As digital news start-ups show the ability to attract and keep audiences, they are paving the way for more such outlets to fill the gaps created by the financial distress of the nation’s legacy news chains.
A case in point is The Beacon, a Kansas City start-up that plans to start publishing this summer in a media market where the 140-year-old Kansas City Star is part of the McClatchy chain, which filed for bankruptcy protection last week. Just days after that jarring news for the Star, The Beacon is announcing its board, a key step in seeking its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Beacon Founder and Editor Kelsey Ryan, a former investigative reporter at the Star, said her efforts have been helped greatly by the experience and advice of the nation’s growing start-up community, especially the Colorado Sun, the Texas Tribune, the Institute for Nonprofit News and LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers.
“We are lucky in that a lot of other places have launched and tried and experimented with things,” Ryan said, “and so we can look at what has worked for other markets and what hasn’t worked. I’ve really pulled a lot from the membership model of the Colorado Sun in Denver. I went out and met with them. They were really generous with their time. … Also, the events side of the Texas Tribune is really a revenue stream. I talked to them a lot about it.”
LION’s Executive Director, Chris Krewson, said enthusiastic cooperation is common among his members.
“Start-ups tend to help each other and support each other,” Krewson said. “It’s not this sort of legacy-based model where only one can dominate in a region. I think we need a lot more of these things.”
Funding From Google
Ryan has spent the last year fundraising for The Beacon, including securing funding from the Google News Initiative.
“We’ve gotten a lot of grants,” she said, “and we’re using those essentially as our start-up capital. And then the second we start publishing we can switch to a membership model while we continue to get grants. Our goal is to become membership-sustained.”
The Beacon will be free to all visitors, whether they become paying members or not. “It’s really important that we have a free core product, from a mission standpoint and for the free flow of information,” she said.
The Report for America program will supply one full-time reporter, but Ryan also will rely on a stable of freelance writers.
“I’ve contracted with about 20 freelancers here in our area so far, all experienced journalists. They’re working on stories right now for us to have prepared for a soft launch. Then the full-time [Report for America] reporter will start in June, and depending on how my fundraising goes in the next few months – fingers crossed – we’ll have additional full-time reporters.”
The Beacon will not be focused on breaking news. Ryan said her discussions with news consumers show many of them “disenfranchised with the 24-hour news cycle locally, and them wanting more context to stories. The ‘solutions journalism’ aspect in particular is very appealing to people in our area.”
This new start-up in Kansas and Missouri will also host community events. “So much of our time as humans is now spent online or on our phones that those in-person relationships are more valuable than ever,” Ryan said.
Ryan studied the operations of the Colorado Sun and Texas Tribune because they were “non-coastal models that I really liked.”
“If we try something from California or New York, whatever, I just don’t know that that’s going to resonate or be as close of a model for us,” she said.
We’ve decided we’re not going to be doing opinion pieces, at least not anytime soon. … There are a lot of opinions out there and not enough facts.Kelsey Ryan, Founder and Editor, The Beacon in Kansas City
The Beacon will not be the place to go for opinions.
“We’ve decided we’re not going to be doing opinion pieces, at least not anytime soon,” Ryan said. “And I think that’s something that can help bridge some gaps in terms of political polarization. There are a lot of opinions out there and not enough facts.”
Until its nonprofit designation is approved, The Beacon is operating through the Kansas Newspaper Foundation, an off-shoot of the Kansas Press Association that has been “amazing” to work with, according to Ryan.
The Beacon’s 12-member founding board includes journalism figures such as Pam Fine, former Knight Chair at the University of Kansas; University of Missouri associate professor Mark Horvit; and Emporia State University professor Max McCoy. But it also features people in fields such as environmental law, health care analytics and tech start-ups.
Building Your Own Future
Ryan was laid off by the Star after working on an investigation of government secrecy that was a finalist for a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. LION’s Krewson said Ryan wouldn’t be the first journalist to lose a legacy job and move on to building a successful start-up.
“The potential exists for people to create their own job, but it’s harder than it needs to be,” Krewson said. “… There’s a lot of information online about how to start a business, but not enough about how to start a local news business. That’s what we’re going to start to address.”
LION and other organizations aim to produce more helpful guidance for digital start-ups. Krewson cited LION’s upcoming October summit in Seattle, “the first day of which is basically a training day for people who want to start something new.”
The news industry’s current financial problems make one thing clear, Krewson said: “We have to separate the future of local news from the future of local newspapers.”
We have to separate the future of local news from the future of local newspapers.Chris Krewson, Executive Director, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers
Ryan noted that start-ups have an advantage over legacy newsrooms in their overhead costs.
“Most of our budget, more than three-quarters of our budget, will go directly to our reporting,” she said. “We still have some overhead, of course … but basically the money we raise stays here, and the control of our organization is local.”
If The Beacon prospers, it can serve as a model for others, Ryan said.
“My hope and goal would be that if we can get something like this off the ground here, it inspires somebody to go back to their community and try it too. I think that’s very important for the Midwest in particular. …
“I hope that there are other journalists who can see that this is doable.”