Civic-focused news operation The Beacon establishes itself quickly in Kansas City


This is part of a series about Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge winners in North America and how they’re putting funding to work developing sustainable business models, diversifying revenue streams, and increasing audience engagement. Watch the recorded webinar from Dec. 9 to see how three local news organizations – Lookout Local, The Beacon, and Bay Area News Group – are innovating to build relationships and experiences that yield consumer revenue.

By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

One year into landing a Google News Initiative grant, a Kansas City-based nonprofit operation is already establishing itself as a sustainable and reputable news source.

The Beacon launched this year as Kansas City’s first regional nonprofit news outlet outside of public TV and radio. The product is free to consume, relying on the goodwill of its audience to become members and the support of philanthropy. GNI’s North American Innovation Challenge was the first national supporter of the project last fall when the idea basically still “existed on paper,” founder and publisher Kelsey Ryan said.

“We largely credit our success to the folks early on who told us yes: the individuals here, the foundations here, and GNI because that helped give us the credibility we needed, and frankly, the confidence to do this,” Ryan said.

Ryan

After being laid off in 2018, Ryan still had a strong desire to remain in the Midwest. So she broadened her network beyond the journalism industry to include experts and leaders from Kansas City’s robust nonprofit community, “among the most philanthropic in America,” according to Ryan.

“There was clearly a need and also a desire by funders locally to support something like this and get a civic news infrastructure in place,” Ryan said.

Originally slated to debut this summer, the online news outlet started three months early as a newsletter before expanding into a full website in May. Ryan’s background in health care reporting, combined with other staff who once covered the health beat at their past publications, proved especially beneficial for pandemic coverage.

But the condensed timeline forced Ryan to conduct six months of anticipated in-person audience research in three months, doing the rest virtually. Her team met with more than 50 local organizations about the news needs not being met in the market currently. The Beacon also received feedback using surveys distributed by other nonprofit groups already entrenched in the community.

“It was informative not only for the journalism that we wanted to do but also some of these business strategies,” Ryan said.

The Beacon covers civic engagement, economics, education, environment, health and more.

Based on the feedback received, The Beacon team shifted its focus to include solutions journalism. Don’t just investigate or analyze, readers insisted, but also provide actionable takeaways.

“As journalists, we don’t spend enough time listening,” Ryan said. “Readers here wanted to see demonstrable proof of newsroom’s anti-racist policies and not just lip-service.”

The Beacon was able to tap directly into its audience to establish its first community advisory board, which Ryan describes as “10 new ambassadors for our brand and our newsroom throughout the metro.” The diverse group held its first meeting in November to provide feedback on the operation and the community overall.

The Beacon’s most-loyal audiences can express support by becoming  “Founding Members,” which encouraged early support in the form of $50 donations. The membership tier, which expires Dec. 31, benefited from a strong bump in newsletter signups and social media follows, suggesting to Ryan the work has resonated with Kansas City residents.

Similar membership tiers have since launched as part of the NewsMatch program, including “Democracy Defender” ($25 a month) and “Hometown Hero” ($10 a month). The Beacon also benefits from corporate sponsorship, although that’s been a smaller revenue stream than anticipated because in-person events have been put on hold.

Ryan, who had a limited business background prior to becoming a publisher, calls the past two years her “mini-MBA” as she launched a news nonprofit. Ultimately, it’s still her journalism experience that Ryan considers a competitive advantage.

The Beacon has grown its social media including on Instagram.

“I get to be transparent in how we operate as journalists, and that’s the part people want to know about,” Ryan said. “It’s an advantage when you’re fundraising because you can answer all of those questions and pull from your past experiences as a reporter.”

Ryan said it’s also easier as a journalist to tout the nonprofit’s mission in a meaningful way. For example, The Beacon’s coverage extends beyond state lines to include both the Missouri and Kansas sides of the city.

“That border has been there forever, that was a civil war border,” Ryan said. “This reckoning has been happening across the country, but it’s been focused in Kansas City.”

The ultimate goal is to hire reporters beyond the Kansas City metro to cover other parts of the region, Ryan said, creating a hub-and-spoke model for the Midwest.

The Beacon recently gained further financial support from the Solutions Journalism Network to focus on broadband infrastructure over the next several months because of recent CARES Act federal funding to bridge the digital divide in less-populated areas of Kansas.

The Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation is providing another major grant to fund The Beacon’s data journalism work, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is supporting its audience engagement and collaboration efforts. LION Publishers also named The Beacon the top “Emerging Publisher” in 2020.

Ryan said the support gives the newsroom confidence to not scramble during breaking news scenarios.

“When something big is happening, we remind ourselves now to not be hasty and to take a step back so we can give the story context,” Ryan said.