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Photo: Richland Source
As part of its effort to engage community members, an online news startup in Mansfield, Ohio, holds free Newsroom After Hours concerts that feature local bands — and free beer and food.

Local journalism is in trouble as giant organizations like GateHouse Media buy up papers and cut staff. That’s a problem not only because of the jobs lost but because so much important news is first revealed thanks to investigations at the local level.

Still, there are always people who will find find opportunity when everything looks bleak.

Doug Struck writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Noah Jones is working. The young reporter for the Richland Source, a local news startup in the heart of Ohio’s Rust Belt, listens to the jazz quartet warm up and eyes the crowd. Then he takes the mic.

“ ‘Thank you for coming out tonight,’ Mr. Jones intones, in his best master-of-ceremonies voice. ‘Now let’s welcome the Mansfield Jazz Orchestra quartet!’

“The small concert, with free beer and food for the public, is in the middle of the shared-space newsroom of the Richland Source, an online site started by a businessman who thought his city needed more news.

“The monthly Newsroom After Hours concert – from jazz to pop to hip-hop – is just one of the unfamiliar roles for some journalists and publishers trying bold experiments to buck the wholesale die-off of local news sources around the country. Like mad inventors, they are furiously writing and rewriting plans to find what works, often in small-scale, community efforts. …

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last year found that in the past 14 years, 1,800 newspapers have closed – 1 in every 5 across the country – creating a U.S. map spotted with ‘news deserts.’

“A Pew Research Center analysis in July showed newspaper circulation since 1990 dropping by half, to 31 million last year. Pew noted jobs in all newsrooms plunged by one-quarter in the past decade. A Wall Street Journal study published in May said Google and Facebook have sucked up 77% of digital advertising revenues from local markets. …

“For years, observers have warned of the effects of this loss of news coverage: paralyzing partisanship, lower voting rates, government corruption, little accountability among public officials, less civic engagement. … Equity firms have bought up many local news outlets at fire-sale prices, often slashing staffs and coverage to drain the last bit of profits. …

“[Carl Fernyak, founder of the Richland Source,] says he knew ‘zero, nothing’ about news publishing when he began the Richland Source six years ago, but predicts the organization is now within 18 months of breaking even. …

“In 2013, Mr. Fernyak joined a Chamber of Commerce study of the sagging Rust Belt town. ‘Without fail, each one of the businesses said we have an image problem, a self-esteem problem,’ he says. ‘Ninety-five percent of the coverage was crime.’

“Mr. Fernyak was in the office equipment business, but within six months he had hired a president, a veteran managing editor, and a few journalists, and started the Richland Source. … The site, which Mr. Fernyak adamantly keeps free to readers, offers up a smorgasbord of hard news and homespun stories. A recent front page included a shooting-suicide next to news that Barb Weaver had once again won the county fair’s lemon meringue pie contest. The site has local sports, summer parades, short features on business owners, and occasionally a deep dive into a social problem.

“To support this, and to bond with readers, the Richland Source and its owner do some decidedly untraditional things. There are the newsroom concerts, trivia nights at a local brewery, movie nights, and roundtable discussions with high school students – all staffed in part by Richland Source employees.

“The Source has a marketing arm that crafts social media strategies and ads for businesses, the editors are trying to sell an artificial intelligence program they use to generate short stories on high school games, and the staff solicited $70,000 from businesses and community groups to pay for two extensive reporting projects. Reporters are expected to make an ‘ask,’ through email and social media appeals, for readers to sign up for memberships at $5 to $20 a month. …

“ ‘I like it,’ says Cheryl Moore, a clerk at the 111-year-old Hursh Pharmacy. ‘It’s current, it’s true, and it’s factual.’

“The mayor of the town concurs. ‘They’ve been a breath of fresh air,’ says Timothy Theaker, who was first elected in 2011. ‘If the news is always negative, it starts tearing down the community.’ …

“Mr. Fernyak thinks newsrooms and owners are figuring out models that will work. ‘We’ve had a crazy amount of support from our community for this,’ he says. ‘I had people saying, “It’s about time.” ‘ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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A busy holiday here in New England with both our kids, their spouses, and the two grandsons. Every time we thought we were nearly done opening presents, one or more of us needed a nap.

The distaff side produced a chicken masala (with rice, nuts, raisins, cilantro, coconut, and chutney from Swaziland via the Servv catalog), creamed spinach, salad, and pear crumble.

Meanwhile, here’s a Christmas-y story from South America …

“In 2001, when Argentina’s economy was near collapse and property prices plummeted, UCLA art prof Fabian Wagmister bought a 15,000-square-foot abandoned warehouse in Buenos Aires. When he finally set out to clear the remaining debris from the building last year, he uncovered more than 100,000 Christmas ornaments piled in one of the back rooms.

“What to do with a trove of metallic bulbs, plastic wreaths, and bags of fake snow for a sunny Argentine Christmas?

“Re-gift them, of course,” writes Elise Hennigan at Pacific Standard.

“ ‘As artists we were immediately taken by the powerful expressive potential of the materials,’ says Wagmister.

“Now the director of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Center for Research in Engineering, Media, and Performance (REMAP), Wagmister invited a team of ten artists, researchers, and programmers from Los Angeles to distribute the ornaments to the surrounding community …

“Starting on December 15, the team invited community groups to visit the warehouse, one among many lining a historically working-class district that has seen an influx of technology companies. There, the researchers have encouraged participants to develop projects that will use the ornaments to express their identities, struggles and aspirations. On December 23, the groups took to the streets and decked the halls accordingly.” More.

 Photograph: Pacific Standard
Some of the found ornaments going up around Argentina’s capital

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I learned about an unusual artist today because I was following @FortPointArts on twitter. Her name is Heidi Kayser, and just when I no longer have an office with a view of Fort Point Channel, she has launched an art project on the water. Sigh.

Anyway, I went to her website and poked around. This blog entry from 2011 is a typically amusing one, and I think one of my readers may want to try the experiment:

“Sarah Rushford arrived today and we got right to work … The mission, as we chose to accept it, was to construct some sort of wearable platforms to hold the cameras on the back of my legs. Wonderful engineers that we are, Sarah and I  ingeniously came up with [contraptions] made of CD cases, zip ties, rubber bands, twine and alligator clips. …

“Sarah filmed me tramping across the beach. I filmed my ankles tramping across the beach. It was very surprisingly difficult to walk wearing the cameras — I couldn’t extend my knees very much, so finding balance in soft sand proved challenging but oddly meditative. My attention had to be focused on every step, otherwise I’d fall and damage the cameras.

“When we were nearly finished, the curious beach-goers who had been pretending to ignore me as I walked steadily and weirdly by them, came up to us and asked what we were doing.” Read more.

Photograph: Sarah Rushford

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