Cleveland.com resets its politics coverage with ‘Ohio Matters’

An aerial photo of Seneca County, Ohio, where more than 60 percent of voters cast ballots for Donald Trump.

A FEW WEEKS AFTER DONALD TRUMP’S decisive victory in Ohio, Chris Quinn—the president and editor of Advance Ohio, which publishes Cleveland.com—recounted his politics team’s “miscalculation” on the news site.

“I made the call early to focus on Cuyahoga County, where the size of the Democratic margin of victory decided the previous elections,” wrote Quinn. As a consequence, “we did not send our team to talk to people throughout the state.”

Now, the rest of the state is part of the focus of “Ohio Matters,” a new effort by the politics team at Cleveland.com to better understand the Ohio electorate. In a January post to readers, Quinn explained the structure of Ohio Matters and shared his team’s goal: “to make sure that in the years ahead, we are tapped into what people throughout the state are thinking.”

“Looking back, we missed it,” Quinn tells CJR. “That really bothered us. We couldn’t let it happen again.”

Ohio Matters covers Cleveland and five counties, each one selected for its demographic significance. Those counties include Vinton (the least populous county in Ohio, where Trump received 70 percent of the vote) and sprawling, suburban Franklin (where 60 percent of voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton). There’s also “farm country” (Seneca), the “old industrial belt” (Jefferson), and a “wealthy defense center” (Greene, home to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). As two Cleveland.com staffers cover the Trump administration’s policies and proposals, three Ohio-based reporters will examine their impact on people across the state.

Rich Exner, Cleveland.com’s longtime data analysis editor, detailed for readers each place and reasons for its inclusion in Ohio Matters’ coverage.

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“I really feel like sometimes it’s too quick and easy to say how Ohio is going to vote,” Exner says. “We have multiple urban areas and rural areas. It is one of the reasons why Ohio has been a bellwether state. It’s so representative of so many parts of the country as a whole.” Exner tells CJR that he will track job growth and the state sales tax (a portion of which goes to the counties) in order to measure the economic impact of federal policies.

So far, the Ohio Matters team has reported on what farmers in Seneca County think about Trump’s proposed changes to the Clean Water Act, how local business owners around the Wright-Patterson base responded to proposed increases in military spending, and the economic turnaround that residents of Jefferson County expect under Trump. Quinn says the team is also looking carefully at Trump’s proposal to slash funding for the EPA-administered Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and the potential impact of Republican-led efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Since Quinn’s Ohio Matters announcement in January, the political team has lost one key member. At that time, Quinn wrote that the project would involve Henry Gomez, “the state’s number one politics writer” and “the backbone of our politics team.” Earlier this month, Gomez announced that he would depart Cleveland.com for a position as a national political writer for BuzzFeed News. Gomez, who starts his new job next month, will remain in Ohio but report on issues outside of the state, too. He declined to speak to CJR until he gets settled, but BuzzFeed News spokesman Matt Mittenthal says Gomez will cover Republicans across the country in the era of Trump.

“We’re interested in how the Republican Party and the conservative movement is changing under Trump, whether state parties are being affected by Trumpism—or whether they are resisting,” Mittenthal tells CJR.

To replace Gomez, Quinn says Cleveland.com will hire two additional reporters. Quinn also says there are plans to expand the site’s newsletter coverage in Columbus, in particular, “to produce information in a bit of the style of Mike Allen,” the executive editor of Axios Media and former chief political reporter for Politico.

The news site is also partnering with Baldwin Wallace University’s Community Research Institute (CRI) for a polling project that draws respondents from the news site’s readership. A survey slated for publication at Cleveland.com by the end of March takes on issues of “social acceptability”—for instance, whether people declined to disclose in previous polls whether they supported for Trump for fear of being stigmatized for their choices.

“So many of us got it wrong in the election,” says Tom Sutton, CRI’s director. “This is the perfect opportunity to innovate.” Rather than relying on telephone surveys, CRI researchers query panels of readers who agree in advance to respond to a written survey. Sutton says respondents have been fairly representative of the state’s demographics. “We wanted to find a way to get a better, broader sample of folks and include those folks who never got a call or did get a call and didn’t answer.”

Richard M. Perloff, a professor of communication and political science at Cleveland State University, applauds Cleveland.com’s efforts to expand its political coverage. “Any kind of journalism that tries to look systematically at human beings and tries to combine social science with standards of journalism is very good,” Perloff says. “It’s an unusual thing for a contemporary newspaper to do.”

Still, Perloff adds a note of caution.

“The real issue…is not so much reaction to Trump, but what are these people thinking, what concerns them, what are the issues,” he says. There are matters outside of Washington that have nothing to do with Trump or the federal government that are important to voters and readers. Perloff says Cleveland.com should not neglect those matters to focus on missing Trump’s popularity in the state—which Perloff calls “fighting the last war.”

“If you are interested in these people, maybe you should figure out what the next war is so you don’t lose that one,” says Perloff.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.