Former Post-Standard and Syracuse.com reporter to lead Central Current, a startup nonprofit news website launching later this year
By Ken Sturtz
Point out to Julie McMahon that taking a break from journalism to manage a bakery helped her connect with the founders of the news startup she now runs and she admits feeling a sense of fate. But she believes it has more to do with hard work and a willingness to seek opportunities.
“I followed my gut and my heart,” she says. “I really put myself in this position.”
McMahon is editor-in-chief of the Central Current, a startup nonprofit news website launching this year with the goal of providing in-depth coverage on issues of importance to communities in Central New York.
She brings a wealth of experience to the role. After just a decade in journalism she’s been both a reporter and an editor. She’s covered the criminal justice system, higher education and public schools, federal courts, business, public affairs, and even the legal profession. And she’s intimately familiar with the region.
McMahon moved to the area to attend graduate school at Syracuse University. She grew up in a tiny town in the Catskills, but quickly fell in love with Syracuse. After graduate school, she wrote for legal trade publications in New York City and Boston.
A couple years later one of her former professors alerted her to a job opening at The Post-Standard and Syracuse.com. In January 2014, she started covering crime and breaking news. She enjoyed her job and frequently found ways to tell stories she cared about. A couple years later she was assigned to cover education.
“It was amazing, being a beat reporter,” she says. “The idea that I was sort of studying schools in those two years, I loved everything about it.”
In addition to SU and the Syracuse City School District, McMahon covered larger issues affecting colleges and public schools. Her work impressed her editors and in 2017 she received a coveted position on the public affairs team. In addition to federal courts, she covered everything from sex abuse in the Catholic church to “big picture issues” dealing with race and gender.
“That’s also when I kind of started to yearn to change the model of journalism,” she says. “I was antsy; I didn’t feel like we were doing enough of the stories I wanted to do, which I think is typical of any journalist at any publication given the state of journalism.”
Since 2008, newsroom employment has fallen 26% in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Newspapers, hit the hardest, shed roughly 40,000 jobs between 2008 and 2020.
Layoffs and downsizing had shrunk McMahon’s newsroom too, which meant everyone took on additional roles. McMahon says she received many different opportunities due to downsizing as well as hard work on her part.
It taught her how to be flexible and adapt. For example, she spent six months in 2020 reporting on how businesses were navigating the pandemic. But she also slowly became interested in a larger role in influencing the newsroom’s coverage.
“I think they started to see that I was personally interested in a role in leadership,” she says.
In fall 2020 she became an editor-reporter on the crime and breaking news team. But by 2021 she recognized that she had become burned out and needed a break. Part of the reason was the pandemic, but a lot of it had to do with the nature of a business model she says she felt had chewed her up and spit her out.
“We do something that’s hard to quantify,” she says. “Our roles in community and democracy are often at odds with the bottom line.”
So, in April 2021, she left her job for The Sweet Praxis, a Syracuse bakery. She had worked on and off in food service since high school and was soon managing the bakery. It was physically demanding, but she enjoyed that the job allowed her to leave her work at the door.
Her passion for journalism never went away — she continued to teach journalism as an adjunct professor at SU — but she wondered if she would return to news full time.
One of the things McMahon enjoyed about the bakery was socializing with customers, many of whom she got to know well. That’s how she met businessman Tony Malavenda and attorney Larry Bousquet. The pair were regulars — McMahon knew their orders by heart — and they stopped in for coffee several times a week. They’d sit and discuss the need for more in-depth journalism in Central New York.
“It was very refreshing seeing two people talking about journalism,” McMahon says.
It wasn’t long before the pair, who didn’t have journalism experience, were seeking input from her. McMahon loved their intentions and willingly agreed to let them bounce ideas off her, but she was less certain when they broached the possibility of her running their startup.
She eventually decided to apply, but continued experiencing pangs of doubt. She thought back to when a friend and colleague had quit his job as a reporter to start a nonprofit news website on a shoestring budget.
“I remember admiring him, but I knew how much more risk averse I was than him,” she says.
But when McMahon was offered the job last year, she decided it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. She started Jan. 1.
As the first employee of a startup, she quickly realized she needed to take care of many basic logistical challenges, such as getting a cell phone and laptop. The Central Current is partnering with WCNY, which is sharing office space. McMahon says they’re exploring ways the two organizations can collaborate in the future.
Initially, however, much of the focus has been on fundraising and board development. In addition to Malavenda and Bousquet, the board includes Rick Wright, an SU professor emeritus and long-time local radio host. McMahon says they want to bring as much diversity to the board as possible as well as a range of skill sets. They’ve put together a business plan that is being refined and she and board members have had many meetings with potential funders and community leaders.
“It’s relationship-building, which is something I love to do,” she says.
McMahon says the Central Current is about halfway to its $1 million fundraising goal, but that she’s confident they’ll reach their goal by the time they launch their website later this year. She’ll be transitioning soon to focus on hiring a staff.
She says the first-year budget will be between $300,000 and $400,000 and will likely include three full-time reporters to start as well as freelance reporters and photographers. Finding the right reporters with sufficient experience will be crucial, she says.
Coverage will focus on issues such as Interstate 81, government accountability and the economy. McMahon says they also want to engage with the community as much as possible to better understand what’s missing in local coverage.
“We want to offer depth and look at big issues,” she says. “I really have faith that we can dig in on topics that really have interest to the community.”
Birth Place: Oneonta
Current Residence: Syracuse, Westcott neighborhood
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from SUNY Geneseo and a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University
Personal: Husband, Chris Carlson, is a sports reporter for The Post-Standard and Syracuse.com. They have a tuxedo cat named Mouse the Cat
Affiliations: Syracuse Press Club board member, adjunct professor at Syracuse University
Hobbies: Camping, reading, yoga, tarot reading, spending time with friends and family