Richland Source uses solutions journalism to serve Mansfield, Ohio, community

Richland Source reporter interviewing
Grant Pepper, a reporter for Richland Source, interviews a family at the 78th Annual Raccoon Dinner in Danville, Ohio, on May 3. (Kelly Heinzerling/MEDILL)

By Kelly Heinzerling and Kayla McDermott
Medill Reports

MANSFIELD, Ohio — The story of Richland Source began in 2013 in Mansfield, Ohio. Located an hour south of Cleveland and an hour north of Columbus, Mansfield is a typical Midwestern town of around 45,000 people. Eight years ago, local resident Carl Fernyak founded an entirely digital, community-focused news initiative after coming to the conclusion that other existing outlets did not tell the full story of Richland County.

Fernyak postulated that a more balanced news organization focused on positive, people-driven reporting, rather than revolving around negative click-bait, crime-heavy reporting, was what Mansfield needed. In January 2013, he decided to create and subsequently invest in Richland Source, committing to providing his North Central Ohio audience with a more modern outlook of what it is truly like to live and work in their community. About 90% of Richland Source stories focus on the issues actually facing residents in the areas they serve. This approach has been so successful that since its inception, Richland Source has expanded to include Knox Pages, serving neighboring Knox County; Ashland Source, focusing on nearby Ashland County; and Crawford Source, for Crawford County news.

This steady expansion has led Richland Source to have a respectable readership of 250,000 to 400,000 unique visitors a month, according to President Jay Allred. Furthermore, Richland Source engages its community through local events, such as the in-house music festival Richland Source After Hours.

One of the main tenets of Richland Source is establishing and maintaining a level of trust with the community it serves. The publication makes sure that reporters attend most noteworthy events, from yearly local traditions such as the 78th Danville Raccoon Festival to the weekly City Council meetings. The digital-first approach of Richland Source ensures these stories can be published and hit residents’ social media with an impressive turnaround time. Richland Source reporters, even those coming out of the print world, say this innovative approach to the digital frontier has only advanced the Source’s attractiveness to the local community. With a robust social media presence and no paywalls, Richland Source’s information is both easily and widely accessible.

This information that is so readily available to the community finds its footing in solutions journalism. This form of journalism focuses on providing potential solutions for problems in the community, rather than simply describing the issues. It’s an approach that invites actual change in the community, and one that has become the bedrock of Richland Source. Allred is proud to note that reader surveys indicate they are fulfilling their mission of serving the community, with 80% of respondents indicating they are happy with the service.

Although Richland Source’s story may have an official start date of 2013, the mechanisms and philosophy behind this publication have been in the works since before the Source even opened its doors in downtown Mansfield. Mansfield was once home to many big industry jobs, most of which vacated the area in the 1990s. Although the city did appear to be on the decline, the town persevered and, as the innovative approach at Richland Source demonstrates, continued to push boundaries and evolve.

With local newspaper The Mansfield Journal downsizing in recent years, following larger national trends of shrinking local news, Richland Source has been able to carve a competitive and viable edge. Richland Source’s model of journalism is sustainable largely due to a membership program, which has hundreds of members willing to support.

Richland Source’s in-house ad agency, Source Brand Solutions, shares an office with the Source and has a close working relationship with its sister company. Although they do maintain strictly separate business and editorial departments, the strong bond between these two teams only helps the editorial team remain tuned in with local businesses’ concerns and experiences. Local businesses can also form a beneficial relationship with the publication by developing native advertising campaigns and sponsored content on the website. With its digital-only approach, solutions journalism focus and innovative funding plan, Richland Source is a community-centered publication that is an impressive model for how local news may continue to evolve and connect with audiences in the future.

Kelly Heinzerling is a video reporter at Medill. Kayla McDermott is a video/broadcast student at Northwestern University you can follow her on Twitter @mcdermott_kayla