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Aug. 11, 2022, 11:15 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Kansas City Defender is a nonprofit news site for young Black audiences across the Midwest

“We do advocate against the racist function of policing, [but] we focus equally on being present in the community, doing poetry nights, basketball park takeovers, and other community-building, life-affirming activities.”

Most news outlets don’t organize basketball park takeovers. The Kansas City Defender is not like most outlets.

Established in July 2021 by Ryan Sorrell, 27, who grew up in the greater Kansas City area, The Kansas City Defender team prides itself on doing more than just covering the community straddling the Kansas-Missouri state line. The Defender, a news and culture platform consciously rooted in the tradition of both the Black and the abolitionist press, also reaches an under-served audience of predominantly Black teenagers and young adults, across the greater Midwest, on social media.

Sorrell is the Defender’s sole full-time staffer. He’s assisted by a part-time staff writer, a part-time senior cultural strategist, five interns, and four freelance contributors. Coordinating via digital communications in lieu of a physical newsroom, the close-knit team at The Defender publishes content about every day on at least one platform — whether it’s their website, email newsletter, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook page, or YouTube channel. (Currently, the publication’s largest social platform is Instagram, where it has around 15,000 followers.)

“There is a lot about traditional journalism that we are strongly against” — including insidious values of “objectivity” precluding community-engaged, liberatory journalism, Sorrell said. “Learning how to balance our radical rejection of many journalistic norms with our commitment to truth, accuracy, and accountability to our community is something that will be a continual learning process for us.”

The site has seven sections: Business, politics, arts and culture, justice, Kansas City, world, and Propaganda Observer. A sampling of recent headlines: “The Future of Food: This KC Nonprofit’s Innovative Model is Bringing Fresh Food to Black Neighborhoods,” “Nelson Atkins Museum Under Fire for Displaying Stolen African Art,” “Missouri Waterpark Goes Viral for Racist Denial of Black Teenagers,” and “Kansas City Joins Nationwide Vigil For Rezwan Kohistani, Afghan Refugee Found Hung at Missouri High School.”

@kansascitydefender

Summit Waves in Lee's Summit, Missouri under fire for "Jim Crow era" rxcism.

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An abolitionist approach to media making and community building

Staff began organizing the basketball park run in June, about a month after The Defender received racist hate mail. It marked the organization’s first major community event.

“It was a lot of people’s first time hearing about our organization,” Sorrell said.

A basketball park run is a coordinated gathering at a basketball court, enabling large numbers of people to play or spectate as hoopers show off handles and sharpshooting abilities in competitive full-court contests. This one took place at Ryan Stokes Memorial Court. Ryan Stokes, an unarmed 24-year-old Black man, was killed by a Kansas City police officer in 2013.

“We had his mom bless the court and say a few words about Ryan before the takeover started,” Sorrell said. For the event, The Defender partnered with Operation Liberation, an abolitionist Kansas City nonprofit that works to bail Black people out of jail and coordinates mutual aid.

“We had absolutely no police or security presence, and had zero incidents of violence,” The Defender noted in its own coverage of the event. “This reinforced our belief as an Abolitionist news outlet that police are not necessary to keep our communities safe, and that abolition is about the presence of community and life affirming services to create safety, rather than relying on police overseers.”

Sorrell sees The Defender as working in and retrofitting the traditions of the 19th-century abolitionist press and the Black press — lineages steeped in movement journalism and community media that the Gen Z-filled crew in Kansas City seeks to carry forward.

“To us, as abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, abolition is about presence, not absence,” Sorrell said. “We do advocate against the racist function of policing, [but] we focus equally on being present in the community, doing poetry nights, basketball park takeovers, and other community-building, life-affirming activities.” For instance, The Defender did a piece on the top 10 artists in Kansas City this year. “The cultural side of our work is very important to us,” Sorrell said. “A lot of people are far more interested in the cultural side than they are things like hard news.”

Community organizing en route to Black-centered digital news and culture

Joshua Taylor, 27, the senior cultural producer at The Defender, helped make the basketball park takeover happen.

Taylor grew up with Sorrell. Prior to their collaboration on the startup, they co-founded a community organization called Black Rainbow after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

“We started to see how important it was to control the narrative of a lot of the things that we were doing on the ground with the Black Rainbow organization,” Taylor said.

“The Black press was a tool for survival, and a radical tool for resistance,” Sorrell told me. “Unlike white media, it never purported to exist in an objective vacuum or to adhere to some theoretical values and principals that mostly non-Black people created. It existed to communicate essential information to the Black community and to create collective identity, such as when Ida B. Wells reported on local lynchings, and denounced the state response and complicity in them. Or when the Chicago Defender said ‘When the white fiends come to the door to kill you, shoot them down. When the white mob comes, take at least one with you.’ Our editorials have not been quite as incendiary, but they are in similar spirit.”

Grant funding and ambition get the Defender going

Sorrell had no professional journalism experience prior to launching The Defender, but as a student at Loyola University, he ran a publication called The Black Tribune, focused on social advocacy; after graduation, at the Fleishman Hillard PR firm in Chicago, Sorrell said he learned more about shaping story angles and targeting audiences.

For awhile at the Defender, he flew solo — writing articles, producing social media-oriented content, building the publication’s profile online, and popularizing the platform among Black adolescents and young adults in the area. This year, The Defender received a $25,000 grant from Indiegraf.

The Defender also has interns this year. “I was an editor for my school newspaper, and there [were] plenty of times in which I wanted to speak on certain topics that were, literally, directly affecting our school — racism, xenophobia, all types of stuff,” Christjin Bell, 17, who graduated high school and began an internship at The Defender this year, said. “I couldn’t do it, wasn’t able to — not because it was a school publication, but because they felt it was too taboo, or it was too controversial, to speak upon.”

In response to a slew of racist events that took place at her school this past year — including the circulation of a petition to reinstate slavery — Bell and her best friend, who is now also a Defender intern, organized a walkout. The students’ direct action put them in contact with Sorrell, who covered the story for The Defender.

In addition to making videos for the outlet’s TikTok and Instagram pages, Bell contributed to The Defender piece, “This is what students are saying about white-washed history and censorship in schools.” Bell wrote about the way Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is now used to demonize radical politics despite King’s own radicalism. She also recorded an interview with a school board candidate.

“The thing I’m most proud of is our education coverage,” Sorrell said. “We’ve had at least four or five education stories that have [become] national stories.” CNN, for instance, picked up the story on the petition to reinstate slavery. “At least five Black student unions formed as a result of our coverage, and our coverage has also led to student sit-ins,” Sorrell said.

Bell recorded an Instagram video report in February interrogating the local law enforcement narrative about the suspicious death of Asia Maynard, a young Black woman from Kansas City, and The Defender published an article about what transpired a few days later; The Grio, Complex, and Yahoo News picked up the story and credited The Defender with obtaining an original quote from Maynard’s cousin.

Sorrell said he and his team use “a fluid set of criteria” to decide what qualifies as newsworthy, “but ultimately what matters is whether or not a story is of significance to Black people….Our coverage is often actionable, and tells people how to take action or who to get connected with.”

They also avoid bombarding readers and viewers with primarily distressing stories, which Sorrell called “a form of psychological warfare against Black people.” He added, “That’s why integrating positive stories is so important to us. That’s why we do things like Black Student of the Month, and highlight Black athletes who are doing good things in the community.”

And they’re not opposed to making the news instead of just reporting on it, or to contributing to the culture instead of simply covering it.

Bringing people together to play basketball and inviting a hooper boasting a big online presence and a sizable following on social media was one way to do that. Taylor invited Slim, otherwise known as Slim Reaper, an influencer with game who came from Florida for the park run. Taylor pitched Slim’s manager and shared some numbers suggesting the event would offer exposure while benefiting the Kansas City community.

“He hit me back — I think the same day, pretty much immediately — and we kind of started planning the whole thing out,” Taylor said.

Despite injuring his ankle a few days before, he felt compelled to take the court during the takeover too, embodying The Defender’s mission of immersion and direct engagement with the people the outlet serves the best he could on a compromised leg.

“I was really happy, and I still played the second day just because I’m just like, ‘I’m a basketball player. I got to play.’ But, I mean, I found a couple threes,” he said. Slim later posted video from the event and thanked The Defender for hosting it.

Sorrell said he studies reports on media trends. “I got the Nieman predictions last year, and I was just like, ‘Wow, looks like we’re actually doing a lot of these things already,'” he said.

“I think that from our very beginning, we’ve had a radical innovative vision, and I think people should continue to watch us,” Sorrel said. “There’s a lot more that we want to do and that we plan on doing, too.”

James Anderson is from Illinois but now lives in Riverside, California. He has taught college courses as an adjunct professor and now works as a freelance writer and journalist. He’s a member of the IWW Freelance Journalists Union and active on the FJU press pass and legal committees. You can read and subscribe to his newsletter here.

POSTED     Aug. 11, 2022, 11:15 a.m.
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