a group of toddlers/preschoolers are gathered around a picture book on the carpet of a daycare center.

Students reading at Good Beginnings, a child care center in Maple Heights. Like many day care centers across the country, Good Beginnings has been suffering from staff shortages.

Olivera Perkins, NF ’08, is redefining the economics beat at Signal Cleveland

Chillingly high inflation was still in effect when Signal Cleveland, the nonprofit news organization, went online in late 2022.

As the economics reporter, it was a given I would cover the issue. But I didn’t want to cover it as legacy media had covered it. They focused on such things as vacations turning into staycations, Northeast Ohio residents driving less to cope with high gas prices, and people putting off buying homes until mortgage interest rates fell. 

I wanted to write about how high inflation was affecting the multitude of low-income and working-class Greater Clevelanders who couldn’t relate to downgrading to staycations. They hadn’t been on vacation in years because they couldn’t afford one. The high price of gas was irrelevant because they couldn’t afford a car. High mortgage rates didn’t resonate for those who struggled to pay rent for modest apartments.

I’ve never had to fight with Signal Cleveland’s editors to do stories like these, as I had to when I had worked at the local daily. Signal Cleveland’s mission includes covering historically underserved communities. When legacy media covers something in an inner-city neighborhood, it is usually crime related.

Since the site launched, I’ve been able to cover staff shortages among childcare facilities, unionization efforts, and how a grassroots, nonprofit organization in Cleveland is meeting the needs of low-income residents through its storefront operation. I have also done in-depth coverage on the closing of a mobile home park, which forced more than 100 low-income and working-class families to find a new place to live in a tight housing market. Most media outlets focused on off-site news conferences held by advocacy groups lobbying against the park closing. I frequently visited the mobile home park and got to know many of the residents and the issues they face.

It’s great working for a nonprofit newsroom that is attempting to transform the local media landscape. People often speak of news deserts in terms of a dearth of media outlets. My definition also includes how legacy newsrooms often systematically write off certain communities or fail to cover them fully. My Signal Cleveland colleagues and I have covered communities, institutions, and issues that other media have consistently ignored. If we didn’t cover the complexity of life in such neighborhoods, it’s doubtful others would. And, in our short existence, we have seen how legacy media has often ended up following us in such coverage — a welcome development. 

I, like many others, believe that nonprofit newsrooms represent the best future for local news. However, I don’t see it as a future that aims to recreate the media landscape that existed before the mass layoffs at decimated daily newspapers throughout the country. The new focus should be on better connecting newsrooms to the communities they serve. 

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