What’s the right formula for a for-profit, local online news startup in a smaller market?
There’s probably no single answer to that question. But in north-central Ohio, the people behind Richland Source say they have a recipe that’s working for them. It includes original content that’s free to read, a diversifying revenue base anchored by digital ads, engagement with live events, a relaxed approach to the traditional “church-state” divide—and an unapologetically upbeat attitude about the local community.
Richland Source is headquartered in Mansfield, the seat of Richland County and a city of a bit less than 50,000 people located midway between Cleveland and Columbus. It’s a part of the Rust Belt that has faced a “slow-motion butt-kicking” over the course of a few decades, Jay Allred, the site’s publisher, likes to say.
But the editorial vision behind the site, he adds, is “to tell the story of the community as a whole, rather than just the things that are challenging.” Or as Larry Phillips, the managing editor, puts it: “Not everything in Mansfield, Ohio, is a disaster.”
Richland Source was launched in July 2013 with an investment from Carl Fernyak, the CEO of a local printer and copier supplier. Today, the site has six full-time editorial staffers, and is, Allred says, “on track” for a planned five-year path to profitability. It’s also expanding its reach: In March, the site launched Crawford Source, covering Richland’s neighbors to the west. This summer, it will move into Ashland County, over the eastern border.
The outlet delivers enterprise reporting on complicated local issues, like a recent multimedia piece exploring solutions to farmers’ flooding concerns. It also routinely covers council and school board meetings in Mansfield and Shelby, a nearby town.
But what most stands out about the editorial focus is an emphasis on uplift and community growth. “We believe it’s our obligation to put into the public record all of the things that people do in this community to make it a good place to live,” Allred says in a promotional video. That means plenty of features, local lore, schools, and youth sports, ranging from a piece about a day spent riding every Mansfield bus line to a story about a play written by a former high school basketball coach to a video series on how to prepare locally foraged food…