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Julie McMahon on the Campbell Conversations

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Julie McMahon
Julie McMahon

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Julie McMahon, founding Editor-in-Chief of the online media non-profit startup in Syracuse called, Central Current.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today was on the program about a year ago when the venture she's leading was just getting started. Julie McMahon is the founding Editor in Chief of a media nonprofit startup in Syracuse called Central Current, which publishes online. News coverage of public affairs in smaller cities and rural areas in the United States has been decimated in recent years, and is documented by such books as, “News Hole”. And it's been a particular problem for investigative reporting, prompting larger nonprofit media outlets like ProPublica to launch local news reporting initiatives. Julie has been trying to do something about that problem in the Syracuse area through Central Current. She's also taught at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. Julie, welcome back to the program.

Julie McMahon: Thank you so much. It's great to be back after one year.

GR: Yeah, so let's just start sort of a year ago or a little after we talked a year ago. How was the start up process for this? How'd it go?

JM: It's pretty incredible to think what we've accomplished in a year. I'm really proud to say we have a staff, it's not just me. So that's a big accomplishment in and of itself. And it is really kind of cool to think about a year ago, the marker in time for me is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, actually. This is one of the very first stories we published and sort of at the urging of Mike Greenlar, a photographer who we are lucky enough to keep working with, who was like, I got to go to the church, you know, Saint John the Baptist on Tipp Hill and see the community outpouring. And one year later, we have a student intern, part time employee of Central Current, writing a series about people with ties to Ukraine living in central New York or going to Ukraine from Central York. So we've come a really long way, and I'm really proud of what we've accomplished in that time.

GR: That's great. So you mentioned you've got a staff. How many people are involved in this effort? At this point? Either doing it full time or, you know, piecemeal that that work with you on a regular basis.

JM: So we have four full time staff members and then we did just hire a part time intern, which is a paid position. And we hope to continue that, too. And then we work with a lot of freelancers and there's probably four, three or four who we continuously work with on a weekly or near that basis. And then there's a lot more too and you mentioned my connection with Syracuse University as a graduate and a teacher, that I'm not teaching this semester, but I do still have some ties there with actually the Daily Orange we're talking about doing a collaboration later this semester and starting that and just being plugged in with students. It's been really fun to see some of my former students freelance for us and also play a part. So we have a lot of different collaborators really beyond our core four, I would say.

GR: Well, that must be very satisfying. So are there themes to your coverage that you've settled on for now that kind of define what you are?

JM: Yes, and they were themes that I think we identified around this time last year. So if you go to our website, centralcurrent.org, you'll see sort of across the banner government and politics, justice and equity and arts and culture. So those were sort of the initial banner sections that we have. And then I think we've started to try to, we saw those as sort of the community need what the community was asking for initially in these conversations. And then we've drilled down on trying to fill in the gaps in the stories within those beats or coverage areas that just aren't getting coverage. So it looks a little different for each of them, too.

GR: Yeah. As I recall, I think when we talked a year ago in order to generate those areas, you did some outreach into the community, did some, I don't know if it was a formal survey, but some kind of process. Is that what you're referring to there? When you said you know, you've got these things bubbling up from the community in terms of determining your themes?

JM: Yes, exactly. And I think really quickly, early on, government and politics as you mentioned in your introduction, what we've seen across the country in terms of the lack of investigative reporters and watchdogs just in community meetings covering government politics, elections and all of the different functions that I think is where justice and equity came in really quickly, too, is we wanted to, especially in a community like Syracuse that has issues in that realm. You know, those were the beats that we kind of identified within policing. And I think we're trying to cover schools and what the biggest lesson we learned in those conversations for me early on, was a real demand for arts and culture coverage. And that over time the losses, and this is not new to people who are paying attention to nonprofits and journalism and, you know, education and so many things, arts and culture is the first thing that gets cut so often when there isn't funding. So a lot of news outlets that's the same. So that was really something we heard loud and clear, resounding message in surveys that we did. And then we ended up holding a community focus group, which was about six or seven people who kind of wandered in. And we had a conversation about what do you see as the need? And what we heard again was like, arts and culture just doesn't get covered at all. And we want to see community reflected back on itself, not just the bad, but the good. The people who are doing things, trying to solve problems. So that's why we hired our second reporter, Yolanda Stewart, who is covering arts and culture for us.

GR: Yeah, your organization and the Campbell Conversations are kind of partners in that way, not with any coordination, but arts and culture has been one of one of our subthemes. And I think it's very important, too. So you and I are in heated agreement about that.

JM: Yes.

GR: What do you think, you mentioned the photographic essay regarding the war in Ukraine at the outset. But what do you think some of your best stories have been so far?

JM: It's a great question and such a hard question, but I'm so proud of my, and I have a few I definitely want to mention, thanks for asking that question. So Chris Libonati was our first reporter who came on not too long after our conversation left last year and helped us launch along with our Chief of Staff, Christina Whiteside on the business end of things. And Chris's stories that I think are really strong, that really covered things that otherwise wouldn't have maybe gotten attention or coverage in the same way, he brought it to the public's attention that a woman had given birth inside the Syracuse jail and that the baby had died. And after that, there was coverage by other media outlets, but it might not have otherwise really come to light. And then also hopefully we’ve drawn some more light on the conditions inside the jail and what's going to be happening for the future of that. And Chris has really drilled down and tried to provide a lot of context and make sure the public is aware of what's happening, you know, knows when the public hearings are happening, all of those kinds of things. So for us, that sort of started with a story, I believe it was in July or August about that death of the infant. And then Chris has done a lot with politics and government coverage. A couple of things that come to mind is he wrote about a story that if you google, “smart growth central current Syracuse” really looking at Micron is coming to town, but what does that mean from a planning / transportation perspective? And I think we're starting to see more and more stories. But I think he had a really insightful piece kind of delving into that and asking some good questions. I can go on quite a bit more, too. I think our arts and culture coverage is really just getting started, but I think we're showing up in places that there's just not enough reporters locally to go to. So Yolanda's been, there's …a 210 Teas downtown does an open mic night and she's really been busy lately. I kind of can't even think of all the things, and starting to look into the issues of like funding for the arts and how do we get young kids exposed to the arts and make sure it's accessible. So I think there's a lot more to come from her. And then we have our freelancers, our Ukraine series this year I'm really proud of. We've had some phenomenal coverage by a freelancer, Gabriel Pietrorazio, who's been covering indigenous issues, wrote a story about the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address, which is a tradition that exists outside of November but is really a beautiful story about land life and language. And Eddie Velazquez, who's been covering housing, labor, and employment for us as a freelancer, has just done a really nice job of covering the state of housing in Syracuse and some of the tenants issues and policy changes to address them.

GR: Well, those sound really important and interesting. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Julian McMahon the Editor in Chief of a relatively new media organization based in Syracuse called Central Current. So do you have any idea of the size of your readership so far or any trends in that?

JM: Yes, the number that comes to mind immediately, and it does fluctuate we're a startup, we're new. I think our goal we try to strive for, it's really tricky between page views and unique visitors and there's all these different numbers. So the one that I want to check every now and then is we're around 1300 subscribers to our newsletter. And that’s a free subscription, just a sign up, really. And those are people who are reading pretty much weekly, the Thursday newsletter that comes out. So I think that's a good measure of people who are coming back to us regularly. But some of our stories get a much wider audience than that too. The internet is an interesting place to be publishing so some things, you know, go very far on Facebook or Twitter and that's an interesting place to be right now too. So that's a good, I think estimate, we've got about 1200 people 1300 people signed up for our newsletter at this stage.

GR: Well, in a city like Syracuse, I think that's very good. I understand that you're branching out into radio as well. Tell us about that.

JM: Yes. So this is something that we had started just to get into thanks largely in part to WCNY just sort of offering how can we help Central Current get started? They've provided space to us as we need it, I have a cubicle there and we've been working with the radio show. They have an HD radio station Community FM that Ron Lombard, who's a former news director at Spectrum, runs it and collaborates with us to help with that. So it's every other week we do a radio broadcast on that and then it kind of transforms into a podcast that lives on our website. So Talk Radio with Rick Wright, long time radio broadcast legend. He and I, it's really one guest for most shows and it's very open ended. Something in the news or we have, we've had some authors other journalists on the program, so we've really just been experimenting and talking about what we're doing with Central Current, whether it's stories we're writing or sort of the business model and where we're at with the launch.

GR: So I'm letting you voice competition to the Campbell Conversations, and I want public radio credit here. (laughter)

JM: Well we’ll have to have you on this time. So we're learning from you and I'm totally new to radio other than coming out as a guest, really. So we do have a lot of fun. We just kind of chop it up.

GR: Well that’s great.

JM: It's a great format, something different for us. And I've gotten really into podcasts personally, just listening all kinds of different ones, like things that I never really imagined honestly, where it's sort of people talking about just a topic of passion for them. So I've sort of had a new renewed interest in some of the ways we can take a story that we're writing about and then also kind of dive into it and introduce the audience to a person in a different way. So it's kind of fun to experiment with the tools available to you.

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 relatively new media nonprofit startup in Syracuse called Central Current. So something like this is not going to be without its trials and tribulations. What challenges and frustrations have you encountered so far over the past year?

JM: I think the biggest is capacity and just how do we grow this in a sustainable way? We have conversations about, you know, if we hire one more reporter, what beat will they cover? That's a really hard one for me. And that's why I like these community conversations. I think we're going to have more of those types of talks where we invite the audience in for a Zoom call or a focus group or survey to get that feedback. But how do we grow in a responsible way that actually addresses the community's needs and doesn't, you know, spin me out so that I can keep doing this work, too. It's, you know, I think last time we talked about journalism and my story and kind of how I arrived at this work and finding sustainable ways to do good journalism is a people problem. It's a, how do you build this thing? One of my board members has said, how do you drive the car on the highway, you know, and change the tires at the same time. So it's just finding the right pieces and putting them together and being able to pay for all of it. So it's a challenge, but it's been going fairly well so far, too.

GR: And are there any developments? I mean, you obviously came in with a lot of experience in the media, so you weren't a newcomer to it. You knew what to expect in many instances, but anything that came up that just surprised the heck out of you, you didn't expect?

JM: Again, I think of the business side of things and bringing on Christina Whiteside to take on more of that, but feel comfortable with it. As a journalist, I think of the ethical side of it too, right? How do we pay for this but do it in a responsible way? We're really lucky to have a team and a board that understands editorial independence, but we want to launch a sponsorship program. So, you know, public radio does this, right? There are sponsors here. But for us, how is that going to look? How are we going to offer that visibility on our site? How are we going to make sure our editorial independence is maintained when we're such a new organization and may not have somebody whose whole job can be to think about that? So that's where it's come up, I'd say.

GR: Yeah, that's an interesting question, I haven’t thought of that. So I want to ask you maybe a little more sensitive question, but I'm going to ask it. What value added do you think that you are providing to the coverage of local issues that are already provided - that is already provided by the Post-Standard? Because that, you know, is still, I guess, the paper of record for the city of Syracuse, by default, if nothing else. And so what do you see if you look at that, what's your value added there?

JM: So I've had people come to us and say everything that you have on your website today is the opposite of what I can find on syracuse.com, and I'm really grateful for that. And that's exactly where we want to live, right? It doesn't make sense for us to just do the same thing. I think the trickier question, so if we're doing that, then we're really lucky. There's so much news in Syracuse, there's so many stories to tell. So I think it's easy for me to see there's such a need to fill, and that's the feedback we've been getting. But then I would say also, it's the trickier part of that question is the depth aspect of this, because that's something that we know people want is more in-depth coverage. But how can we provide that as a smaller organization with fewer resources? So there are times where certainly we can't, we have to pick our battles. But I'll point to today, as we're sitting here talking, you know, the news of the day is Boeheim's departure from SU, and we are not covering that, we're just not set up for it, nor would it make any sense for us to do that. So we're the place you can go if you're looking for something different to read about today. And I'm proud to put to be in that role. And I think there's a lot of people who are looking for that, too.

GR: You know, with the different cuts in coverage that the Post-Standard has made, sports has been remarkably uncut. And so, yeah, I could see why you would leave that to them. Another sensitive question, perhaps, but I also want to ask it, has the Post-Standard supported your effort in any way, or are they just, you guys are completely, you know, you don't communicate. How does that work?

JM: We haven't had any formal contact from the Post-Standard. There are stories we've covered, it's tricky, right? We're competition. Same with WRVO. If we get to a story first or if WRVO gets to a story first, I try to give credit where credit's due. We haven't seen that from the Post-Standard. I'm not surprised. I haven't had any direct outreach. I still have a lot of connections to the Post-Standard, my husband still works there. (laughter) So it's not all it's not all bad, but, yeah, I don't feel that they've really recognized us either, which I hope. I think a healthy media environment is one where we do find a way to collaborate and work together. So maybe, maybe that'll be something that will happen in the future. But so far, not yet.

GR: Yeah, I've had some similar experiences, I have to say. So I'm also curious, have you had, you kind of mentioned this early on or were talking about this, but have you have you had conversations with other similar ventures to yours in New York State or across the nation to compare notes? And sort of, this is what works, this is what doesn't work, that kind of thing.

JM: Definitely. We are part of a network institute for nonprofit news, and there are now over 400 organizations just like us, mostly small local outlets across the country. And actually some of them are international or more topic based, but they're all nonprofits. So we're really plugged in and we're learning a lot. It's incredible to be able to not have to reinvent the wheel. And then in New York State, I look to, you know, public radio really created this model in a lot of ways. So that has been nice. The example that I think of more sort of aligned with us a little bit is New York Focus. They're a state wide based in New York City, in Albany, there have people there now too and they're doing great job. We've done a collaboration now with them. We ran a story that they wrote that focused a little bit on Syracuse and we've had a lot of talks with them about potential collaborations in the future. So I think that's something to see going forward as we try to solve this issue of information and making sure people have what they need to make decisions is, how do we collaborate across geographic lines and even business sort of lines to make sure people are getting what they need.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Central Current Editor in Chief Julie McMahon. So you’ve mentioned a couple of times, when I asked you about the challenges of the business side, the funding side of this. How has your funding stream been? What's your main funding model at present? As I recall, you got a fairly large chunk of money at the beginning to get this started. But how has it played out?

JM: Yeah, so we really got started with philanthropy, both through what we would call major donors, people giving $5,000 or more a year and through foundations, grants. And that really was what got us started. We were very fortunate that a few of those foundations, the Reisman Foundation locally, Community Foundation gave us a grant and a couple others, the Allyn Foundation committed to multi-year grants for a couple of those which really was nice to be able to secure the positions for our reporters. We can really promise to keep them on staff and make sure that their wages and benefits are funded. But, we've started to hopefully diversify our revenue streams. Membership, which are the donors for giving $5,000 or less every year, that's sort of the area where we’ve focused more recently. And then creating sort of a philanthropic opportunity for businesses, nonprofits, what we call a sponsorship, again, very much like the public radio model. And a note on the membership, we're just getting started I would say, but our first campaign from November to December we were able to access $15,000 in matching funds through INM I mentioned and a fundraiser called News Match, which is largely funded by the Knight Foundation. And we actually were able to raise a little over $19,000. So we were able to access the $15,000 match we signed up 116 new members, so we got an additional bonus for that too. So we were really, it was a great way to start. I think there's a lot further that we have to go with that too, to really be sustainable and successful. But that's sort of a very promising start, I would say.

GR: Must be a constant source of worry for you, though. It sounds like, you know, this foundation, this donor, that donor, it just never ends. Is it is that something that kind of wears you down a little bit that hat that you have to wear.

JM: Having to then also run a news organization is probably the hard part about that. And I've mentioned Christine a few times, so hopefully having some other people who can worry about those things. Our board, you know, that is really their role at the end of the day as a nonprofit is to ensure our financial health and make sure we have the resources we need to do that. So I think I need to rely on them more and more. But of course I worry about it. That's a hard part of doing this work and hard part of working in journalism in general, I would say.

GR: Yeah. Now, you mentioned the themes of your coverage and why they're there and how you develop them. Thinking about the future, are there new themes that you have in mind or types of stories that you'd like to branch out into?

JM: I think more depth, more investigative reporting. And now that we have a little bit more staff and more support through freelancers, we should be able to do that. I think one of the things we're looking forward to as soon is, we're going to take, I'm taking a little break and going on vacation.

GR: Good for you.

JM: Thank you. It's important for sustainability, honestly.

GR: Yes!

JM: And the team is going to pivot and write all about transportation for a week. And we're looking to do something maybe similar with housing or just starting to talk about that. So I think, again, a lot of the same topics or things you've started to see us cover, but to do more in-depth and in the arts and culture world, I think especially culture, you know, it's a very vague kind of term that really means people and that can go in a lot of different directions. So I think those are ways that we expect to expand and grow.

GR: You know, in thinking about this interview and preparing for it, one of the things I did was I tried to think of storylines or topics that I would suggest to you and kind of bounce them off of you. And we've got a few minutes here at the end. I wanted to do that on a couple of ideas. One of them, you know, you guys are already getting into this a little bit, but it seems to me that one of the big questions out there, it's not getting as much coverage as it might, is related to the I-81 issue, but it's not I-81 per se. It's the question of the redevelopment of what is under and around I-81. Blueprint 15, which is sponsored by the Allyn Foundation has been taking the lead on this. But there have been some community concerns regarding that redevelopment. I've talked about them on the Campbell Conversations regarding, in particular what's going to happen to some of the poorer people that are living in the public housing projects at present. And you mentioned Micron and you guys looking into Micron. I think Micron is going to complicate that question further. And so that might be one, you know, that what happens underneath I-81, particularly in terms of affordable housing and concerns about gentrification, which are only going to be magnified with Micron that's just a thought I had. I don't know if you have reactions to that.

JM: Well, thank you for the story idea. (laughter) Yeah, I agree completely. The thing, I think this is, the surface has been scratched, so to speak. But on this topic, I think the, even in this story idea that I think I want to drill down on. The rezoned Syracuse plan actually provides probably the closest blueprint for what that will look like, not to be too on the nose with blueprint, but it really does kind of spell out this is what this can be used for and it is a lot of mixed use. It really does, I haven't looked at the maps myself in a long time so some things have changed, but it really creates a new city center. That was sort of one of the goals of it, which I think that area, it's being rezoned for the first time in I think more than 50 years. So you can read some of that, but I think that's a place to dive into, I 100% agree with you.

GR: And we've only got about a minute left, but I want to squeeze in two questions. The first of these is another idea, and this is I think, very important and that is the coverage of the local down ballot elections. There's just been a dearth of information there on those, and I would really encourage you guys to look into that. There used to be a faculty member it at Newhouse that had her students go and write on those but she's retired and you know…

JM: Is that Charlotte Grimes?

GR: Yeah. And I would really encourage you guys to pick that up, yeah.

JM: Professor Grimes was a role model of mine and very, very, I don't know, someone I really looked up to and I could not agree more on that and I'll leave it at that because I know we don't have a lot more time.

GR: Yeah, well, good. I'm glad to know you guys are thinking about that because, boy, I, just as a voter, I have had a tough time trying to figure some things out, and there's just nowhere to go. And then the final thing with the time left, just a few seconds, if somebody has a story to suggest to Central Current or wants to get in touch for any other reason, maybe giving you money or who knows, what's the best way to get in touch? Just tell our listeners that.

JM: Absolutely. Visit centralcurrent.org, send us an email at newsroom@centralcurrent.org with your ideas. And that's the way to contact our team. And thanks for your interest.

GR: Oh, yeah, you bet. Well, this has been a fascinating conversation and it sounds like things are going well and I wish you all the best. That was Julian McMahon. Julie, again, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me and just great luck with this new venture. It's really good work you're doing for the community.

JM: Thanks for having me back.

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