"Prior to 2009, I worked construction nine to five, than went to school at night," says Doug Livingston, managing editor of TheNewsOutlet.org. "The stipend allowed me to hang up my tool belt and focus on my career 100 percent."
Livingston, a senior journalism major at Youngstown State University, is one of seven students from Youngstown State who work for the investigative and enterprise reporting Web site. The site pays the students/reporters stipends thanks to its repeat victories in the Knight Community Information Challenge.
Speaking of challenge, in today's economy, that's often the right word for what faces students who want to score professional media clips and get paid for them in the process. At a school like Youngstown State, where the enrollment includes many first generation college students, that can be extremely difficult.
TheNewsOutlet.org was originally backed by the Raymond John Wean Foundation, which looks for inventive ways to serve the communities of Youngstown and Warren, Ohio. It recently received a two-year, $302,000 award from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to bolster its reporting on gas and oil drilling. That marks the third victory in the Knight Community Information Challenge for the project, which started at Youngstown State in 2009 and expanded in its second year to include students from the University of Akron and Kent State. In addition to the seven Youngstown State students, the staff includes three from Kent State and one from Akron. The site also uses students as freelancers.
The site's major focus is fracking or hydraulic fracturing, a new drilling technology that makes it possible to reach natural gas reserves that underlie much of the state of Ohio. The issue has neighborhoods divided, debating whether the economic benefits outweigh the environmental concerns.
"Fracking is probably one of the biggest stories for our region, and arguably for the country," says Tim Francisco, one of the journalism directors of TheNewsOutlet.org and a professor at Youngstown State. Francisco says the Ohio cities of Youngstown and Akron, like Buffalo, New York, are industrialized venues that have been struggling economically for decades. What's happening now is a fracking boom; these cities are now sitting on top of a multibillion dollar national resource.
According to the Ohio Environmental Council, the plans for unconventional, industrial-scale drilling across Ohio pose direct risks to public health, safety and the environment. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce argues that the energy provided by the deep shale has the potential to be an economic game changer for Ohio and other states seated on top of the profitable natural resource.
The funds will enable an expanded partnership between the Web site and public radio stations in the Rust Belt Midwest, western New York and the Pittsburgh area. These long-suffering areas are now on the cusp of a potential boom because they sit right on top of bountiful Utica and Marcellus shale.
The site's active media partners include the Vindicator, Youngstown's daily paper; Youngstown public radio station, WYSU FM, and WYSU.org; the Akron Beacon Journal; and Akron's Rubber City Radio. It is adding new partners, although the roster has not been finalized.
TheNewsOutlet.org is not a destination site; part of its mission is to feed content to legacy media organizations. As the staffs of traditional news outlets shrink, the work of new players like TheNewsOutlet.org is becoming increasingly crucial.
"My favorite story was spending time at a..drug rehabilitation station in north Youngstown, and it was part of a seven-part front page series that was published in the Vindicator," Livingston says. Along with gas and oil drilling the site focuses on such issues such as nursing homes and the election in the critical swing state.
Francisco says most of the grant dollars go to stipends for students at the three colleges who write for TheNewsOutlet.org. The money is vital because it frees students from working at non-journalism jobs while acquiring valuable experience in their chosen field.
In an effort to get the students up to speed on fracking, TheNewsOutlet.org took the staff to Texas to take a look at what the process looked like well into a boom. Observing the towns around the Dallas metro area gave the staff an idea of what could be in store for Youngstown, Francisco says.
"Communities are divided on the issue," he says. "In Texas, when they knew we were reporters, they would ask, 'what side are you on.' This gives you a window of how people think about journalism today – there is not a whole lot of ambivalence. It's either great to fix the economy or it's a horrible threat to the environment. No one is really in between."
Francisco says that in one visit to a neighborhood, people who lived next door to each other were in complete disagreement – one would be willing to sell their mineral rights to gas and oil companies, another would not.
"We assumed that in an area that was a decade ahead of us that we could gain much needed insight for Ohio's future and the possible benefits and concerns around the corner," Livingston says. "We found that an industry that has been around for 10 to 15 years in another state is still going through these similar growing pains."
Alyssa Lenhoff, journalism director at Youngstown State and the other director of TheNewsOutlet.org, says the site is "really focusing on in-depth reporting." Representatives of the media partners attend the weekly story and budget meetings; they help TheNewsOutlet.org staff brainstorm, mentor students and offer resources. The larger the contribution of a media partner, the more likely they are to get first crack at a story, Lenhoff says.
"We offer expertise, originally it was just office space, but now access to veteran editors to help shape their projects and lend them the professional journalism touch," saysd Todd Franko, editor of the Vindicator.
Franko attends weekly meetings to lend his professional opinion of TheNewsOutlet.org projects. "The college professor staff does a great job, but it's also helpful to complement that with journalists who do that day in and day out, who have access to sources and angles and have a quick recognition of what a story needs," Franko says.
While it has a heavy enterprise focus, the site also provides human-interest pieces. One student encountered and profiled a farmer dubbed a "shale-ionare"; one day the farm family found its landholdings were worth millions of dollars, Lenhoff says.
Lenhoff says students are encouraged to think about tailoring stories for a variety of venues: print, radio, the Web and more.
The work demands a serious commitment from the student journalists. "I was in here for 10 hours yesterday and have been here since 5 a.m. this morning," said Livingston in a telephone interview from his post at The NewsOutlet.org. His is the top-ranking student position, ranking just behind the two professional directors. The managing editor receives $5,000 each semester while the other interns get $3,000.
The combination of focusing on investigative reporting and educating students makes TheNewsOutlet.org a perfect candidate for the Knight Information Challenge. The challenge was created by the Knight Foundation to help community foundations become leaders in supporting local news and information, thought to be crucial to the development of successful communities.
The goal was to partner with local foundations to enable them to play a leading role in meeting the information needs in their communities, says Bahia Ramos-Synnott, director of community foundations for the Knight Foundation.
Ramos-Synott says a chunk of change for this project was for technical assistance, along with a boot camp to bring the student reporters up to speed as far as digital technology is concerned.
"The loss of enterprise reporting [at traditional news outlets] provided a need for certain areas," Ramos-Synott says. "The local foundations responded to this in a very positive manner."