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July 29, 2021, 3:06 p.m.
Business Models

The Kansas City Beacon is expanding to a second city, Wichita, with nearly $4M raised

The Beacon has plans to create a regional network of nonprofit newsrooms across Kansas and Missouri.

When The Beacon launched in Kansas City in March 2020, it was newsletter-only out of necessity. (Its website wasn’t quite ready, but it had Covid-19 coverage to start publishing immediately.) For the news organization’s second launch — The Wichita Beacon, which sent its first issue out last week — it was newsletter-first by choice.

“We already had 500 people on our newsletter list before we had even written a story,” The Beacon founder and publisher Kelsey Ryan said. “Doing it newsletter-only for the first few months was almost like having a light paywall. People wanted to sign up so that they could get the stories.”

The strategy let The Beacon staff introduce themselves to new readers, explaining their approach to public service journalism and their connection to the community. Though signing up is free, Ryan sees building the newsletter list as a critical part of revenue generation. “We’ve really focused on newsletters because we know that if people are newsletter subscribers, a very large percentage of them become donors,” she noted.

The Beacon has plans to create a regional network of nonprofit newsrooms across Kansas and Missouri. It has already raised a total of $3,989,000 through grants, gifts, and memberships to do it. Last week, The Wichita Beacon launched with three reporters, and plans to add an executive editor and fourth reporter in the coming months. The Kansas City team, meanwhile, is expected to grow to five reporters by the end of year.

A good portion of the funds raised come from restricted grants for designated purposes. (The American Journalism Project money, for example, must be spent on revenue-generating roles and not editorial ones.) With those new business and development hires, The Beacon wants to diversify its revenue streams to include events, corporate sponsorships, and an emphasis on individual and legacy gifts similar to the public radio model. Even revenue streams like services that pay to archive information for libraries and LexisNexis won’t get overlooked.

“It’s a small amount of revenue, but it’s still revenue,” Ryan said. “I think revenue diversification is going to the key, and not to just think that we have it figured out forever. We need to be nimble. What the revenue mix is today and what it will be in five years, or 20 years, should be different.”

“Sustainability is the ultimate goal,” she added. “We don’t want to make the same mistakes as newspapers and put all of our eggs in one basket.”

Ryan, who started working on The Beacon after being laid off from The Kansas City Star in 2018, said the best advice she got through dozens and dozens of informational interviews was from the woman she wound up making her first hire: audience development manager Jennifer Hack Wolf.

“She told me I needed to stop talking to other journalists,” Ryan said. “I was just having a lot of coffees with other journalists here in town and I think I was trying to personally build the confidence to actually do this. Jennifer was like, ‘You need to stop talking to other journalists. You need to talk to other people in the community. You need to get their buy-in.'”

Ryan went on to assemble a board full of directors outside of journalism.  “It was really important to me to find non-journalists to preach the gospel, if you will, about journalism,” she said. “You need have champions in the community in lots of different industries, who can talk about why this is important. They also bring different areas of expertise — nonprofits, marketing, law, business — and that’s the kind of brain trust that we need.”

The Beacon held a series of listening sessions before launch. Those garnered newsletter signups, story ideas, partnerships with local organizations, and information on what locals actually wanted to know.

While those listening sessions were primarily virtual in 2020, The Wichita Beacon was recently able to hold its first in-person tabling event, “armed with a cooler full of icepops at a popular outdoor makers’ market in Wichita,” as Wolf described it.

For publishers thinking about holding their own listening sessions, Wolf passed on a few tips:

  • Make sure the staff understand their role at the sessions. “We really emphasized the importance of listening for understanding and did some silly role-playing exercises with our journalists so they could practice keeping their mouths shut and just listening.”
  • Find ways to present prototypes — early representations of the kind of work you will do. “But don’t make your prototypes too perfect. You want your attendees to know there’s still plenty of time for them to influence your work.”
  • Lean on local facilitators. “The locally based facilitators were able to pick up on little things that someone not based in Wichita might have missed.”
  • Plan unpacking conversations. “This is so important! Having the conversation and listening with empathy is just the first step. After that, you need to unpack as a team to articulate what insights you’ve uncovered and how they will help you in your next sprint of work. We unpack in the Design Thinking model, which has been really great. Our Wichita team has a shared language around how we talk about our readers with dignity, how we consider what challenges they might be facing, and how we make choices in our news to answer questions they have.”
  • Nothing replaces in-person listening sessions. “One of the challenges we run into with virtual community listening sessions is that the people who self-select to attend are going to be your major news hounds. So these sessions have given us very clear ideas about what extreme users want from us, but we end up hearing less from more casual news consumers.”
  • Make it easy for people to donate. “The biggest surprise for us was that people wanted to give us donations. We hadn’t planned for that! So next time, we’ll have a plan so people can give us a little financial support without any friction.”

Based on feedback from the sessions with locals, the Beacon’s two newsrooms have focused on public service reporting and solutions journalism. Some of the work that has caught the most attention from readers includes an investigation into dangerous buildings, Kansas City residents reflecting on life during Covid-19, and The Beacon’s coverage of unprecedented mass protests in small and mid-sized towns.

“They really liked this idea of government reporting versus political reporting,” Ryan said. “Another thing that stood out is that people said they felt disillusioned and disheartened by the news. A lot of people said they were just tuning out. They didn’t call it news fatigue, but that’s what they were describing. With solutions journalism, you take a critical look at what decisions are being made in our community and other ways that communities are solving similar problems. People really liked the idea of digging into the data, and taking a more analytical approach.”

The Beacon’s Kelsey Ryan, Rafael Garcia, Celia Hack, and Stefania Lugli.

POSTED     July 29, 2021, 3:06 p.m.
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