Inside The Marshall Project’s local reporting collaboration in Cleveland

Even as the financial models of traditional for-profit journalism have been crumbling at the local level, groups across the US—and the world—have been working to reimagine what local news can look like: how it’s conceived, constructed, distributed, and even defined. In many cases, localized outlets and projects have gained support from national foundations; in others, they’re supported by national institutions. Such is the case with Cleveland’s Testify project, supported by national nonprofit The Marshall Project, a news organization dedicated to reimagining coverage of criminal justice.

The Testify project’s primary goal is to use journalistic resources to probe public data about Cuyahoga County courts. “Using tens of thousands of court records, The Marshall Project is exploring the lopsided outcomes in Cuyahoga County’s court system—including why 75% of incarcerated people convicted in Cuyahoga County are Black,” the landing page states. The Marshall Project collaborated with Cleveland’s crowdsourced reporting initiative the Documenters and WOVU radio, with support from local Cleveland residents—including those most closely connected to the courts system—and a host of distribution partners in local Cleveland media.

The project hopes to approach the relationship between local information and national news in a fresh way. “If you look at the prison system, if you look at policing, if you look at courts, if you look at elected officials, DAs and mayors who appoint police commissioners, all of this apparatus is actually guided by state or municipal laws and state or municipal officials,” Susan Chira, editor in chief of The Marshall Project, said. “If you’re going to do accountability journalism—which is what we try to do with The Marshall Project—you need to understand and be responsive to what goes on in a locality, which differs tremendously by geography.” To that end, The Marshall Project is partnering with reporters and community stakeholders who have been doing important and innovative work in Cleveland for years. While considering the project, Chira reached out to Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Lowery, who grew up in Cleveland and has written extensively about criminal justice. She brought Lowery on as a contributing editor, and the two sat down to discuss “what a responsible local news outlet would be like,” Chira says.

Rachel Dissell, another contributor to the Testify project, was a crime reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for nearly two decades; more recently, she helped launch the Cleveland Documenters to train local residents in the work of newsgathering. Her years of experience in the world of traditional local news has offered her insights into both the production and consumption of information at the local level. “The way that we reduce crime stories to what happened to someone in one moment, without going back to understand those stories and how they interact with larger systems, is something that always bothered me,” Dissell said. But even deep reporting on social and political systems can be slow to permeate public consciousness. Years ago, Dissell told me, the Plain Dealer published a series on lead poisoning. Even with hefty journalistic investment and frequent publication, it took the “average person in Cleveland” nearly a year “to catch up with some of the basic facts” that the paper was reporting. “It took a lot of repetition, a lot of persistence, a lot of going out in the community and talking about it,” Dissell said. “The journalism framework we have now isn’t really made for that. It’s made for putting a bunch of money into doing one thing, doing it really well, putting it out there, and then expecting everybody else to share it and make it accessible. And it doesn’t happen, you know?”

The Testify team has worked to ensure that their data is available to the people for whom it matters most: those intimately connected to Cleveland courts. “If it is not accessible to residents who are involved in the court system, or who have family members involved, or who have the opportunity to vote in races [for judicial candidates], it’s nice, but it’s performative in a way,” Dissell said. Before even digging into the data, the Cleveland Documenters interviewed more than forty Cleveland residents to learn how much they know about judicial candidates and what they wished to find out (audio recordings of some of these interviews are available on the site’s landing page).

The Testify project has also attempted to reimagine distribution to meet audiences where they are: partnering with local newsrooms, from newspapers to local Black-owned radio stations; creating a dynamic project website; and putting together one-page flyers that can be distributed locally. To explain a complicated dataset in just a few panels “was harder than doing the 2,500-word piece,” Dissell said. The entire project, Chira added, “took a year longer than anyone thought it would.” It’s The Marshall Project’s unique model, she said, that allows it the elasticity to tackle projects like these.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Testify project is just the beginning of The Marshall Project’s hopes for local expansion. (They’re slated to open a localized criminal justice newsroom in Cleveland first, then four more to-be-determined locations over the next several years.) But beyond the aspirations of a single news organization, the Testify project highlights the unique benefits and challenges of reimagining localized coverage and its relationship to national news. As Dissell said, people have asked her for years when she is planning to “move on” from local journalism. To her, it’s a foolish question. “It’s the reporting that is done on the ground, when you stick around after that initial story is written, and you keep writing stories, and you keep writing stories, that actually leads to more significant and lasting change.” The question now is how more newsrooms can build the capacity to do it.

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, and to foster a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us. (Click to subscribe!)

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Throughout 2020 and 2021, researchers at the Tow Center collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here. And read a recent report here.

More on recent media trends and changes in local newsrooms:

  • “BLACK CITY, WHITE PAPER”: For the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wesley Lowery conducted more than seventy-five interviews with current and former staffers, historians, and community members, to consider the paper’s history and failed attempts at racial reckoning and newsroom integration over the years. “Whether—and how—a newspaper that, for generations, has remained complicit in systemic inequality can now be a collaborator in its defeat” is unclear, Lowery writes. “What is apparent is that it will be impossible for the paper to navigate the challenges of the present, much less chart a path into the future, without first understanding its past.”
  • NEW STUDY FINDS DISPARITIES IN ACCESS TO LOCAL EDUCATION NEWS: American parents identify local education information as their top information need, and new research sheds light on their ability to access important information about their children’s schools, NiemanLab reported. A new report from Calvin University’s Center for Social Research found that Black parents value education news particularly highly but felt less informed in 2021 than they did in 2020. Laura Hazard Owen interviewed Jesse Holcomb, the study’s lead author, to dig into the report and its findings. One example: “white parents seem to be able to leverage their informal networks with greater efficiency,” Holcomb said. “These networks work better for white parents than they do for parents of color.”
  • LEE ENTERPRISES WINS LEGAL VICTORY IN ALDEN SUIT: This week, a Delaware judge sided with Lee Enterprises in a lawsuit brought by hedge fund Alden Global against the newspaper company, upholding Lee’s rejection of Alden nominating two directors to Lee’s board, Axios reported. Alden continues to allege mismanagement; Lee continues to claim that Alden’s allegations are part of its campaign to take over. “Consolidation in local media continues to run rampant, especially among private investment firms that see an opportunity to squeeze profits out of local news companies while they face terminal decline,” Kerry Flynn and Sara Fischer write.
  • NYC COMMUNITY NEWSPAPERS SEE INCREASED FINANCIAL SUPPORT: Community news outlets in New York City received a record high $15.6 million in city agency advertising in 2021, CUNY’s Center for Community Media News reported this week. More than 230 of 282 eligible outlets received funding in fiscal year 2021; in fiscal year 2022, 357 advertisers will be eligible.
  • PRINT SALES CONTINUE TO DECLINE IN THE US: Though a recent New York Times report found that local newspapers across the US are seeing increases in digital subscriptions, the PressGazette reported last week that the top twenty-five newspapers in the US have lost 30 percent of their print sales over the past two years. “Our figures show that most newspapers have failed to claw back print sales that were lost in the early months of the Covid-19 crisis,” William Turvill writes.
  • CANADA & UK CONSIDER AUSTRALIAN-STYLE LEGISLATION: In Canada, news publishers are pushing for the government to pass legislation requiring Meta and Google to pay for news content, modeled after the Media Bargaining Code implemented in Australia in 2021. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has already publicly committed to passing such legislation, PressGazette reported, but news publishers are calling for him to keep his word by the end of June. This morning, PressGazette reported that UK lawmakers look increasingly likely to pass similar legislation. Jamie Irving, chair of News Media Canada, told the Canadian House Commons Standing Committee on Monday that Canada has lost 300 news organizations since 2013, a problem exacerbated by covid-19, which saw the loss of 1,300 journalism jobs and the permanent closure of more than forty newspapers. (Elsewhere, the AP reported that Swiss voters rejected a government plan to provide public funds to media outlets.)
  • “REQUIEM FOR A FAMILY-OWNED LOCAL NEWSPAPER”: For WyoFile, Sofia Jeremias reported the story of Wyoming’s Riverton Ranger, another local paper troubled by challenges with multiple changes in ownership, charges of political bias, and out-of-state management.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites