TheNewsOutlet sees high impact from stories by student journalists

Communities / Article

By Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Youngstown State University student journalist Dan Pompili was nervous. “What if they throw me out?” he asked. Before anyone could answer his question, he spoke again: “I know. I know. I have to try.”

Pompili was on his way to interview the operators of a home for mentally challenged people in Youngstown, Ohio. He had been investigating the facility for weeks as part of his work for TheNewsOutlet.org, a collaboration between Youngstown State University, The Raymond John Wean Foundation, The Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative and professional media partners, The Youngstown Vindicator and NPR affiliate, WYSU.

Pompili’s examination had turned up some startling findings: two men had died in the facility under questionable circumstances, the facility’s former human resources director was having sex with one of the mentally incompetent residents and the conditions were so unsanitary in the facility that state inspectors wanted to shut the place down.

The public knew nothing of the problems at the House of Hope until Pompili’s NewsOutlet stories brought badly needed attention to the troubled facility.

The House of Hope examination is one of more than 50 multi-platform enterprise and investigative packages that the NewsOutlet has produced in its first year of operation.

The project launched in Fall 2009 with initial support from The Raymond John Wean Foundation as a way to give YSU journalism students a dose of experiential learning while providing area media with the important content that they no longer have the resources to acquire on their own. A Knight Community Information Challenge grant bolstered the project, and helped us to realize possibilities to do more to get residents involved in setting their news agenda.

As the NewsOutlet directors, we knew that citizens needed to be better engaged in their communities, and we are beginning to see evidence of this commitment. Our legacy media partners report a renewed dedication to community issues, residents have begun calling and emailing tips.

This is because we are out in the community, showing people the value of journalism. TheNewsOutlet connects aspiring journalists with local residents at neighborhood block watch meetings and community congresses. Based on feedback from the residents, interns and staffers generate story pitches that are then posted online on all partner websites and at local libraries for people to vote on, and prioritize, which stories we will develop.

And we see the impact in comments like this, posted after the story mentioned above:

“This is why news matters, this is why the Vindy matters, this is why journalists (in this case, a student journalist from YSU) are important – because when they cover issues like this, when they expose problems like this – change can take place. Thank you to Mr. Pompili for shedding light on this place, and its history of mismanagement. I hope this pastor and the OH Valley Teen Challenge can really turn it around. I hope Mr. Pompili is around in a year or so to follow-up (just assuming its going to take that much time to get this place fixed up and functional.)

Because of these successes, our project is growing quickly.

Other media organizations and other universities are taking notice and are joining TheNewsOutlet.org.

Kent State University and the University of Akron are now partners in the project. New media partners include The Akron Beacon Journal, The Canton Repository, Ohio Public Radio and Rubber City Radio.

As of February, NewsOutlet.org interns are now reporting and producing stories for regional media across Northeastern Ohio.

And the expansion isn’t stopping there.

The latest venture is a joint effort with the Akron Community Foundation, another Knight-funded project. The Akron Community Foundation’s citizen journalism project, The Akronist, will now partner with TheNewsOutlet to produce stories about the important issue of food deserts in urban Northeastern Ohio.

The Akronist’s citizen journalists will provide content to TheNewsOutlet. NewsOutlet interns will package the work from the citizen journalists into main issue stories that legacy media will then be able to use. We’re excited about these new relationships because we understand that our region has got to think and work collectively to solve many of the shared problems that plague our cities. And we will draw on the success and expertise of The Akronist’s citizen journalist training initiative to teach Youngstown residents to tell their own stories.

We are proud of our accomplishments and we’re looking forward to new opportunities to tell important stories with our new partners. In the coming year, we’ll continue to operate on the simple premise with which we began: vital communities need vital media.

Project directors Francisco and Lenhoff are on the English faculty at Youngstown State University.