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Julie McMahon on the Campbell Conversations

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Julie McMah
Julie McMahon

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Julie McMahon, who is leading an effort to change the lack of public affairs coverage in the Syracuse area. McMahon is the founding editor-in-chief of a new media non-profit startup called, "Central Current."

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to The Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. In Syracuse, like most other smaller cities in the country, media coverage of public affairs has been hit hard in recent years. My guest today is trying to do something about that. Julie McMahon is the founding editor-in-chief of a new media nonprofit startup called Central Current. She also teaches at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. Julie, welcome to the program.

Julie McMahon: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

GR: Well, we're glad to have you. So let's start with, I guess, the problem here in central New York, and then we'll talk more about your organization. But first of all, how would you describe the changes in the local news environment in central New York in recent years and maybe even recent decades, if you want to think further back.

JM: Great. So it's not unique to central New York, first off, this is happening around the country where newspapers are being closed, experiencing deep cuts to the staff, having to sort of chase clicks in order to get people to the site to make money off of advertising. And eventually, you know, afford to do the journalism that we all really want to do. So, again, it's not a problem unique to Syracuse, but certainly Syracuse is not immune to the problem that's happening around the country. What we've seen in Syracuse is over longer than I've been here, really, I came to Syracuse University to study journalism in 2012 and that was right around the time that the newspaper cut a big portion of its staff. There were sort of massive layoffs. They moved from the traditional building where the paper is printed into a kind of more startup environment, launched the media group, and there's been a few iterations of that. But you really saw deep cuts to the staff. So we have across the country and in central New York, many fewer journalists. And that means many fewer watchdogs at public meetings, at writing about people telling, telling positive stories, telling the story of this community. So that, again, it's not unique to Syracuse, but it's certainly a problem here. And in the time that I worked at The Post-Standard, you know, in the last eight years, there were rounds of layoffs, you know, people leaving jobs that never got replaced. So we really see, you know, beats that don't get covered. I was the sadly, I think maybe the last education reporter in Syracuse, covered the Syracuse City schools was an amazing experience for me and I think for the city too, it was really a good thing. But we don't have somebody who's going to every one of those board meetings anymore. So we also know there's been a lot of research done by institutions like Pew Research Center that the lack of journalism, lack of watchdogs in the community correlates directly to, you know, corruption in public office and sort of this overarching sense that we have as a nation that democracy is suffering. So that's the big picture problem that we're here to try to address.

GR: So I hadn't planned on asking this question, but I'm going to ask it. It's a bit cheeky and we don't need to spend much time on it. But you did a very nice job, I think, detailing what's happened to the main, you know, newspaper in the city, the paper of record, The Post-Standard. As a consumer, being on the other end of this, it has always struck me that when these things have happened, they get described as improvements by the paper. And I just wonder, I assume, that the people inside the organization know that these cuts are happening and things have been cut back and not made better. Is that true?

JM: Yeah. So, I mean, they're a business, so there's always going to be some spin, I think, too. And I think, you know, this has coincided with the shift to digital and those two are not mutually exclusive. So, we have I think I think Syracuse.com rightfully is proud of how quickly they embraced digital. And in doing so, unfortunately, I think some things were lost and there's a lot that I could talk about there. But yeah, everyone knows. And I think for me, I think being inside the organization, you know, you have a little bit of a prickly shell where we're fighting to do good journalism. And I have so much love for the people there who are still fighting to do good journalism that you kind of are like, we are, you know, we're trying to make this work. So I can see how that message it's hard to admit we're downsizing, but yeah, there's definitely an ethos, you know, there. And on the outside now, having left the organization, it's definitely a little more stark to see, you know, just there's a community of freelancers and retired journalists in Syracuse who are incredibly talented, you know, who have found different places and roles in the community. But certainly that loss has been felt by us as journalists. And I mean, more importantly, I think the loss is definitely felt by the community. There is a I think there is a real sense of loss that people… Tony Malevenda is one of our founders who ran for office a few years ago. And he was just describing this in a meeting as he's kind of into architecture and if you design a house that doesn't have enough space, you might not realize, like this house is not it doesn't have the right amount of height for me, but it's this constant feeling of discomfort and unhappiness. And I think that's something that you see when the media in when local media suffer so much is you have this feeling of dissatisfaction that maybe you don't know exactly where it's coming from and that sort of slow bleed at The Post-Standard. And that's not to mention, you know, in the last five years we lost The New Times. The only weekly in town. Spectrum, I think, just laid off dozens of reporters in the last couple of years. They don't have much of a local presence anymore. So it's not just limited there. But I think overall there is a feeling among journalists in this town, certainly it's not what it used to be like and definitely among the community.

GR: Yeah, I wanted to pick up on exactly that point you were making they're thinking of the other media outlets. And a few weeks ago I interviewed a scholar of the news media, Robert McChesney, and he's charted exactly the kind of things that you are talking about, how the amount and quality of local news reporting, especially on matters of public policy, has declined. And he talks about the gutting of daily papers across the country. And he used this phrase that's been used by others but he talked about news deserts in a growing number of areas. And do you think that Syracuse is in danger of becoming one of those news deserts? Maybe it's a better way to say it is we’re news airid, I don't know. But anyway.

JM: Well, we're going to do everything we can to make sure we don't become a news desert and I think Syracuse is a little different. The News Desert phenomenon is really interesting. I think UNC has done a lot of research on that, and Robert probably can speak to that more than I can. But what I find fascinating is they've more recently done a study on what they call ghost newspapers. So it's not quite the same phenomenon where you have large swaths of a geographic region that have no reporters covering it. But it's more that what used to be a really robust legacy newspaper just isn't doing what it used to do anymore. So I think Syracuse is more in that bucket when I look at sort of the landscape here. But yeah, I mean, I think Syracuse is unique. I, I'm comparing us and kind of there's this movement in local journalism toward nonprofit news and a lot of the places that have been so successful are news deserts really like one of the best examples is Vermont Digger, VTDigger and they really had very few legacy media in Vermont. It's a different community obviously, too, but they filled, you know, they took over their the biggest outlet in Vermont. Now I should say digital-first outlet. There are some strong radio and TV there, too. But in Syracuse, we have a legacy media outlet that is fairly strong. You know, Syracuse.com does still employ I don't know the exact numbers, but I want to see more than 50 full-time editorial staffers, which for a city our size, we've got a really robust sports department, department, you know, really, really robust on certain things. There's a lot of breaking news reporters in town at The Post-Standard and every one of the TV stations. But I think what we lack then is some of the depth, some of the way things are presented, some of the need to work hard to get our stories in front of people for the right reasons. So and so something that I'm really interested in tackling is, you know, making our kind of going back to basics, like when we made the shift to digital. Most websites are kind of wireframes, they're very similar. You don't get a lot of variation. And I think that for the reader, you know, that's not the experience of opening up the newspaper and having this beautifully curated, you know, design telling you what's important kind of experience. So that's something that I think we lose so many of those things. We lose, you know, having a more diverse staff at the paper or at all of these institutions. So I don't think we're quite in the bucket of news desert, but there's a lot of other things, you know, that we're experiencing with the decline of media that do really affect, you know, the local landscape.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Julie McMahon, the editor-in-chief of a new media organization based in Syracuse called Central Current. If we have time, I want to follow up on your example of Vermont Digger with some other experiences I've had from my time in Vermont just to contrast it. But we'll see. But let me let me stick with this thought here for a minute. And you've already spoken to this. But one benefit of a robust daily news environment that Robert McChesney identified and I was speaking with him is beyond just informing people serving as a vehicle for just a general feeling of community connection and community engagement. And you've been speaking to that there. So is that one of the specific goals of Central Current then?

JM: Definitely. One of our goals is to be really responsive to the community. And we it's a luxury to be a nonprofit in a lot of ways. Right. We don't have to worry about the bottom line in the same way that a commercial media outlet does. So, sorry Grant, remind me of your original question. I got a little distracted there.

GR: No, no. And I want to come back to the structure and the nonprofit aspect of this. Yes, but but but the question was the original question was, was this as a vehicle for community engagement? For community connection?

JM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So and the nonprofit model really sets an example for how we can do that. So yes, I think again, having some of those luxuries, we can spend more time on topics that we identify as being sort of most important for the community. So I think that's going to be really a part of our DNA. We want to. Any topic, any coverage area that we identify that we're going to focus on, we want the community to weigh in on that. And then absolutely, in my conversations, just talking about what we want to do, a lot of this was sort of originated from the public affairs side of things, the going to the public meetings to being that watchdog. But as I've had conversations with community members and leaders and just trying to send the message about what we're trying to do. The overwhelming feedback that I've received is we really don't have a lot of arts and cultural coverage in Syracuse. We don't have that kind of community connector, that place where you go to just kind of learn about people to feel good about the community we live in to sort of understand the identity of Syracuse. So that's something again, it feels like a really good fit for us as we're launching, because I'd love to say that on day one, we're going to have some incredible investigative reporting, and I hope that's the case and I will be hiring very soon, so I'll be looking to do that. But really, you know, on day one, I think it will be about the community and will be about introducing you to people who you haven't heard from before and just being sort of that helping to kind of stitch together that fabric of this is who we are in central New York and this is how we feel about our where we live.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Julie McMahon. She's the founding editor-in-chief of a new media nonprofit startup in Syracuse called Central Current. Well, I did want to ask you about the structure of the organization. You've mentioned several times that it's nonprofit. So describe the plans for this organization and the business model, how it's going to work.

JM: So the decision to go the nonprofit route sort of preceded me, but I think it was the founders recognizing this movement that's happening across the country. And I remember when I was in journalism school hearing like nonprofit news. How interesting. How is that going to go with conflicts of interest? And now it's like there's 300 small nonprofit publishers around the country. So, one, we get to take advantage of that network. The tools and resources that have kind of sprung up around it, too. So there's a great organization called News PAC that's helping us design our website, where we're in conversation with the Institute for Nonprofit News and some other national organizations that can help with funding and revenue and just also help us with our mission. And how do you set this up and what does the business model look like? So my first month on the job was really, really focused on the business side of things, which is interesting for someone who spent the last ten years as a reporter for the most part. And I have to say I'm loving it because I get to go out and talk about journalism all day. So this is the fun part. So, yeah, so we really drilled down and put together a business plan. We they had already set some fundraising goals. So we do have a goal of raising $1,000,000 before our launch. We are roughly halfway there. We have a lot of sort of verbal commitments that we're we're pinning down. But there are a lot of private philanthropists locally who really jumped on board with this. The local foundations have all expressed support. We're kind of working out what will their role exactly be right now. So fundraising and sort of developing the business model was what we started with. But just in the last couple of weeks, I have pivoted a little bit more. I'm trying to do some reporting myself. I'd love to have some stories kind of in the bank. So when we do launch, I can have those ready to go. But yeah, we're really like I said, we're kind of tapping into this, this model, which does it's kind of predicated on people believing in our mission and having that conversation about media that is driven by ad dollars may not be the best to serve the community. And as a journalist, I certainly experience that. You know, I've talked a lot about how I didn't really feel like I got to tell the stories I wanted to once I reached a certain level. And that I don't really blame on anyone in particular. It's the business model, in my opinion. So the I left journalism, you know, a year ago thinking, I don't think this is I can make this work. And seeing the promise of nonprofit news was really what kind of got me excited and wanted me to try to make this work. But I do think there's you know, this could look a lot different depending on the community. One of the you mentioned we talked about Vermont Digger, but there are other communities like ours or similar to ours that have tried to tackle this and find kind of a niche in a greater media landscape. So one that I really like is Oaklandside. It's a project of Cityside in California and I really just liked the way Oaklandside it specifically that idea of being responsive to the community, to really have people involved in the mission and that leads to memberships eventually. So we have kind of a, I guess, three-pronged plan for revenue, which is philanthropy. Memberships would be the second piece, which is small individual donations. So this is really you want to be a part of our mission. It's not a subscription. Our content will always be free to all. But you're supporting us kind of like NPR, where you get a mug or a tote bag and you give you some swag.

GR: Swag is important.

JM: It is important, but hopefully more too, like we want to hold events and we want you to we want members to have sort of a want to be able to engage members in a way that they feel like they are a part of our organization and have a say in where we go. And then that third prong is sponsorships. So not we're not going to be doing any traditional display advertising. I, I'm as a nonprofit, we have some rules we have to work around. And then also we want it to align with our mission. So we will be looking to partner with probably like-minded organizations and businesses that want to support our mission and understand that they're not going to have a say in exactly what gets covered. But they might say, Hey, we want you to do a project on health care in upstate New York. And so we agree that's a that's something that we that aligns with our values. So we'll give sort of visibility to your brand in exchange for support for that and started some of those conversations. But that will probably be a little further down the line, which brings me to kind of the big question is when does this all start?

GR: We'll get there in a minute.

JM: Yeah, I'll let you do the questions then.

GR: No, that's okay. Now, that's fine. But before we get to that, I wanted to jump in on something that you said just a little bit earlier. You said that you when you first were learning about not-for-profit journalism, your question was, well, how would that work with conflicts of interest? And I think you just were talking about how the sponsorship brings that up. But you also said that, you know, one of your frustrations working as a journalist was the for-profit business model and how that affected things. And I wanted to ask you this. Going back to something that Robert McChesney said to me when I was talking to him, but he argued very explicitly that the goals and the purposes of local journalism are now fundamentally at odds with profit-making. He just flat out said it, that there's just a fundamental disconnect there. Would you go that far in saying that?

JM: I think I would. You know, and I respect I think the way I've said it is what we do is hard to quantify. You know, it is a little bit of a journalism is a little bit of an art. You know, it's not it's people. It's relationship building. Those are not things that are necessarily easy to quantify and say that's worth, you know, $500 ad on your website. So I think we are fundamentally at odds. I would definitely agree with that. The more that I think about that statement, you know, and for me, it just played out in my life like being able to building relationships on covering. So one example I'll give is I was covering the Catholic diocese's response to sexual abuse cases and building relationships with sexual assault victims. You know, and that's always been hard, but kind of running into like we know there's you know, that might be a story, but we don't know for sure if it's going to lead to the kind of story that our readers will click on. You know, it's not those explicit conversations, but it's Julie. You've got that that is all this kind of messiness or you've got, you know, let's write about this court case that will, you know, very clearly resonate with people. So we're relying on these kind of tried and true narratives that newspapers always have. And I was somebody who was like, I want the nuance. I want to write about the messy stuff. Like, I love writing about family court. It can get messier than that. And it was just like I'd find sources. I find stories that were that were really nuanced and it would just be a matter of like, how are we going to move forward with this? We just don't really have the infrastructure to do it and the editing infrastructure. So for me that was very painful to then have to turn to someone and be like, I'm not going to be able to tell your story and I don't really have a good reason in my mind why not to. You know, this is especially that topic for me was really tough. You know, we've all seen Spotlight hopefully and seen the, you know, the power of journalism when it comes to advocating for people. And I think, again, I think there's a lot of good people in town at the legacy media who want to do that. It's just that the business model is at odds with doing it.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is Central Current Editor in chief Julie McMahon. So well, now let's talk about where you are in the process. So you've mentioned you're halfway toward a very ambitious, I think, fundraising goal early on, and congratulations on that. But when is the organization going to launch? Where are you on staffing? Those kinds of things.

JM: So I will be posting two reporter positions maybe today. I guess if I get the time. I have them drafted and I'm kind of working with some people and putting together a hiring committee so I can get some different voices and perspectives.

GR: This is part of your job posting right now.

JM: Hey, if there are any local reporters looking for work, definitely give me a call. Absolutely. Yeah. And that will be a matter of finding the right people. And this is the these are our first reporters. These are the people who will represent us in the community, will be asking the questions, will be those watchdogs. So that is extremely exciting to me. And the fact that we've had some people willing to underwrite those positions is giving me more faith and hope in the future of journalism than I've had in a long time. So that will be a critical piece. We're talking to a lot of local writers, freelancers, going to kind of be getting some contracts signed hopefully soon and getting those projects started. So very optimistically, I would say we're saying spring of this year. And I think, wow, you know, if we'd be able to do it in April or May, I would be thrilled. I want to make sure I'm kind of putting the brakes on that a little bit and saying there's a lot of pieces that need to come together. But I think we really need to show people what we're about and what the product really is. We've already gotten such a great response from people, but I think if we can show them this is what we're going to do, the community will really get on board and some of the people who are considering donating will also really be interested in joining and participating. And that membership component, I think will be a really key piece of this, too. So we want to get started. We want to tell people, we want to start sharing stories and show people who we are and what we're going to be about. So I'm very hopeful that we can get there. And, you know, we'll see. We'll see what kind of hurdles we encounter along the way. This is a startup, so that's something I'm kind of getting comfortable with.

GR: So one of the things that I read in your business plan and you've spoken to it a little bit previously and some of your other remarks is that you've been conducting this ongoing survey effort and auditing the local media coverage and community engagement in order to determine what topics are of greatest interest to the community and particularly the ones that aren't getting enough coverage. You mentioned arts and culture before as something that came back to you. Are there other areas that you've found as well in this effort?

JM: Yeah. So I would say we're kind of in round one of our community engagement, which will involve exactly that surveying just getting out and talking to the community and getting feedback. But I think we will hopefully be doing kind of a survey 2.0 even more specific, that really was sort of informal. And the local media audit we're doing too is, is sort of informal. Just trying to get a sense of what's the ballpark that we need to be in. And I think we have a very strong sense of that. But I think there's more to go on that. What we've heard is exactly what I kind of started with local government overwhelmingly is the response to the survey is more government coverage. An interesting little factoid that we came up with, one of our board members loves just looking at old newspaper archive dot com and we'll just kind of like get into the weeds and he'll read a news story. And again, this is something where we can offer this as sort of a service as a reporter he’ll read a current news story and be like, I want to know the history. So I'm going to look up this name in the newspaper archive. You know, he'll do this deep dive. He could have been a reporter in another life. So he was looking around this Larry Bousquet, one of our founding board members. He found this stat. And I'm not going be able to rattle off the numbers exactly. But and I'm not I'm not an old-school Syracuse sports fan either. So you might have to fill in some of the gaps. But the Syracuse football coach was extremely successful, I think in the around the 50s 60s era. He looked at a 12-year period and that coach's name was mentioned something like 2000 times in that period of time. The Common Council, Syracuse Common Council was mentioned something like 12,000 times in that 12-year period of time. And in roughly the sixties, he looked at the same look, let's look at it currently last 12 years, Syracuse Common Council and Jim Boeheim. And the script flipped right. It was 12,000 Boeheim references and 1000, 2000 Common Council references. So that and that's what we've heard from people is they're lacking more information about local government, where to where to find resources, services, what's happening in the schools. I hear from parents constantly. I don't know what's going on in the schools and that's something I've heard since I stopped covering education is like how we really miss having a beat reporter. So no real surprises as far as that goes. The maybe the more surprising thing for me is coming from the news reporting background was the arts and cultural piece that you know and wanting to learn more about people, the marginalized communities that don't often get covered or don't really have the representation that they want to see. You know, like definitely from the Black community in Syracuse, we've engaged with some young, younger folks who've also said, you know, we want to see stories about us, positive stories about who we are in our lives.

GR: I think all those things are important. We've just got about 30 seconds left. I wanted to make sure that I got this question in for our listeners. So if our listeners want to find out more about this new venture, maybe even perhaps contribute to it, find out how to become a member, tell them where they should go.

JM: Great. So we're at Central Current dot org. It is kind of a corporate page right now where you're just read about us, but we will be publishing more soon and I'd really encourage you to sign up for our newsletter. It goes out about once a month. You'll see more of it. Or you can shoot me an email directly at J McMahon at Central Current dot org.

GR: That is fantastic. Well, we'll have to leave it there. That was Julian McMahon. Julie, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. And I want to wish you the best of luck with this new venture and we'll be keeping an eye on it. I think it's really important work you're doing. So thank you.

JM: Thank you. Thank you so much.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.