It ain’t your grandpa’s local news anymore (unless your grandpa is cool)

By Chris Horne 

Disclaimer: The following is a work of realistic fiction for our special 2050 issue, published in June 2021. These stories are meant to spark imagination, not forecast the future of Akron.

I am old now. Not the old I thought I was at 36 when I launched The Devil Strip online, but old enough that, 36 years later, I’ve lived a whole other life and my byline hasn’t appeared in these pages in ages. Honestly, I’m surprised we’re still printing magazines.

So shout-out to Gen XXX for reviving print like Gen X did vinyl. Otherwise, we’d be just another snortable infopowder like everyone else. I don’t know what hipsters are called now, but they’ve been on a roll. I forkin’ love how they brought “The Good Place” back and made substitute swears a thing.

Point is, plenty has changed as time and technology continued their ruthless advance, but the basics are the same. 

Click here to read more content from our 2050 issue.

Humans are wired to connect and form communities. However, by the mid-2010s, we were swamped with twin epidemics of social isolation and chronic loneliness, which became the kindling for a fire that manifested as widespread polarization, misinformation, civil unrest and news deserts. Pundits called it a threat to democracy itself. 

I’d argue the greater threat was 400 years of propping up white supremacy and misogyny, in which journalism was also complicit, but still. It was bad news.

Fortunately, our license to be nosey and go anywhere we want gives local news organizations an unmatched opportunity to connect people to each other, our cities and shared purpose by creating the common ground where our community gathers. Journalists can be the folks who know all the other folks and introduce them to the folks they need to know. 

Sure beats being in a profession that the public has less confidence in than banks and the criminal justice system.

The most important story remains the one we tell ourselves about ourselves because our thoughts and behaviors are interconnected. When you tell yourself you’re worthless, you treat yourself poorly. Conversely, the quickest way to believe you’re worthwhile is to treat yourself well. Cities are like that too, which is why we keep whispering sweet somethings in Akron’s ear.

The Devil Strip has always been created for, by and about Akronites, but by doing that, we’ve influenced American journalism too. Back in the day, local news mostly amplified crime, scandal, conflict and tragedy. When you center the worst things about a city, the underlying message is that only a fool would try to improve a place that’s so clearly a lost cause.

Today, most indie news orgs know what we always have: More people need to care more about where they live if we’re actually going to make a difference.

What better way to accomplish that than to show our readers how many of their neighbors already care enough to get involved? That’s why we focus on everyday Akronites who wouldn’t dare wait to be elected for public service or appointed to leadership before they stepped up to meet the needs they see. 

To find and share these stories, we opened our newsroom to basically anyone, even when they didn’t have prior journalism experience. About 25 years ago, that became the Neighborhood Network, which has equipped and empowered thousands of locals to shape the story Akron tells itself about itself, earning hundreds of them some fun money and lifetime shares in our co-op.

No, local news co-ops haven’t swept the country as I’d hoped, but our unique approach has, so I’m happy. Setting aside the Midwestern humility of my adopted home, I even think this is why America is doing so much better these days.

Well, that and Elon Musk finally decided to keep his weird ash on Mars.

The Devil Strip didn’t push journalism in this direction alone. It took a wave of indie news orgs like ours to reimagine the whole thing from scratch. We kept what works — a commitment to values, ethics, truth and free speech — but were unafraid to dump the rest, borrowing some good ideas and loaning ours out too.

Of course, like sponsored content and jeggings, legacy local news is still with us. However, what first seemed like the imminent death of local news was really legacy local achieving its Super Saiyan form, accelerated by hedge fund ownership and the rage they monetize with ads.

These once proud mastheads are now just husks masking a skeleton crew who localize and listify wire stories from sister publications and “news” items formed by AI journobots that cobble together bits of pseudo-public conversations so they can feed it back to us for easy clicks. If these bullshirt artists were all we had, America would be royally forked.

The good news is that, while traditional outlets were pivoting to self-flying jetpacks, The Devil Strip and our buddies figured out how to use local news to build and strengthen social bonds. Because we carried that flag long enough, there are finally more of us than our diminished corporate counterparts.

Hey! Speaking of flags, know the one flying over city hall? The Devil Strip helped Akronites make that happen! I still don’t understand why they wanted to put an agitated possum on it, but sometimes democracy gets strange.

Akron, like everywhere else, still has its challenges. And no, strangers aren’t out here holding hands, singing Kumbaya, but that’s mostly because 30 years ago we realized no one washes their hands nearly enough, dudes especially. 

Yet, we’ve made progress. The Devil Strip has messed up plenty, but each time, our people — our co-owners — have helped us make it right. 

We’ve made friends. We’ve had fights. We’ve even married and buried a few folks. It’s been hard sometimes, but we’re surrounded by so many Akronites who’ve committed themselves to making life here better for everyone that we’ve never lacked the motivation to keep going.

Now that’s said, since our population has topped 330,000 people, I think it’s cool to stop growing for a while.

Chris Horne is the founder and former publisher of The Devil Strip Local News Co-op, who tricked his smokeshow wife into living out of a self-driving electric hover RV so they could travel the country after their kid, current U.S. TikTok Laureate Madeline Horne, went to college. They’ve been on the road ever since.

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