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20 milestone stories from Mahoning Matters’ first year

It's been quite the year for news, and Mahoning Matters has worked tirelessly in its first year to report on the things that matter to you. Here, our crew talks about some of their biggest stories and goes behind the scenes.
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Mahoning Matters ribbon-cutting on Oct. 10, 2019.

What a news year it's been.

In September 2019, we started Mahoning Matters from a blank whiteboard — one that Mahoning Valley news readers were the first to help fill in. The core crew — Editor Mark Sweetwood and reporters Justin Dennis and Jess Hardin — began conceptualizing the mission that month, but the process really began during a series of local reader engagement sessions hosted the month prior by our parent company, McClatchy Co.

What excited us about our post-Vindicator future was that we had a chance to reimagine the news flow we'd become accustomed to while we shared space in the Vindicator newsroom, and we took a lot of direction from you. During those engagement sessions, you told us what you felt was missing from the Valley's headlines. And we knew we wanted to find those stories that would otherwise "slip through the cracks" or the stories that were too big to measure in print column inches.

Since our official launch on Oct. 9, 2019, we dug deep, we pulled back the curtain and we analyzed. We published big, comprehensive stories, broke several of our own and now we're celebrating some of those moments along the way. Below, we take a look back at 20 of those "milestone" pieces. We based our picks partly on your enthusiasm for them as well as how much they mattered to us, as local journalists and storytellers.

And as our exposure continues to grow, we're glad to see these stories mattered to you, as well.

Enjoy!


October 8, 2019 | 10 troublesome food inspections in Mahoning County — and how businesses responded

Mark: We launched with this story never fathoming the reaction. In hindsight, maybe that was naiveté on my part. Then Justin got an anonymous threat to watch his back, so we knew we had an audience. The social media reaction was over-the-top in many cases — a lot of detractors never read the story, they admitted. But we had so many others telling us to keep up the good work. 

Justin: When we were brainstorming what our first “front page” should look like, I pitched a kind of restaurant health violation list I’ve seen done in other media markets, namely Cleveland. I definitely didn’t expect this to be the most-viewed story for several months after the story went live. I’ve also never had to file a police report for threats over something I wrote. Kind of funny how out of all the things I’ve investigated over the years, this was the one I got threatened over.


October 17, 2019 | Amid anger and protests, new pact seals fate of GM Lordstown

Jess: As we plotted our launch last September, we were keeping an eye on the final moments of a story we had covered extensively at The Vindicator — the closure of the Lordstown Assembly Complex. We launched in the midst of a United Auto Workers strike and knew negotiations in Detroit — which took place about a week after our launch — would seal the fate of the plant. We decided to embed ourselves in both Detroit and Lordstown, where many former autoworkers had returned to strike. While I spent most of my day waiting in Detroit’s Renaissance Center, a contingent of former Lordstown workers — who had either accepted transfers elsewhere or were waiting on the official fate of the plant — showed up to protest the company’s abandonment of the plant.

Mark: I think the moment we realized that we were the only local media embedded in both locations that was also reporting live, it spoke to our mission.

Justin: While Jess tripped to Detroit, I cruised around Lordstown; GM workers’ old haunts and the UAW union hall down the road from the plant. There’s something about being at a “news spot” where everyone knows just as little as you about what’s actually happening behind the scenes — as in, the closed negotiations near Jess in Detroit. Everyone’s asking the same sort of questions and the situation often changes throughout the day, as the rumor mill churns. Reporters are the people who have to zero in on what’s concrete and get it to readers as soon as possible. This was the first time we heard from someone who could all but confirm Lordstown Motors Corp. would soon be the new face of the idled factory.


November 21, 2019 | What's going on with Poland Forest's Mauthe Bridge?

Jess: Of every topic I’ve covered in the last two years as a reporter in Youngstown, the source of the most drama has been the Poland Municipal Forest Board. Covering the repair of a tiny bridge in a tiny forest in a tiny suburb of Youngstown may sound dry, but the saga involves all the trappings of a spicy political scandal: there were lawsuits, resignations from public office, unannounced meetings and even a rendezvous in the forest with the Feds. It took more than two years and about $100,000 to complete the project.

Mark: I get asked about this one a lot. LOL. On their podcast, the MLO Bros were like, “What’s up with the Mauthe Bridge?” And I said, “That was the headline!” People were not being open. That’s never a good thing.


December 3, 2019 | Park Avenue CVS closure will make downtown Youngstown a pharmacy desert

Jess: In late November, I was getting drinks with a friend who was making some extra money as an Uber driver. She mentioned she recently picked up a passenger who was an employee of the former CVS on Fifth Avenue; the passenger told my friend the pharmacy was closing. I researched pharmacy accessibility and stumbled upon Dr. Dima Qato’s research on pharmacy deserts. In the course of writing the initial story, I spoke with Jonathon Fauvie, the spokesperson for Mercy Health. He informed me a tiny pharmacy exists at St. Elizabeth’s Youngstown, but it’s only available to Mercy Health patients. Fauvie read my initial story Dec. 3 and said it spurred discussion, resulting in Mercy Health deciding to open the pharmacy to anyone. These are the kinds of stories we plotted to write when brainstorming what we wanted Mahoning Matters to be. 

Mark: Jess does so much great work for us and it is great to see the impact of her words. That’s all a journalist can really hope for — and maybe health insurance.

Justin: This was a great example of “impact journalism,” when reporters can help boost solutions to societal problems or help groups come together to solve them, and make some tangible change. The fact that this came along when the site was still so new is, I feel, a good sign of what’s still to come.


December 4, 2019 | Youngstown Fire Department battles internal issues

Jess: The city of Youngstown has long struggled financially and, in the last few years, belt-tightening measures and new and controversial revenue streams have been directed to the fire department and Chief Barry Finley. The firefighters union wants a leader who will stand up against cost-cutting. The mayor’s administration wants an employee who will implement unpopular cuts. City council wants a manager with a plan. So far, Finley hasn’t been able to deliver for everyone, and as a result, lots of conflict.

Mark: This is really just the tip of the iceberg of financial issues that the city is going to grapple with in the next two years. Youngstown needs that person warning the captain, “Iceberg ahead!” I’m not sure we’re hearing that person loud enough, yet.


December 6, 2019 | Where GM's battery plant, dubbed Project Magellan, could be built

Justin: When we first learned General Motors planned to build a new battery plant in Lordstown, the location had yet to be disclosed. Mark told us we had to be the first ones to figure out where that was going to be. Often, large construction projects require copious permitting, especially if they’re planned to go on wetlands. I figured the Ohio EPA might have something on-file from GM about the new plant, so I tabbed through everything GM filed in the county over the past several months. I clicked on something called “Project Magellan” out of sheer curiosity and because I liked the name, not because I expected it to be connected to GM’s battery plant — turns out it was. It led to a good bit of insight into GM’s site selection process.

Mark: That sort of incisive doggedness is what sets Justin apart from all but a handful of reporters in the state. He’s amazing. 


January 30, 2020 | Canfield police chief reprimanded after 'inappropriate' relationship

Justin: Publishing this story was a tough call to make, and Mark and I turned it over multiple times across several days before deciding to do it. Even in the public sphere, a reportedly consensual relationship between a supervisor and subordinate might not be newsworthy. We thought: if it didn’t harm the administration of the city or either participant, then is it worth the emotional harm or embarrassment a published article may cause them? Then we learned the police chief was in charge of the city’s HR duties at the time. We decided to run it, as we felt it would inform readers who may ultimately want to reexamine their opinion of the chief’s personal ethics. In talking to city officials, they told us every other media outlet in the area also learned all the facts and decided not to pursue the story or name the chief, so why couldn’t we also just drop it?

Mark: This one ate at me for a couple of days after Justin relayed the ”play ball” plea from city officials. Not just no, hell no. And a couple of colleagues at other news outlets eventually followed suit after we got it out there which supports our instincts. My gut aches when I’m presented with pleas to not publish matters of public record. In the end, I went and had coffee with the mayor and told him what we decided to do and told him to direct any feedback away from Justin and send it my way.


February 5, 2020 | A look at inspection reports for nursing homes in Mahoning and Trumbull counties

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Justin: The troves of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports Jess and I sifted through to get a regulatory snapshot of local nursing homes were exhausting, frankly. But we felt they were an example of publicly available records into which some long-term care consumers might not have the time — or stamina — to dive deep. When we started Mahoning Matters, we knew we wanted to point out these types of tools to readers and show them how they can be used to make better decisions about the things that matter to them, like the care of their loved ones. Like the restaurant inspection list, we started hearing this list didn’t make us any friends in the long-term care sphere. But that’s OK — that’s not really why we’re here anyway.

Jess: Somehow we had the foresight to publish nursing home inspection reports weeks before these facilities would become ground zero for the destruction of a global pandemic. As a reporter, poring over hundreds of pages of reports gave me an entree into just how devastating the pandemic could be for a facility already struggling with infection control — and that was one of the most common violations I saw in the reports I read.

Mark: On top of the great teamwork of Justin and Jess that always leads to insightful reporting, it did dawn on me as the pandemic took hold that in the first four months of Mahoning Matters we had taken deep dives into the two key industries first to grapple with the COVID-19 impact: restaurants and nursing homes. And that insight did serve us in our reporting throughout this ongoing ordeal.


February 26, 2020 | Your 2020 Mahoning Valley fish fry guide

Jess: Don’t get me wrong, I love a fried fish sandwich as much as the next Midwestern lapsed Catholic, but this kind of story is not fun to write. I called every church in the tri-county area (which is a LOT of churches) multiple times. But in putting together this list, I took a peek at our analytics and found that our fish fry list was one of our top 10 stories of the year. Because of the pandemic, most of these fish fries didn’t even happen! The power of food-based traditions is strong in the Mahoning Valley, and that makes for good stories.

Mark: Food stories always do well on Valley media websites. What really makes me sad about this one is that we had a plan for some video taste tests/reviews, too! We’ve got four months to get it together, America!

Justin: Though we don’t put out a lot of video content, I tend to edit most of it. Though it can be a time-consuming process, I was definitely looking forward to producing video taste tests of local fish fries (frys?). I’m gonna vote to come back at this idea next year — if we can, that is.


March 9, 2020 | Launch of our Movers & Makers features

Mark: Alyssa Weston has done such a great job with Movers & Makers features since our launch. And a year later, folks know who we are and are approaching us with suggestions, which makes the project a lot more fun. But when you see how these have been embraced by readers — an idea we came up with and named pre-launch — you can see that some folks think we are filling an important need.


March 16, 2020 | Lists of resources during Ohio's COVID-19 shutdown

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Jess: When, in the course of a weekend, the coronavirus shut down Ohio, our focus was on providing news that readers could use. Where can I pick up a meal? When can I safely go shopping? How could I get help feeding my school-age children? Throughout the pandemic (and especially in the beginning) we aimed to quickly provide thorough and easily digestible answers to those questions about basic needs. 

Justin: This, to me, is the currency of local news. Before March’s shutdown, we never would have thought to ask ourselves those questions. Those first few days/weeks of the shutdown, I think, was when the whole team — and, surely, the whole state — was experiencing this break-neck paradigm shift. We threw pretty much everything we’d been working on up to that point on the back burner and started brainstorming on the information we needed to put out in that moment. Luckily, many readers chimed in and helped us focus.

Mark: Our Central Office — GM/Publisher Mandy Jenkins and recently departed Editor Julie Westfall — deserve a shout-out for helping us get a lot of info online in a short period of time. And we can’t forget our glue — Content Manager Jeremy Harper who kept us on task and quietly did a lot of editing and updating.


May 21, 2020 | How accurate are COVID-19 rapid tests? We asked some experts

Justin: I’m not gonna lie — part of the reason I became a writer is because I was never good at math, or science. I still thought I might be able to explain the concept of diagnostic test accuracy simply, after an interview or two with experts. Boy, was I wrong. But at the time, there was a huge question mark hanging over the reliability of these types of “rapid” tests — which, to be clear, are NOT the type of lab-checked coronavirus tests the majority of Ohioans have had up until this point. It turns out lots of our site’s new users wanted to know, too, because this story got the most traffic of any article on Mahoning Matters. Writing it was a lot of careful work — and learning the statistical concepts behind diagnostic test accuracy was even more work — but if it answers that question for anyone, that means it was worth it.

Mark: We are lucky to have a reporter with Justin’s smarts and tenacity. And this story snuck up on us as the No. 1 read story that we’ve published in the first year. 

Jess: Justin isn’t daunted by the prospect of deep-diving into statistical details, and he can also deftly explain something very complicated, like this topic. The time put into stories like this isn’t always rewarded, but I’m so glad his work on this one translated into it being widely shared. 


May 26, 2020 | Stuck on YSU's campus with little access to food

Justin: This was one of several of our published stories that we first learned about during one of our “story pitch night” events — our first virtual pitch night, at that. A Youngstown State educator put out a call in our chat room for awareness about international students who were stuck on campus due to the pandemic without easy access to food. It was the first we’d heard of it and an obvious opportunity to draw attention to an issue that definitely needed it. It turned out lots of people had already donated to the university food bank, and people helping people is always a good story.

Mark: I miss hanging out at the Boardman library doing these pitch nights. The most memorable one was at Westside Bowl just after we launched. Several dozen folks showed up, ate pizza and gave us ideas.


May 29, 2020 | Column: Can a business force me to wear a mask?

Mark: As everything started closing down as the pandemic took hold, I really started to worry how we would continue to maintain a connection to readers with the potential of less local reporting. We had always had a plan for community columnists. So I started making calls: Adam and Mary Beth Earnheardt, the Rev. Lewis Macklin, Dave Betras. Then we added Bill “Doc” Binning, Liz Dreier and Bryant Youngblood. And Tom Williams has been writing sports since the beginning and contributing weekend help in his awesome laid-back manner. And Bob Yosay and Bill Lewis have contributed their amazing photos since the start. I’ve already mentioned Alyssa. And now when you look at this all in one paragraph, what an absolute dream team. This Betras column was popular even outside of our immediate market. But don’t tell him. He’ll want to be paid ...


June 9, 2020 | Confederate flag debate centers on Austintown classroom

Jess: According to people I interviewed for this story, including a former student teacher of Ron Johnson, Johnson’s reverence for the flag wasn’t just about Civil War history; students of color questioned whether his classroom was a welcoming environment. A few days after writing this story, I watched a state legislative session for another story, and the House had the opportunity to ban sale of Confederate flags at state fairs — it didn’t. On the House floor, state Rep. Erica Crawley, D-26th, a Youngstown native and Navy veteran, discussed how it felt, as a black child, to attend the Canfield Fair and see Confederate flags being sold and displayed.

Mark: Two weeks after the agonizing killing of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police, this surfaced. And you have to ask yourself in the 21st century, “Why?” But this led to some great conversations.


June 25, 2020 | COVID-19 data released by ZIP code in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties

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Jess: Cuyahoga County Board of Health released ZIP code data for COVID-19 cases April 10. At the time, Mahoning County was leading the state in COVID-19 deaths, and no one had a definitive explanation for why. The state didn’t demand local health departments make this information available, and local health departments claimed the data could be used to identify those infected with the virus. 

Mark: We started seeking ZIP code breakdowns weeks into the pandemic and nobody wanted to take it seriously or give us a serious answer. Then, we saw Gov. Mike DeWine go through ZIP code breakdowns during one of his daily coronavirus updates. Look, the info is either public record, or it is not. Justin immediately filed record requests (the document we used called it a Freedom of Information Act request and that caused one unctuous employee to tone us that in Ohio they are called “Open Records Act requests” while not answering our request). We eventually got an attorney to help. Frankly, all media in the Valley should have done this together.

Justin: To be more specific, after Cuyahoga’s ZIP code breakdown came out, we were told by local and state health officials this kind of community-specific information was “irrelevant” or that it risked violating medical privacy laws. Fortunately, all health departments in our tri-county coverage area have since released this information and are updating it on a regular basis. We’ll continue updating our combined map here.


July 10, 2020 | Is race a problem in Canfield? Community weighs in at forum

Jess: It’s hard to understand racism in a place if you pretend the past never happened. At this event, both residents and officials obliquely alluded to “stereotypes” about Canfield. In the course of reporting in the Mahoning Valley, I have spoken to people of color who report not driving in Canfield or Poland for fear of getting stopped by a cop for driving while Black. This was the first time I had heard anyone from Canfield admit to the area’s notions about their community.

Mark: One of our most impactful stories, and Jess wove a fantastic narrative on deadline. Because she’s smart and a great observer, she took something ordinary and made it historically compelling. We’ve all heard stories about people of color being fearful about driving through some of our more exclusively white enclaves (Poland, you are on the clock). You can’t begin to address a problem until you give voice to it. I’m not sure Canfield has solved the problem, but talking about it is a great first step.


July 24, 2020 | Who received campaign contributions from Householder and FirstEnergy?

Justin: As a reporter, there’s nothing like an 80-page criminal affidavit falling into your lap at 3 p.m. Federal prosecutors announced they’d been secretly building what they call the largest public corruption case in Ohio history for a year, and reporters across the state worked to unravel as much of it as possible before the presses started running later that night. These are the kinds of stories that make reporters take a second look at connections they might have missed before — especially in this case, since FirstEnergy has always been very active in Ohio politics. A lot of reporters, like myself, over the following few weeks took a lot of second looks at their local legislators’ campaign finance filings.

Mark: This is one of the stories that took me by surprise. I was honestly concerned about spending so much reporting time on a story that wasn’t exactly “local” by our traditional (Month No. 9) definitions. But A.) Justin is amazing and dug up some very local angles; and B.) most of the competitors in the market ran the Associated Press version. When your competitors send you kudos, you know you’ve probably done something right.


August 1, 2020 | Mask order a challenge to enforce as complaints pour into Valley health departments

Jess: DeWine’s mask order is the perfect example of a public health policy that passes the buck to the individual with the least amount of power and resources. At the end of the day, it’s up to front-line employees to enforce their establishments’ policies, with little authority, and it’s on them to de-escalate angry customers. Meanwhile, public health officials have minimal enforcement power and enough on their plates work-wise without having to investigate hundreds of complaints. Here's a look at the hundreds of complaints received in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in just the first couple weeks after the statewide mask mandate took effect.

Justin: I’d say just as many of our readers were supportive of these types of stories as they were upset that we singled out local establishments. As Jess puts it, regardless of how you feel about Ohio’s pandemic restrictions or the efficacy of masks, the question of how to enforce pandemic mandates still lingers. And for those people now factoring masks into their consumer decisions, we felt this was the kind of thing they wanted to know about. Lo and behold, it got some of the highest traffic on the site.

Mark: Lots of social media responses repeating “Who cares?” always tells me that people care. As an example of a different metric in a different era, I recall in the 1990s at the height of the O.J. Simpson trial, it became very party chic to go around saying, “I’m so tired of this O.J. trial coverage,” to appreciative nods. Except, network ratings were sky-high and the day that the verdict came out was the No. 1 sales day for almost every newspaper in the U.S. — and around the world. In today’s tribalistic environment, many people just post things for show. Nothing has really changed.


August 31, 2020 | Upset by politics driving COVID-19 policy, Ohioans say they want fact-based leadership

Justin: As part of the Your Voice Ohio media collaborative, Mahoning Matters volunteered to report on YVO’s series of statewide, public discussions on COVID-19 and the 2020 election — two of the simplest, most non-divisive topics there are, right? Given how toxic social media has become since the lockdown and since election season has spun up, I had some trepidation about getting a bunch of strangers together on Zoom for some afternoon patter on politics and the pandemic. But what myself and the Jefferson Center moderators ended up with were some truly civil, candid and humane discussions about the real-life issues Ohioans are facing right now. We listened, we gained valuable perspective and, in a couple of the sessions, we commiserated simply as humans on all the unknowns the pandemic creates. It was a very heartening experience.

Mark: When Doug Oplinger approached me with this project, I volunteered Justin immediately. It was a huge time commitment and a lot of work. And it was a terrific project and, hopefully, showed off our ability to contribute alongside the best journalists in the state. This team is special.




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