There’s a moment in filmmaker Craig Duff’s “Newstown” that, for me, was breathtaking.
It was a simple scene in the documentary released last week about the aftermath of The Vindicator's closing. Duff filmed us last September while the Mahoning Matters team was meeting with our Central Office staff at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in downtown Youngstown. We were huddled around a table, and there he was — our first business executive and friend Mark Eckert.
Mark was one of the Valley’s first victims of the coronavirus on March 29, but he’s very much still a part of us. And rarely does a day go by that I don’t think of him or smile at a memory.
When he first hit the streets promoting our fledgling digital news site last fall, to be honest, we weren’t widely known outside of Valley news junkies. In one meeting with a potential partner, the business owner told Mark he had not heard of us. He then asked his office staff, and neither had they. So Mark showed up with Mahoning Matters T-shirts for everyone the next day. Eventually, they supported us. That was Mark.
As February ended, thanks in part to a series on nursing homes inspections in the Valley, our project was gaining momentum. “I believe in this. I really believe in what we’re doing,” Mark told me.
Sadly, he didn’t live to see everything that came next. Amid the “shelter-in-place” shutdown in March because of the pandemic, we pivoted our content to begin to answer the many, many questions our audience had about COVID-19, about what businesses were open, about what to do to stay sane during lockdown, etc.
The sheer utility of our content seemed to enhance connections with readers and, really, every day since we have asked ourselves, “What do readers want to know, need to know and expect us to tell them today?”
If there’s anything positive to come of this pandemic, it has been that it has brought us closer to you. From January to September, our readership has more than tripled. We had a bit of a captive audience during the original pandemic shutdown, so it’s been heartening to see so many people stick with us and help Mahoning Matters grow even as restrictions loosened up. Now more than 200,000 local readers visit this site every month, and we couldn’t be more grateful to have earned their time and trust.
Our readers have given us more than just their time and trust — many have taken the next step to financially support our work. Knowing the pandemic had already interrupted business sponsorships, GM/Publisher Mandy Jenkins — the force of nature who conceived, named, fights for and guides us — made the brave leap in April during our six-month-anniversary to seek voluntary pay from you, and the results are humbling.
This year we have also been fortunate enough to build relationships with key Valley donors and nonprofits who have generously contributed, like the Thomases Family Endowment of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, which became the first local funder for our efforts by granting $5,000 to Mahoning Matters for its Report for America work over the next year. And when some of the pillars of this community say you are worthy of their support, it’s incredible — and daunting.
Over the course of this year, we’ve ramped up the volume of news, expanded our daily newsletters, added state news from the Associated Press and our Report for America reporter Ellen Wagner. We’ve added columnists. We’ve added regular features like Movers and Makers, sponsored by Farmers National Bank, and Difference Makers, which Eastwood Mall sponsored at the height of the pandemic and dedicated to Mark’s memory.
Which takes me back to last September. Justin Dennis, Jess Hardin and I had been jettisoned into the brave new world when the Youngstown Vindicator closed. We literally had a blank slate to decide what Mahoning Matters was and what it could be. We sat at a coffee shop and looked at each other, and we just started to talk about all of the stories we always wanted to do, the news the Valley probably needed, the underserved markets and about connecting with people in new ways. There are lots of choices in Newstown. Which ones make the most sense?
Then we got Jeremy Harper to join us as the content manager, and these smart, dedicated people — including our new business development director Thea Nixon — became the soul of all that Mahoning Matters has become.
Friday is our one-year anniversary. Chosen first by McClatchy newspapers and Google for a domestic Compass Experiment to explore models of differently sustainable journalism, we set out to report news and connect Mahoning Valley readers. Often since our launch, we've become the news. To be included in a book by a Washington Post columnist, an amazing documentary — which we are working with Northwestern University to screen here — and many media stories keeps us on our toes, frankly. We know a lot of folks are watching.
The most important of these folks, of course, is you. Thank you for embracing us in the past year. Your suggestions, criticisms, feedback and even occasional angry emails and Facebook posts have all helped us. My regret of course is that Mark isn’t here to see what he helped build.
But I know, like me, he would be proud. And grateful.