Julie Cajigas understood the importance of the local news reported by The Devil Strip, not just as a communications professional, but as a citizen who had seen its direct impact.
After reading one of the news outlet’s many profiles of people in the Akron community experiencing homelessness, Cajigas reached out and formed a bond with one of the women featured, a mother with a child the same age as her own.
She helped the mother secure stable housing and made sure her son had a warm winter coat, and they remained in each other’s lives.
The story was the start of a meaningful relationship for Cajigas, a University of Akron professor of practice teaching public relations.
“I want to support storytelling in our communities that’s not just about national news or politics or COVID but that looks at the stories of the people we live with,” she said.
That’s why she became a member of The Devil Strip’s news co-op, a first-of-its-kind management structure in journalism that aimed to give supporters and readers a say in how the organization is run.
As precarious as the news business can be, Cajigas said she was shocked last week to hear The Devil Strip had laid off all of its staff due to dire financial circumstances.
Every communication she had received, she said, had portrayed a positive outlook for the magazine.
“They seemed to be doing so well,” she said.
No alarms were sounded, no requests from the staff or its board of directors — which are elected by the co-op members — for extra support.
The only question mark was the magazine’s founder announcing earlier this month he would take a sabbatical — a move staff leaders later would reveal they requested after a missed payroll and other concerns. No interim had been named.
The staff layoff announcement Monday set off a chain of shock and confusion across the city, from co-op members who had been given no notice of financial peril, to philanthropic investors and other donors who were given positive reports from the founder and board members, but may now be wondering where their money has gone.
Of the nine members of the board of directors, only three — Emily Dressler, Katie Robbins and Richelle Wardell — remained on the board by Monday. On Tuesday, following the staff’s announcement they had been laid off, the three issued a statement saying they received “little-to-no-notice” of the paper’s financial situation. They also announced they had hope to revive it, and were immediately launching a fundraising campaign to raise $75,000.
Almost a week later, they have raised over $21,000 but have not provided an explanation about why the paper’s finances torpedoed so quickly in the first place. The directors have only said they are still trying to figure that out themselves.
“Because we’re still actively gathering information, we don’t want to speculate about what happened before we were involved,” a statement from the group of three said Friday. “We know mistakes were made, but we do not have evidence of misconduct. We are committed to transparency and will keep the co-op members informed moving forward.”
Wardell, who is serving as a spokesperson for the three board of directors members who remain, provided some additional information to the Beacon Journal but did not return a request for an interview. She said more information would be provided at a meeting for co-op members 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at Bounce Innovation Hub. That meeting also will be open to the media.
The directors have also posted a handful of times about the situation on The Devil Strip’s social media pages, which they had to gain access to along with the organization’s email system after everyone in control of them was laid off.
Chris Horne, the outlet’s founder, declined an interview but answered some questions by text message and posted about the situation on his own social media.
Horne said in a Twitter thread he takes responsibility. In a text message, he said he thought the operation’s budget had ample “runway” when he left but added that he is “responsible for the situation leading to this moment.”
No further clarity was provided.
That has held back some donors who want to support the organization.
“Frankly, I am a big supporter of the mission in my heart, and I don’t feel comfortable giving funds right now until I know more about what happened and what’s going to happen,” Cajigas said.
Staff laid off last week are also speaking out, saying they were just as surprised as everyone else, and even if the directors raise the money to keep the paper going, some of them won’t be coming back.
Support for The Devil Strip as a co-op
Horne migrated from Georgia and launched The Devil Strip at the end of 2014. Picking up interest for its critical take on management of the University of Akron over labor matters, the publication grew on freelance content into “a nakedly pro-Akron arts and culture magazine hellbent on building and sustaining community.”
Horne started his own for-profit company, Random Family LLC., to operate the publication until it was handed off to the co-op around May of this year, according to a staff member.
The Devil Strip employed eight staff members when Horne began the shift in 2018 to a co-op model. Staffing crested above 10 this year before four people left, including three who quit before lining up another job.
Editor Jessica Holbrook replaced one of the four departures, which included a lead reporter, the art director, the editor-in-chief and a director of community outreach who followed Horne from Macon, Georgia.
Most of the departures were new staff, or not yet hired, in early 2018 when Horne surveyed Devil Strip readers. Half said they would pay a monthly subscription, which Horne saw as evidence of an appetite for a co-op model with membership dues.
Aside from philanthropic support, the trajectory of print advertising, which had been dwindling industrywide for a more than decade, signaled financial doom for the alt-monthly magazine with free online content. Horne, determined to not charge readers, saw the revenue crunch as way to shift gears, growing revenue and community while building stakeholder buy-in.
Early backers for the co-op model included the GAR Foundation, which gave Horne $25,000 in 2018 to hire an editor-in-chief and business development director while he was away, and another $50,000 in November 2019 to improve business operation.
“We viewed that co-op model as a really promising experiment to provide local news to the community,” GAR President Christine Mayer said. “Journalism has been really challenging I recent years.
“We thought The Devil Strip had a really interesting model where it was engaging a lot of talented writers and photographers and kind of tapping into community interest and really getting close to issues that people in the local community are talking about and thinking about.”
Mayer met with Horne during the co-op formation process and with board members after the transition this year.
“I heard a lot about the promising development of talent and staff,” she said. “I heard about their success in attracting support from Report For America and Reveal and some of these other national outfits. I felt really encouraged about some of those reports,” which included membership fundraisers that “did better than expected.”
“That was framed as a positive endorsement from the community in the work that was going on,” Mayer said.
Since the announcement of the staff layoffs, no one from The Devil Strip co-op members or board of directors has approached GAR for help, but donor confidence has taken a hit.
“I think like many people in the community, a lot more needs to be known and understood to assess their direction,” she said, careful not to diminish the “huge amount of respect” the publication has garnered from its “major contributions to community.”
Questions about grant money given
The partnership with Report for America, a national group that places reporters in newsrooms across the country and defrays some of the costs for those newsrooms, was paying a third of the salaries of The Devil Strip’s only two full-time reporters this year. Report for America also pays a portion of a salary for a reporter at the Akron Beacon Journal.
Report for America gave The Devil Strip its contributions quarterly, and has already given the organization money to pay those employees through the end of November. It’s unclear what happened to that money when those reporters were laid off.
“There’s a lot we don’t know at this point,” said Kim Kleman, a senior vice president for Report for America. “Our focus now is supporting these reporters and helping them land in newsrooms where they can continue to do terrific community reporting.”
Both of the reporters posted on Twitter that they would not return to The Devil Strip if it is able to be revived.
“I believe in the mission and co-op model of The Devil Strip,” one of the two reporters, Abbey Marshall, said in a statement provided to the Beacon. “I am proud of the stories I’ve gotten to share and the paper we’ve produced.
“My colleagues did not deserve these abrupt layoffs. Regardless of the outcome of the fundraiser, I will not be returning to the publication because of these financial issues and a lack of transparency with the staff and community. It is clear there needs to be large structural change.”
H.L. Comeriato, the other Report for America reporter, also called for structural changes.
“It has been my joy and honor to work with my colleagues and this community,” Comeriato said in a statement. “However, I have no plans to return to The Devil Strip, regardless of the current emergency fundraiser. I am devastated to leave my sources and colleagues in this way, and am immensely proud of our work. I am also deeply concerned about the organization’s structural and financial issues, along with a general lack of public transparency.”
When still owned by Horne in 2020, The Devil Strip also received $18,252 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to keep eight staff on payroll during the pandemic and $35,000 from the Summit County COVID-19 Arts and Culture Emergency Grant Relief Fund.
The Knight Foundation, based in Akron, has been The Devil Strip’s biggest contributor.
In addition to an $85,000 tuition stipend, plus health care coverage, given to Horne to study co-op models at Stanford University, The Knight Foundation gave a total of $260,000. That included The Devil Strip’s first award, an arts challenge grant of $35,000 in 2017 to support local community and music events, and $200,000 in 2019 to help with the co-op transition into 2021.
“Knight Foundation’s roots are in journalism, and we are longtime champions of leaders and outlets reimagining the future of local news,” Karen Rundlet, the foundation’s director of journalism, said in a statement. “We were surprised to learn of this unfolding situation. Knight supported The Devil Strip for its innovative model that sought to engage Akron residents in a new and exciting way.”
The statement from the directors Friday said they “don’t yet have all of the financial details” but are seeking answers. They reached a number of $75,000 to raise through GoFundMe based on a calculation of what it would take to get through the end of the year. “To the best of our knowledge,” they wrote, operations costs totaled roughly $30,000 a month.
“We also know that we need to create a sustainable business plan to keep the paper going well into the future, and we want to work with co-op members to make that a reality,” they said.
Staff asked Horne to step away
Holbrook joined the paper as its new editor in July, coming from The Canton Repository.
In September, Holbrook said, “it became clear to department heads that Chris [Horne] was not capable of running the organization how it should be run.”
Holbrook said the staff asked Horne to take a sabbatical.
“We did ask him to step away,” she said.
Horne had written a blog post earlier this month that said he was taking a sabbatical to take care of his mental health, which had been suffering for some time.
Holbrook said the staff does not dispute any of what Horne says he was going through personally at the time, but it came to a head when he missed a payroll, delaying staff receiving their checks.
Horne said by text message the issue was due to a new payroll system, and a final issue with it that he was late in addressing. It had slipped his mind that he had another form to sign, he said, after spending a day at the emergency room the week prior with a concussion.
“When [the staff] asked me to step back, I read their concern genuinely, understanding the time I missed with the concussion and the delayed payroll as sort of the last straw because prior to that, I’d made plenty of mistakes,” Horne said in the text message, although he did not elaborate on the previous mistakes.
Horne also said he could have stayed if he had wanted, but was “deeply moved that they wanted me to take care of myself and I was dying for the opportunity, which I’d never allowed myself.”
Part of him wishes he had stayed, he said, “because I don’t think this [would] have happened.”
On Twitter, Horne again took responsibility but did not provide clarity, writing that he was surprised by what had happened, and that had he known what was coming, he wouldn’t have left.
“I surrounded myself with incredible people, but I didn’t let them do their jobs,” Horne said. “Stepping back was supposed to change that. When I left, I thought we had more runway. Otherwise, I would have stayed to raise money so they’d have the time they deserve. That’s it. Nothing nefarious.”
The directors did not appoint an interim publisher. It’s unclear how much financial information the co-op board had prior to Horne’s departure.
Michael Gintert, the former board chairman and one of the six who resigned, deferred comments on such details to those still active on the board, saying they deserved a chance to deliver a formal communication to the community after looking into what happened. He noted the board, which formed after the co-op became operational in May, had only met “a couple of times.”
“Even the board members themselves have a lot of questions that still aren’t answered,” Gintert said.
Four of the other board members who resigned did not respond to an email seeking comment. A fifth, Sharetta Howze, said she deeply believed in the mission of the organization but was facing health challenges, and when it became clear last week what was happening and what the role of the board needed to be, she had to resign.
“I still believe in The Devil Strip,” she said in an email. “I had even hoped to write for the paper someday.”
‘Everything happened very quickly’
Holbrook said the directors told the staff Friday they did not have enough money to meet payroll the following week. Monday, they were all told they were losing their jobs.
Sonia Potter, The Devil Strip’s digital manager since early 2020, said they “thought we were doing OK, to the extent that any not-for-profit can do OK.”
“We always knew it was going to be rocky, but we didn’t think it was going to be shut down or anything,” she said.
The financial picture became clearer after Horne left for sabbatical, she said, but it was still an abrupt announcement to the staff Friday they had no money left for payroll.
“Everything happened very quickly,” she said. “It was very unexpected. We’re just kind of trying to reckon with that.”
They would have loved to have been part of an effort to save the paper, she said, but if they can’t be paid for their work, they aren’t in a position to stay on voluntarily. That’s not for lack of a love for the magazine, she said.
“As a staff, we never strayed from this mission,” Potter said. “We have put everything we could into our jobs. We have loved our community. We’ve loved our work. We’re really proud of it.”
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