Signal Ohio: A nonprofit expands to fill local news gaps in the Buckeye state


An Ohio-based nonprofit organization is expanding journalism throughout the Buckeye State and engaging readers to help with public accountability.

Like many nonprofit journalism startups across the U.S., Signal Ohio fills news coverage gaps vacated by for-profit newspapers and broadcast companies. Signal Ohio conducts business operations from a centralized hub, with newsroom spokes expanding across the state, which will focus solely on journalism.

Rita McNeil Danish, an attorney who runs the organization, spent much of her career as a judge, a civil rights advocate and a city attorney in Ohio. McNeil Danish was recruited to become the organization’s CEO to launch Signal Ohio, formerly known as the Ohio Local News Initiative.

Signal Ohio spawned from the American Journalism Project and The Cleveland Foundation. Roughly $7.5 million in seed money was generated to launch the enterprise.

The nonprofit team learned “that people wanted to go back to community-based journalism and that people cared about local news and information — and not so much about national,” McNeil Danish said. “A great deal of the information that you would read in one paper would also be in another. They all were regurgitating the same information, and there was nothing new and different, and obviously nothing focused on the local communities.”

The first spoke created by the hub was Signal Cleveland, which began last November with a 17-person newsroom dedicated to covering the news of the Cleveland area. 

McNeil Danish said Signal Akron began on Dec. 5 and is off to a good start.

“With each launch, we learn a lot, and I think we created a lot of energy and excitement,” McNeil Danish said. “Everybody was ready for it; there was an appetite for it. I’m going to have to get a hype person or something because people get all excited at the prospect that it’s coming, and once it comes, they are waiting with bated breath for it.”

In less than a month, NcNeil Danish said, Signal Akron accumulated over 1,000 newsletter signups.

Signal Akron’s website headlines show articles on school board news, the Akron Zoo, nonprofit news and city government.

The Signal operation is tapping readers to help collect the news. Coined the “documenters” program, the organization pays people to attend meetings. From there, they live-tweet coverage and write summaries for meetings. Then, editors decide whether the topics and discussions warrant more coverage and follow-ups. The program allows for more watchdog activity. On its website, the bylines include the name of the community journalism director and “Akron Documenters.” A special section called “Documented and Reported” highlights the citizen-led coverage.

McNeil Danish said the documenters are paid roughly $16 per hour to attend the meetings after training. They take notes in a format that resembles meeting minutes. The reports include notes with questions from the meeting, such as “Could the 2024 CIP plan detail be shared in advance of the meeting so audience members understand the specific plans and priorities for spending in the next year?”

McNeil Danish said in one instance, documenters kept seeing a recurring agenda item regarding casino funds that were not being discussed.

“It turns out the combination of the reporters and the documenters did all kinds of research and that the revenue from the casinos was not going to the community groups where it had been promised,” McNeil Danish said. “Well, they now have a system by which they double-check where the revenue is going, and those community organizations are now receiving the funds.”

Bob Miller has spent more than 25 years in local newsrooms, including 12 years as an executive editor with Rust Communications. He also produces an independent true crime investigative podcast called “The Lawless Files.”


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