Journalism in America has been changing rapidly for more than a decade, and Cleveland is no different. Many of those changes are clearly for the worse, as we’ve watched The Plain Dealer purge itself of veteran reporters, lose its institutional memory and mentors for beginning reporters, and prioritize professional team sports coverage over in-depth reporting on neighborhoods, local government and civic activities. Across the country people who value journalism are grappling with the question of how to report what’s going on in their communities and how to connect that information with people, who are increasingly silo’d into consuming news that ratifies what they want to believe.
One of the models that’s popping up with increasing frequency is nonprofit journalism, ranging from startups to legacy publications such as Chicago’s long-running alternative weekly The Reader moving to a nonprofit model. Here in Cleveland, The Land began publishing six months ago to address a gap in reportage on under-covered local communities and neighborhoods. It’s online only, as many publications are these days (including CoolCleveland.com) and has applied for its nonprofit status, which it expects to get shortly.
The Land was founded by local writer and founder (and former executive director) of Literary Cleveland Lee Chilcote. (Since then, Tammy Wise came on board to handle the business side, while Chilcote focuses more on editorial.) Starting a news publication wasn’t on his mind when he left Lit Cleveland two years ago; he intended to focus more on his own writing.
“My impetus as a long-time Clevelander and journalist was frustration by the state of local news,” he says, “especially the lack of coverage of urban communities, which has long been a problem. Especially in Cleveland and inner ring suburbs, social inequities don’t get covered. I was also frustrated by the experienced and wonderful reporters who were laid off at The Plain Dealer, as the traditional news business model is quite challenged.
He describes The Land as an alternative to Cleveland.com.
“It’s intended to provide in-depth local coverage as we grow, especially with an focus on those communities, on equity issues, accountability and solutions — and how can folks get civically engaged. Next year we hope to focus on Cleveland neighborhoods, looking at social equity issues and covering local government.”
It’s a tall order. Currently The Land relies on the area’s deep pool of freelance journalists, although Chilcote hopes to be able to hire a staff writer next year. He’s currently forging partnerships with groups such as the Documenters project, run by the nonprofit City Bureau, based on the south side of Chicago.
He explains, “They train and hire people to document public meetings. They’re now hiring a reporter to report on the documenters. Traditional journalism informs; Documenters equips and trains people to gather the information themselves.”
“Our whole organization is modeled after nonprofit news organizations in other places,” he say, ticking off similar projects in cities such as Detroit and Pittsburgh where, he says, “there’s a lot of excitement around nonprofit news.
Currently, Chilcote says The Land has about 7,000 people on its email list and 10,000 unique visitors to its site each month. He says they’re about to launch a community information survey to find out what those people feel their information needs are. And, as a nonprofit, he’s looking to reach beyond the current readership to explore community information needs.
“A next step to that survey is we’re trying to build a community asset map looking in neighborhoods around Cleveland who are the folks who are civically engaged & doing interesting things to help their communities, who are the important businesses in the communities,” he says.
He adds that they’re also committed to diversity, inclusion and equity in their own pool of writers to better reflect the makeup of the community.
“We’re very deliberate in how we’re going about that. We’ve been keeping tabs on who were hire and who we cover. We have three black writers and a Hispanic writer. We have an internship program, specifically geared toward young journalists of color.”
As a nonprofit, the articles The Land posts are all accessible for free, with no paywall. Their support comes from memberships “similar to NPR” and from fundraising. That’s how they hope to be able to hire a full- or part-time reporter next year.
“It’s weird but it’s also in a way an exciting time,” says Chilcote. “It’s more clear than ever that existing media models aren’t working. So people seem more willing to experiment and try some new things.”
Read The Land at thelandcle.org.