation — has raised over $5.8 million in funding aiming to be a trusted source of daily news and information for Greater Clevelanders.
Lila has incredible perspective working through all of the challenges that come with starting a newsroom from scratch with real understanding of the Cleveland nuance — very much enjoyed hearing her thoughts on the whole endeavor and the implications this can have for Cleveland! Please enjoy my conversation with Lila Mills!
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Lila Mills [00:00:00]:
We think we're going to be able to have coverage that is going to be distinctive and that is going to allow us to kind of place our identity out there and make us relevant in the daily lives of Clevelanders. Because we're going to have the type of news and information that doesn't yet exist out there in the ecosystem.
Jeffrey Stern [00:00:18]:
Let's discover the Cleveland entrepreneurial ecosystem. We are telling the stories of its entrepreneurs and those supporting them.
Jeffrey Stern [00:00:27]:
Welcome to the Lay of the Land podcast, where we are exploring what people are building in Cleveland.
Jeffrey Stern [00:00:33]:
I am your host Jeffrey Stern, and.
Jeffrey Stern [00:00:36]:
Today I had the real pleasure of speaking with Lila Mills, the Founding Editor in Chief of Signal Cleveland, formerly known as the Ohio Local News Initiative, Cleveland Newsroom, Lila has been working in community and in media for more than 20 years now. She most recently spent almost eleven years with the nationally recognized community building program Neighborhood Connections, where her work ranged from editing a community newspaper to serving as associate director. Prior to that, Mills was a student newspaper advisor at Cuyahoga Community College and a reporter at the Plain Dealer. Born and raised on the southeast side of Cleveland, Lila is a first generation college graduate with degrees from Columbia University. From 2000 to 2020, the newspaper industry's advertising revenue fell by an estimated 80% from 2000 to 2018. Weekday newspaper circulation fell from 55.8 million households to an estimated 28.6 million. 1800 communities have lost their local newsroom since 2004 and over 2000 papers have closed since 2004 and there's been a 60% reduction in newsroom jobs since 2008. Needless to say, access to local news across the country is waning. Signal Cleveland, a nonprofit initiative formed by the American Journalism Project and a coalition of Ohio based organizations like the Cleveland Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, Sisters of Charity Foundation, the Visible Voice Charitable Fund and the Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation, has raised over 5.8 million in funding. Aiming to be a trusted source of daily news and information for greater Clevelanders, lila has incredible perspective working through all of the challenges that come with starting a newsroom from scratch with real understanding of the Cleveland Nuance. I very much enjoyed hearing her thoughts on the whole endeavor and the implications this can have for Cleveland. Please enjoy my conversation with Lila Mills.
Jeffrey Stern [00:02:39]:
So the topics of news and of media and the options that we have available to us in our society, I think are topics that are increasingly top of mind for people who are perhaps also increasingly frustrated by and even distrustful.
Jeffrey Stern [00:03:00]:
Of those politicized options.
Jeffrey Stern [00:03:02]:
Trying to navigate this changing dynamic of how we are receiving information, where that information is coming from, who is relaying it. And I think this is a really important topic and I'm very excited to learn more about the work you're doing with Signal Cleveland and the state of news today. I'd love to start, though, as we make our way to those kind of deeper topics with just an overview of your own background and how your path.
Jeffrey Stern [00:03:32]:
Led to this Ohio local news initiative.
Lila Mills [00:03:36]:
I grew up on the southeast side of Cleveland, and I think I was just always interested in people's stories. And I grew up in a duplex my grandparents owned. So I think when you grow up really closely with your grandparents, you hear a lot of kind of those stories of history. Land I think that led to me always kind of being interested in what are people's stories? I was the kind of kid who, if I met someone new, I would immediately start asking them about their lives and what it was like, kind of living in a different place or in a different type of family set up. I remember once meeting a family that had ten kids, and I was fascinated by that. And I was an only child at that time, so I was the kid who often had like my mother kind of tapping me on the shoulder and saying, don't ask those type of questions because it's a little bit too intrusive. So I was always interested in people's stories. And then I went to college. I'm first generation college students. I was lucky enough to get a great scholarship and be able to go to college out of state. And I was studying filmmaking, and I thought I'd end up being like a film producer or a screenwriter. But this was in the welfare reform was happening towards the end of the knew that in Cleveland it was really impacting people's lives. And at the time I was interning with a film studio, and it started to feel super disconnected for me. And so that's when I made the shift towards journalism. But I made it late. So I actually took my first journalism class after I had already finished college when I came back to Cleveland, and I took it at Cleveland State University. And then I started to meet journalists. At that point. Land worked first in television. And because I had not had any training in journalism and I was learning on the job, I ended up really wanting to go back to school ended up going back to school and getting a master's in journalism and then transitioning yet again because of some advice from a professor of mine who said, I think you'd really enjoy print journalism. You should really check that out. Land she helped me get an internship back here in Cleveland at The Plain Dealer, where I worked for five years as a reporter. After that time, I've always been really Cleveland based. I did some police reporting, always really interested in the stories of Clevelanders, and I ended up working after I left the paper with community college students. Land that kind of drove my interest in community. And then for the second half of my career, I spent ten years with a community building organization first doing a really citizen driven community newspaper. And that led to a lot of conversations with people about local government. Land people really wanted to figure out a way to interface with their government and to understand it. And we didn't really have a way with the community paper to make that happen. I mean, people were writing articles or doing photography. We had a Poetry Corner, but we didn't really have a section for kind of like local government coverage. But it was always a question in that work. We always had people either interested in maybe running for a position and getting close to government, and there really wasn't another way to do that than maybe run for a council seat or become a precinct committee person or sit on a board. And so when we found out about Documenters in Chicago several years ago, it felt kind of like the approach people have been wanting all this time, really, to say, you can be paid and compensated to go to a public meeting, and you can be paid to you don't have to be an expert when you get there. So you can ask questions of government. Every template that Documenters fill out has follow up questions, and it can be anything of a question from a council person. It can be something you didn't understand in the meeting. So it becomes kind of a learning tool. And that's kind of what we were doing in that space, is really providing tools for people to be able to become more civically engaged. And so documentaries became one of those tools. But that is my background, kind of a 20 plus year career, half in journalism, half with community building, the last half of the last ten years. And I'm excited with this work to be able to weave those two worlds together.
Jeffrey Stern [00:07:54]:
Right? And so just following that thread, how does it then converge with the opportunity that you're exploring now with Signal in Cleveland?
Lila Mills [00:08:05]:
It's kind of two parallel paths. As we were bringing Documenters to Cleveland and launching that two years ago, there was also a lot of things happening to the media ecosystem in Cleveland, and there began to be interest in the community about, well, how do we fill this void? Right? I mean, when I was a reporter 20 years ago, there were hundreds of reporters in that newsroom, and we just don't have the same level of original reporting. So those two things were happening on parallel tracks. Land I think because we were able to really gain some traction with Documenters. We've had 570 people sign up to do this work, and people are really energized by it. Came the idea of, well, really kind of the pitch of, well, you could marry these two things together. You could start a newsroom that really is focused on basic news and information and from the accountability journalism, but you can kind of take your direction on the news and information from the questions that people are asking. So we in the documenters work because questions are part of the template. We're naturally then seeing like, oh, people are asking about what an emergency ordinance is, or people are asking how does the city's paint program work? And so when we start our reporting from there with an explainer that says actually this is how this system works, or this is how a city council agenda works, or how a school board, this is the set up for our school board, then you can layer reporting on top of that information. And hopefully what you get at the end is something that is way more nuanced and authentic and relevant to people's everyday lives in a way that I think sometimes news kind of misses that mark because the reporting is being done in such a way that it just doesn't feel really it's relevant to somebody's daily life.
Jeffrey Stern [00:10:01]:
So you mentioned the void. I want to unpack that a little bit. Why is it that we don't currently have local news at the level that we should land then actually, maybe even the question before that is why do we need local news? Which I think you were getting at with that context.
Lila Mills [00:10:23]:
Yeah, studies have shown that if we don't have local news, we don't have as resilient of a civic life in the community. So voter turnout goes down in Cleveland. What I've thought has been so interesting is that when we started documenters, what people asked us most often is, okay, do I need a press pass to go to this city council meeting? Do I need what kind of official status do I need? And so the question we asked most often in the beginning is no, this is a public meeting. It means the public. And so I think when you don't have news and information in your community, sometimes there becomes kind of maybe I hate to use the word apathy, but you're not seeing levels of the same levels of engagement. Now I think part of that is because we're not allowing a sense of curiosity or a sense of question. So if government isn't being covered, and I'm not seeing that in my paper, and when it is being covered, it's about a decision they already made that I can have no chance to influence, then it feels irrelevant to my life. So I'm not going to further engage. But if you allow me to kind of get in there when the decisions are yet to be made and I can understand how I might be able to make a public comment to influence what happens or to share my thoughts on what happens, then I begin to understand that it's much more relevant to my life, Land. How I might interact with it. So I think when you lack news land information, when there are communities that are news deserts that correlates to lack of civic participation. So if we want a thriving, engaged Cleveland or greater Cleveland, part of that has to do with bolstering this news.
Jeffrey Stern [00:12:13]:
And information ecosystem and then having set that foundation in there. Why is it that we do not really have the local news that maybe we should have?
Lila Mills [00:12:25]:
Well, I mean, essentially, I think it's a business model. It's the Internet. It's the blame land. The business model has really been challenged, and media has tried to respond to that by doing things like setting paywalls or subscriber exclusives. And then what happens is when it was a hard copy paper, I might subscribe to it, and then I might leave it on the bus when I took the bus to work. And so somebody else might be able to access that information without having to pay for it. But when we're talking about paywalls or subscriber exclusives online, then that information is suddenly cut off. So the business model has changed. The industry is attempting to adapt to it, but as the model is shifting, we're also losing reporting. Right. So the hundreds of reporters that were in the newsroom I worked in 20 years ago, that newsroom doesn't exist. And there are probably less than 100, maybe 60 or 70 reporters that still exist in our biggest newsroom here in Cleveland. So we could infuse so much more original reporting into Cleveland and still not be able to meet the levels we were at 20 years ago. Now also think that as the industry is shrinking right. As it's kind of facing those market headwinds and it's trying to be responsive to them, and that doesn't mean a lot of layoffs or reporters. What also happens is the coverage shifts. You don't have as many people to cover all the things that you had to cover before, and you also have to produce with fewer people a similar level of reporting. So you're doing stories that are shorter. You're doing stories that are probably faster. It means your source pool is probably going to be smaller. So it also means that when I hear people in Cleveland talk about news being irrelevant, well, it's also because the news has retracted. So it's not doing kind of maybe a story it might have done 20 or 30 years ago on a certain community because it really can't attend to that level of reporting. It doesn't have the resources.
Jeffrey Stern [00:14:38]:
Right. I feel like with the space that the lack of local news has created is the rise of the national politicized news sources in a lot of ways, because without the trusted local alternative, I feel like a lot of people, we just don't really have a choice but to turn to the more echo chambers and social media. And then local stories, when they are told by those institutions, become they just like build on the national narratives. Land tensions, and they're used to engage nationally rather than locally.
Lila Mills [00:15:12]:
Yeah. And people lose that local context right. Land so then what becomes and we become in some sense more socially isolated because what we're getting online is more of the same of what we've already clicked on. And that's how maybe our neighbor becomes kind of a stranger or someone that we don't know or we kind of get really used to kind of othering people. Land making them different instead of recognizing the commonalities.
Jeffrey Stern [00:15:39]:
So you have these kind of macro trends a little bit outside of our control, the Internet as a whole new way of being in this world. But you have a broken business model that's led to these really wide scale closures of a lot of the institutions that used to do some of this work. How does Signal Cleveland play into this? What were the questions that we're asking? Where did this come to be?
Lila Mills [00:16:06]:
Well, so when I was talking before about parallel paths so as we're piloting documenters here in Cleveland, there's also research going on that the American Journalism Project is heading up, really talking to a variety of greater Cleveland so residents, journalists, all different types of stakeholders and asking people about how they're accessing news and information. And out of that study came this sense of the disconnect that I kind of talked about a little bit earlier, where people are feeling like this news is either irrelevant to me or I've totally disconnected from news because the narrative that it tells about me or my community or people that look like me is false. So I don't even need to get my news and information from these sources anymore. So the same thing you're kind of talking about where people are either ignoring it because it doesn't feel relevant to their lives or they disconnected years ago because they actually felt like it was damaging to their lives. And at the same time, right in Cleveland, we're having historic low rates of voter turnout. And there's also a sense of when there is good information, people struggle to get it out. So from there comes kind of the idea for the initiative overall. And the initiative overall is a statewide initiative with the idea that you can build a business team with a CEO, with fundraising in that team and that that team can help support a network of local newsrooms around the state. And those local newsrooms would really be rooted and based in their communities. But you don't have as heavy of a lift to try to get that going because you have that centralized business support and that the importance of local news and information. It can't be overstated. And we're talking about explainers on how to read a city council agenda as a good part of the work that we'll do in Signal Cleveland and that it seems like people are really wanting. When they were doing the research, there was a government shutdown and one of the pieces of feedback they got from a resident was, well, I turn on the TV and I see those headlines and I hear them talking about potential government shutdown. I don't know what that means for me. And so what I would rather have someone do is report on how that should this happen, how it's going to impact me, is it going to impact benefits I may be receiving or something like that? So those types of things, that basic news and information, that's kind of what's been lost as the industry has retracted. And that's where we think we can really fill a void that no one is really doing right now, which is, let's explain kind of basic news and information for people. So how do you access benefits? How do you navigate your school system? People did great work. Refugee Response in Cleveland did great work during the start of the pandemic, producing videos, animated videos about what people needed to know. And they were multilingual about what people needed to know to stay safe in the Pandemic, how to wear a mask and those types of things. So those are the types of things where we'll start our reporting from there and then layer on if we're requesting records or we'll have five beat reporters so they can layer on their reporting from there, so that people have kind of an access point and that people can interact with the explainers today because it's included in maybe a big story that's coming out about the school district. But they may come back to that explainer six months from now when it's time to register their kids for school. And we've done an explainer on that process. So you can't really overstate the value of that basic news and information that people need every day in their lives and that it doesn't exist right now in Cleveland. And often people are kind of struggling to get it, or they're having to use a variety of different sources to kind of compile the information they need.
Jeffrey Stern [00:19:59]:
So if the model of old has not proven to work so well for a lot of these sources today, what is the new model? Why nonprofit news? What's the thinking for how this works land develops?
Lila Mills [00:20:15]:
Well, I think the idea behind nonprofit news is just like any other kind of public good. We can shift the model of news and information to being something that we all need and want in our lives, just like we might need arts and culture. Cleveland particularly has so many beautiful arts and culture resources, so we need those in our lives, and we're willing to support those nonprofits who do that. I think we're making the argument that news and information is the same now. The challenge we face is we have to build trust. And that's why in Cleveland for Signal Cleveland, we'll be marrying together, kind of the community work that many of us have been doing for several years with the journalism, because our primary goal is to build that trust with greater Cleveland residents, because without the trust, there's no reason for people to engage with us. As the industry has shifted over the years, it's really lost a lot of trust in communities. And that can be historic from coverage, the type of coverage that was happening decades ago. But, yeah, our primary goal is to build trust with the community, to become a resource that the community values in its life and then wants to support similar to the way that it would support other nonprofits.
Jeffrey Stern [00:21:35]:
So a few things I want to ask you about and get your perspective on. One, I think it's just kind of fascinating, the idea of starting a news outlet from scratch and what the actual process of that entails, and we can get into that. But while we're on Cleveland land building trust, I think one of the probably really critical things is meeting Clevelanders where Clevelanders are, and perhaps like dealing with some of the Cleveland specific nuance. I understand the trend nationally is this is not a Cleveland specific problem, this dearth of local news, but there are particular challenges that Cleveland faces. For one, a stat I know that surprises many people is the functional literacy rate here in Cleveland, where north of 60% of people in the area are illiterate. And so how are you thinking about the different in this social media, different channels, different mediums of reaching all the demographics here in Cleveland and kind of leveraging all the tools that you have available and accessible to you?
Lila Mills [00:22:50]:
Yeah, I feel like I've done some adult literacy work the last two years. And when we started that work, I was stunned. And I think the stat is 66% in the county.
Jeffrey Stern [00:23:02]:
It is stunning.
Lila Mills [00:23:04]:
Yeah. Are reading at a third grade level. And the way that they got that statistic is by doing a formula based on education attainment. And so there is a thought that in some neighborhoods it could be as high as 90 or 95%. I think it's interesting because I think it's one of those things that's kind of like in the water that maybe we hear sometimes as Clevelanders land we don't really pay that much attention to. But I think for us, with signal Cleveland, it's really at the forefront of what we're thinking about because we can't just do news for the value of doing news. And it can't be kind of this sense of let's just do more news and let's just pump more news out if we recognize that the majority of people in the county aren't going to be able to access it. So for us, we have a multimedia producer role. We're hiring for now. We have a partnership with Wovu, which is the community radio station. So we want to be taking the news and information that our reporters are developing and definitely being multiformat. So that could look like videos. It could look like the talkbacks on Wovu could look like short videos for social media. What can we do on social media if people are on Instagram or TikTok? Okay, what can we do on those platforms so people can get good information and news on those platforms without having to link back out to our website? We, at some point soon would like to be multilingual. Land recognize that Cleveland speak a variety of different languages. We also want to create a culture in the newsroom in which reporters become increasingly comfortable with the idea that not every story does have to be a written piece. And we think the more that we kind of practice this out within, over time, we'll get really good at being able to say, oh, that would make a great video piece, or that would make a great graphic. We also have Cleveland documenters connected to the newsroom. And Documenters, for a long time have been asking they get assignments to document public meetings, but they've asked for a long time to have assignments to distribute the information because they're going to meetings and saying, no one else was in that meeting, no one else from the public was there. I want to be able to tell people about it. So how can we get the news and information out? So we also think in this newsroom, we'll have capacity to test that out. And actually, maybe we do a limited print run that takes a news story we have and turns it into a comic book or a one page flyer. And then we can have those printed and have Documenters distribute those across the city or in their own communities. So we're going to try a lot of different things. Part of being a startup is being able to experiment with different ways of getting the information out. Land that might be offline, it might be online.
Jeffrey Stern [00:26:03]:
What does success look like? How are you trying to gauge the efficacy of the overall initiative? And what are the things, maybe that you'll be measuring? Land just how do you know that you're on the right track? As this grows and develops, in some.
Lila Mills [00:26:20]:
Sense, we'll have all the traditional metrics that a traditional newsroom would have about readership and folks coming to the website. We also think it's really important that we gain subscribers, people who want to hear what we have to say with documenters. We've also measured, like people fill out a short form when they join. And so it's also been important for us to measure where are people coming from. So when I talk about there's a documentary in every zip code in the city of Cleveland, in almost every zip code in the county, those are important measurements for us, too. We want to make sure that we're reaching people, and we want to make sure that we're reaching people kind of across a broad spectrum, a variety of ages, a variety of different identities. And then I also think that we have yet to develop some metrics on kind of levels of engagement. So we're interested in people who might be a traditional news reader who would come to the website, but we're also interested in folks who would never come to that website. Maybe they're only engaging with us on social media and we're also interested in people who would only engage with a print product or a flyer that we might hand out. So those are the types of things that we're going to engage with. And we also do gatherings and this is an extension of the work we've done with Documenters over the past two years. And we do ask people to check in at our gatherings. So we are very interested in who's coming to engage with us in person and are they coming back.
Jeffrey Stern [00:27:50]:
That definitely makes sense. I guess one of the things I was curious about on those metrics is how do you measure the trust that you are engendering with the community, which it's kind of a hard thing to measure.
Lila Mills [00:28:05]:
Well, I think it has to do with that levels of engagement. Like are people coming and are people coming back? Land I often talk about something I learned doing community building, which is multiple on ramps. So some people are going to come to the website, some people are going to be interested in this type of story, some people are going to be interested only in videos. So we want to be able to have multiple onramps multiple ways for people to engage with us. Some people are only going to come to our in person gatherings. But I think you measure the trust by measuring the levels of engagement, how many people come back and how many people share person to person, share the information so that you're growing your audience, but growing in a way in which people are turning to you because you're a trusted source. I think on trust as well. I often talk about building this newsroom around this Cleveland Documenters community because this community is a really curious community and it's a thriving community of it's a high trust community. So we also think that as long as we tend to that community land this is also another community building, something I learned doing community building work, but you tend to that community that already exists and what will happen is then it will grow. As long as you make sure that you stay in contact with that community, that we stay consistent with our community gatherings, we should be able to draw and build out from there.
Jeffrey Stern [00:29:34]:
So maybe changing the lens a little bit to focus on Signal as an organization and as a startup publication and whole reporting mechanism, what does it look like today? How is this structured, how is it funded, how do you do a startup?
Lila Mills [00:29:54]:
Newsroom well, part of the answer when you were asking about trust and metrics is a funding question as well. So one of the things we. Are fortunate to have here in Cleveland is a really strong base of support from philanthropy from a variety of different foundations in Cleveland who recognize the value of solid news, land information. And I've heard someone say, no matter what your work is, the second thing you need to be most concerned about is news and information in your community, because you're at some point going to want to share the news and information about what you do with others. So we have this broad base of philanthropic support. One of the things that we will use to measure our success is can we diversify that support? So do we become valued enough to Greater Clevelanders, that Greater Clevelanders also want to support us in some type of membership model that we'll develop over the coming years? Right now, our structure looks like we have five staff members, myself included. Our design in Cleveland is like two separate teams, kind of focusing on their areas of expertise. So one is News and one is Community. Those teams are headed up by two managing editors, a managing Editor News, and a Managing Editor Community. On the Community team, there are already two other members of that team, one who's heading up the documenters work and one who's heading up this innovative work. We're going to design to do community reporting in the central neighborhood of Cleveland. And the we are hiring for ten additional positions. And those two teams, Community and News, will essentially be about the same size. We'll have some beat reporters on the News team. We'll have a multimedia producer and a couple of reporters on the Community team. And then when we're really doing it well, those two teams will be so woven together that we'll be able to have this beautiful expertise around community that isn't just kind of one off community engagement. When we produce a story, but that allows people to have voice in the reporting process all the way along the line, from developing the Stern developing questions to even the format that we would publish in. So that's the design of it right now. And right now we're really big into hiring. So we've got these roles firstname.lastname@example.org. We've got a ton of really fantastic and interesting candidates coming through really passionate and with a variety of different backgrounds. It's been fascinating to see how people will have a background in journalism or degree in journalism, but they're also very interested in music and they've also done this work over here. Just a really dynamic group of people. For the ten positions, we've had almost 100 applications come in from across grid of Cleveland and outside the state as well. So we're in the midst right now of interviewing those folks. We developed a hiring process that we help, that we hope increases equity in our newsroom. We want a newsroom that looks like the city of Cleveland and that also allows people to really have a chance to shine. So we say, we want to help you shine in this process, not to kind of just weed people out. So it's a little bit more of an intensive process because we do have a goal of meeting many of those folks who have applied. But it's been fun to just we do real casual zoom 20 minutes zoom calls with people, with candidates when they apply, and it's just been fun to meet the variety of people who who have been attracted to this work.
Jeffrey Stern [00:33:33]:
I imagine there there is a certain gravity to the mission, to the vision of what you're doing. To me, as a person who reads the news when I can, just as a consumer of it, it feels to me this is like really a novel initiative, and that is important. And so I imagine it would be attracting some interesting folks.
Lila Mills [00:34:02]:
Our goal for this is to become a national model and an influence on the industry overall. And you would probably know this with your background in startups, but I think as the industry, in the journalism media industry has constricted the opportunity to be kind of flexible or innovative shrinks as well, right? Land so people are kind of like, let's kind of stick to this, okay, we're going to do this the way that we know how. And so we really see ourselves as kind of an infusion or an injection of innovation. We think we've got this really interesting model that we've tested out over the past two years and that now we have the capacity and support to develop. And we think it's a model that others can use in their news organizations to kind of improve the journalism and really make it kind of more authentic and representative of the communities that journalists are here to serve.
Jeffrey Stern [00:35:03]:
So you mentioned that the immediate focus is with Signal in Cleveland, but that it's under this larger Ohio umbrella. And so as you kind of widen the aperture and get a little bit less local, but there's like layers of local. So how does this work within the state? Land then what is I guess the vision if Signal is kind of the proof point for how this could be replicated elsewhere.
Lila Mills [00:35:36]:
So the vision statewide is that the funding is broken down into kind of local Cleveland funding and then larger statewide funding. So those focused on building out the statewide team are really focused on interviewing for a CEO right now. And there's also an interesting candidate pool for the CEO. Once that CEO comes on board, that person will be building out a team that brings on fundraising and development and human resources and all those kind of back end things that we need support on if we're going to kind of scale this out across the state. Right now in Cleveland, we can start up in Cleveland because we can kind of pull together the support we need to make Cleveland work. But in order to scale this up. Land make the impact statewide. We need that central business team because that team is going to support newsrooms that may come in a variety rural and urban areas across the state. But the idea the is that that CEO becomes the person who can kind of develop those relationships across the state. And the we can see where it makes sense to go next. And all of these network of newsrooms around the state would be supported locally through local philanthropy and local resident donations.
Jeffrey Stern [00:36:58]:
So I know the initial announcement was actually a little bit back. Land so I'm curious, what has been the reception so far? How are people in Cleveland thinking about this? And maybe what are some of the skepticisms? What are some of the things people are excited about? Just what are people thinking?
Lila Mills [00:37:19]:
So a huge amount of excitement. So I've gotten calls from Greater Clevelanders with story ideas. Our managing editors have heard from folks with story ideas, a real sense from people that they haven't been heard or that their stories aren't valuable. So we're absolutely inundated with stories and excitement and expectation and anticipation because when we talk about, well, we're weaving community in, there's a real energy behind that and people are ready to kind of see that in practice. I don't think I've seen a lot of skepticism. I mean, one of the things we often talk about is like we're not going to be in competition with other media. We want to be collaborative with other media here. And Cleveland actually has a really kind of robust community media scene. And so I always make sure to say we want to be partnering with those outlets. And we already do, like with the Cleveland Observer for a lot of the print stuff that we've done, we've done that in partnership with them. And we imagine we will continue to do partnerships like that because Signal will be an online publication. But we know when we want to go offline that we can partner with a variety of different community media organizations in town maybe that looks like paying for a special insert or paying for a print run so that we can get our work out in print as well. Our managing editor, News Mark Namek, likes to say that we do though, want to be competitive, right? Land he'll say we want to compete for influence. We don't want to compete for coverage area. So we do think that when people come to us and they're telling us about these stories or these kind of larger issues that are not being attended to, we think we're going to be able to have coverage that is going to be distinctive, and that is going to allow us to kind of place our identity out there and make us relevant in the daily lives of Clevelanders. Because we're going to have the type of news and information that doesn't yet exist out there in the ecosystem. So the response overall has been really high energy. Land really high expectation, right. So we often talk about we want to try out different ways and experiment. And I'll often tell people sometimes we're going to get it wrong. So you just have to be patient with us as well. But we're excited to get going. And there's a lot of energy for news and information that feels kind of more authentic and relevant to people's daily lives. And I think people have really been missing that. Land they're really ready for it.
Jeffrey Stern [00:39:58]:
Do you think there is a future in the physical print side of this? Just having the context of a lot of the closures, the ad revenue falling, the actual circulation falling, what is the role for that in your mind?
Lila Mills [00:40:15]:
Well, so I do think it is kind of a project specific, right. When we really get really good at this and we really get going with this, we should be able to know fairly early on in a story's lifecycle like, this is a video. Or this is going to be a great video for Instagram. Or this is going to be an IG live. Or this is going to be this is a print one. This is something that has to be in print. But I also think that I expect we're going to have a lot of success with short print runs of flyers or comic books taking a news story. Land turning it into a several page comic books that we then distribute in the community. So I don't think it necessarily looks like a regular weekly paper or a monthly paper or something like that. But I do think that there is without a doubt a role for hard copy, some type of hard copy print product here because we know that the digital divide in Cleveland is a serious issue. And so we know that print does matter. Land that's in some cases the only way we'll reach people is by having some kind of like, tangible hard copy product.
Jeffrey Stern [00:41:32]:
How do you think about the risks of the business?
Lila Mills [00:41:35]:
Oh my gosh. One of the beautiful things about this is because we have this runway of philanthropic support, we are able to take bigger risks, right? I mean, when I was talking about the industry being kind of constricting land that means that you just can't take as many risks in what you're doing and the kind of work you're doing. We're able because of this runway of philanthropic support, to really do a lot more kind of practice with doing news and information in new ways. I don't think that feels like a risk. It just feels like a huge, huge opportunity. Land the people who are like, the people that we are interviewing for these variety of positions, they're kind of all coming with that same similar lens of like, wow, this is an amazing opportunity. When we were first launching documenters, a couple of years ago, if you would have asked me what I dreamed for documenters, it would never have been this. So to be able to have this opportunity so shortly after having launched that work here is just mind blowing. So I don't think there's a risk. I just think the opportunity is huge land we want to do it well and I think the opportunity to be such a big project nationally on the scene among nonprofit newsrooms land in the industry as a whole is just an amazing, ridiculous opportunity. The opportunity to impact or shift the industry as a whole. We also recognize that and that's exciting. I don't know that I think of it in terms of risk mostly. It's just been a lot of fun so far. I think the expectation is sometimes there's huge expectation and so sometimes we really have to sit and think about okay, we have to do this well, we have to do this really well because people have let us know that they have an expectation and that we can't mess this up. But the resources and the things we are learning, the people nationally that we get to connect with and learn from the other folks doing this in Detroit or in Atlanta or in Oakland are so inspirational and we're learning a lot from them as well. So I don't know that there are a lot of risks yet, but maybe we should do this again in six months. You can ask.
Jeffrey Stern [00:44:09]:
It is really exciting though because I think not just talent but just the people land the reception, you're hearing it's. So I think evidently something that matters. I'm thinking from startup perspective and building something from scratch but I think it's cool and also somewhat rare to be building something where you have the ability to generate that kind of excitement for what you're building as you're building it from people who are not part of the organization.
Lila Mills [00:44:43]:
Yeah, I mean, I do say when we've been doing a lot of conversations and interviews around the hiring, I do often tell people this is a true startup. In some cases they may be on an interview with everybody we have on staff and there is no blueprint. I talk a lot about kind of founding energy and all of us who are going to come to this newsroom do have to bring that founding energy. We are defining the roles that we're going to be in while we're working them. So that can be I think it's an important thing for all of us to keep in mind that there is no in many cases there's no blueprint for what we're going to do. And so we have to kind of know that going in and have that energy and that flexibility and that ability to kind of fail fast, learn from it and try again.
Jeffrey Stern [00:45:31]:
I feel like there's such a abreast of things we could talk about here. Are there particular aspects of the work that you are doing with Signal that we haven't touched on yet that you think are important that we talk about.
Lila Mills [00:45:46]:
I mean, we talked about the statewide network and I guess I would also talk about I mean, we spent a lot of time talking about the community aspect of this. And so I would also say that the accountability work that the journalists or the news team will be focused on producing is also very important that we know that government is better when it has better reporting. So something we haven't talked about that I think it's important to really make sure we touch on is that you'll hear me often talk about news and information. Because I think what stands out to me in the research that led to the launch of this is really this sense that people, one don't trust media or they find it irrelevant. But I think the other piece of this is the journalism and so we're recruiting now for a whole team of journalists and the will really be focused on accountability work. They'll be focused on keeping track of what's happening in local government, really reporting deeply on education. That's a piece also that kind of original reporting that holds government and local officials accountable, that there's just less of in the ecosystem than there was years ago. And I think that's a really important piece that we're going to be able to bring into Cleveland. And like I said before, we know that as local news as that industry has retracted, that yes, we're getting lower voter engagement but we're also getting higher levels of corruption in government as well. And so we think there's also a role for that reporting.
Jeffrey Stern [00:47:25]:
Yeah, no, I'm glad you brought that up because I do think in a lot of ways, perhaps the main mission purpose is for media to hold power accountable. Truth to power, right?
Lila Mills [00:47:38]:
Yes. Land the journalistic news aspect of this, I want to make sure that we spend enough time on as well because that's important. Land if we can do that well locally and across the network in all these different cities, urban or rural areas across the state, we also think that we can rebuild kind of a trust that's been eroded. Land really shift how Ohioans in general interact with each other and interact with their local government.
Jeffrey Stern [00:48:11]:
Yeah, I think it's pretty awesome. I'm excited to follow along and get the local news.
Lila Mills [00:48:22]:
And I guess too tell people we want that feedback. I just started newsletters this month and I always include a number that people can call or text to let us know what they think and let us know how they think we're doing. Once we get going this fall, we want to be in conversation with people. We want people to be able to tell us where they think we've really kind of hit the mark and where we've missed the mark.
Jeffrey Stern [00:48:51]:
I think that's a great resource to leverage. I guess the stories that I get to share through this podcast are a little bit different than local news, but I found that the folks tuning in who are Clevelanders have a proclivity to just share their thoughts and ways it can be better. So I imagine you'll find something similar.
Lila Mills [00:49:12]:
I hope so. I hope so.
Jeffrey Stern [00:49:14]:
Well, I want to tie back to Cleveland and ask you our kind of every person who comes on the show will ask the same question as we build kind of a collective collage here of not necessarily people's favorite things in Cleveland, but for other things that people may not know about. Hidden Gems in Cleveland.
Lila Mills [00:49:37]:
So my favorite hidden gem in Cleveland is Mill Creek Falls, and that's close to where I grew up. So it's the largest waterfall in the county and it really doesn't get enough attention. And it's a beautiful kind of hidden part of Cleveland. I feel like you don't often go there unless you intentionally want to go there and it's just beautiful. And it's now thanks to the metro parks connected to a bike path that can take you from there all to many, many different places. But that's probably my favorite hidden gem in Cleveland.
Jeffrey Stern [00:50:11]:
Awesome. Well, I just want to thank you, Lila, for coming on Land, sharing the story of yourself and of Signal and genuinely, really excited for the work you're doing. And maybe we can check in in six months. I would love to see how it's going.
Lila Mills [00:50:26]:
I would love to. That would be a lot of fun. Yeah, I mean, the startup idea is very new to me and so far it's been absolutely fantastic. And the opportunity to recreate something from scratch is just such a unique land, incredible opportunity, land moment. So I'd love to come back and see how we're doing in six months. So thank you very much, Jeffrey, for this.
Jeffrey Stern [00:50:47]:
Oh, absolutely. If folks had anything they wanted to follow up with you about, local news or otherwise, what would be the best way for them to do so?
Lila Mills [00:50:58]:
I would say reach out to me by email. My email is lila. Lila@cleveland.org. They can check out the website localnewsforohio.org and I can get back to them that way. I'll also soon be at Lilajmills on Twitter if they're Twitter followers. Awesome.
Jeffrey Stern [00:51:18]:
Well, thank you so much again.
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