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Beacons of hope emerging in Kansas journalism

It’s not all doom and gloom. Innovative approaches to journalism are flourishing in parts of Kansas. A look at examples that are making an impact.

Whenever Scott Reinardy gets down about the state of Kansas newspapers, he remembers one thing: Circulation at those newspapers may be down, but the audience for news is – thanks to the internet – bigger than ever.

“People are consuming more news than ever before,” says Reinardy, the Malcolm Applegate Professor in News Management and Editing at the University of Kansas: “It’s just in a different fashion.”

Indeed, Kansas journalists are innovating and experimenting with new ways of delivering news to their communities. A look at the efforts suggests there is no one right way to create the news of the future.

DIGITAL STARTUP

Jay Senter and Julia Westhoff returned in 2010 from Panama, where they were Peace Corps volunteers, to start a family in Senter’s native Prairie Village. They soon grew dissatisfied with the lack of news coverage for their Johnson County suburb.

“There was nothing,” Senter says. “I had no idea what was happening in Prairie Village. So the idea was just, ‘Well I’ll just go start a blog and just sort of cover Prairie Village and Mission Hills and Fairway, these two other little cities that are over here, and we’ll see if it turns into anything.”

It did. The Shawnee Mission Post, a free website, quickly gained an audience. Senter kept his day job at the University of Kansas Hospital, then in the evening would go to cover local city council meetings and other events. “It was a lot of work,” Westhoff says. “We were raising our kids, too. He’s out covering meetings every night and rolling out of bed at 6 a.m. and starting to cover stuff. It was tough.”

The site grew, but revenues didn’t keep pace. Local businesses could buy ads, but digital advertising rarely earns as much revenue as print advertising. The couple also tried asking for donations – that was helpful, but didn’t feel like a sustainable path. So in 2017, they put the site behind a paywall, and asked readers to pay for subscriptions.

“If this is ever going to become sustainable in a way that we can hire new staff, so that … it’s not just one person kind of burning the candle at both end for 20 years, we’re going to have to get readers to contribute in a more substantial way,” Senter says.

“We didn’t know if it was going to work,” Westhoff adds.

It worked. The two set a goal of getting 1,000 subscribers within a year. They hit the goal in three-and-a-half months. The growth has allowed them to hire more writers, and to expand coverage into the nearby cities of Shawnee and Lenexa.

Senter says the paywall wouldn’t have worked, though, without a seven-year head start to build the Post’s relationship with readers.

“It’s such a long game,” he says. “It’s an incredibly long game.”

Another digital start-up being developed in Kansas City is also focused on finding a sustainable path forward, although its focus is regional rather than hyper-local. Kelsey Ryan, a former reporter for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star, is working to launch The Beacon, a nonprofit online news organization focused on providing in-depth reporting on how communities are impacted by government.

Ryan specialized in data-fueled journalism while at The Star and was part of the newspaper’s “Why So Secret, Kansas?” series, a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. But she lost her job last year during another round of layoffs at the paper. Since then, she’s been laying the organizational groundwork for The Beacon and trying to answer two big questions: “How do you get readers to pay for local news?” and “How do you build trust with readers?” She says she’s come to believe the answers to both questions are related.

The Beacon takes its inspiration, in part, from The Texas Tribune and other nonprofit news start-ups that fund their operations through a mixture of sources that often include foundations, individual donors, sponsorships and events. Ryan launched a public fundraising campaign this month for the $800,000 she’ll need to hire six reporters and launch The Beacon in time to cover the 2020 elections.

In the process, she’s hoping to move the conversation about local journalism away from lamenting what’s been lost to creating a sustainable infrastructure for journalists to provide communities the news coverage they need. But for that to happen, supporters of local journalism are going to have take to action.

“If you really want something, you need to do something about it,” Ryan says.

More information about The Beacon can be found at https://www.thebeacon.media/.

 

The husband and wife team of Jay Senter and Julia Westhoff publish the online Shawnee Mission Post from an austere office in their Prairie Village home.

 

TRY EVERYTHING

Talk to anybody about the future of Kansas journalism, and Joey Young’s name comes up quickly in the conversation. Part of the reason? He’s young in a business dominated by aging editors and publishers.

“It’s amazing what happens when you’re the only 30-year-old guy at the (Kansas Press Association) meeting,” he says, laughing. “People are like, ‘Hey! What are you doing? Do you want to buy my newspaper?’”

With Kansas Publishing Ventures, he has built a small chain of weekly papers in central Kansas using a hodgepodge of approaches: He launched Newton Now as a paid weekly newspaper – subscriptions start at $6 a month – while the Hillsboro Free Press is a free, ad-supported publication available to anybody who wants to pick up a copy. His other papers include the Herington Times, Hesston Record and McPherson News.

Young isn’t one for the gloom and doom that dominates much of the newspaper industry. There’s still money to be made in the business, he says, even if it’s not as much money that was available a few decades ago.

“We aren’t worried about the long-term trends or anything like what the national companies are doing, because they really don’t represent what we do,” he says. “I feel like we’re better at relationship building, we’re better at being a part of the community, at getting our hands dirty.”

He’s also willing to experiment with ideas not typical for the news industry. Newton Now, for example, now sponsors an annual Blues, Brews, and BBQ event, selling tickets and bringing in food trucks to create “a stellar night of entertainment.” The company also creates photo history books that have proved popular in the communities it serves.

Young, however, is counting on old-fashioned journalism to carry the day.

“I can’t tell the future,” he says. But, he adds, “so as long as we cover local government, we do a good job with our communities, people are going to want to know what’s going on. And I think people will put advertising next to whatever that is.”

NONPROFIT? NO PROBLEM.

Since it launched in 2017, the Kansas News Service has become a crucial source of coverage of the Kansas government, particularly in the realm of health, education and civics.

“We’re not reinventing anything, but we’re trying to be innovative in how we approach that coverage,” says Jim McLean, a veteran Kansas journalist who served as the managing director for the service in its initial years. (He’s now the senior correspondent there.) He adds: “We like to think we’re modeling good collaborative behavior.”

The nonprofit reporting service evolved out of the Kansas Health Institute News Service, a pioneering venture in using a nonprofit model to cover health policy news. It was editorially independent but operated as an initiative of the Kansas Health Institute, a Topeka-based research organization. KHI receives funding from the Kansas Health Foundation, which also funds the Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal.

Collaborations are at the heart of everything the Kansas News Service does. Funding, after all, comes from a variety of sources – led by the Kansas Health Foundation, and including the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, the Sunflower Foundation, REACH Healthcare Foundation and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

Similarly, the work of the news service is based at KCUR, a service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which collaborates with public radio stations and news outlets across Kansas: Any news organization can republish Kansas News Service stories and photos without cost as long as they attribute the source.

That’s allowed the service to fill in some of the voids in coverage created by the decline of Kansas newspapers – editors throughout the state have a source of smart journalism to fill their pages and inform their readers.

“Those newspapers still make an impact,” says Scott Canon, the news service’s managing editor. “They’re carrying our work now.”

“Clearly what we’re doing doesn’t replace all the losses (in newspaper coverage) you could catalog,” McLean says. “We’d like to think we’re doing our part to fill the void.”

Students at the University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications are also lending a hand by providing local news coverage for Eudora, a city of about 6,300 near Lawrence that lacks a newspaper.

Through The Eudora Times website and with the help of social media, the students provide coverage of local businesses, school events, and community topics. The effort was spearheaded by Teri Finneman, assistant professor of journalism, who could not believe that Eudora no longer had a local newspaper and decided to do something about it.

The effort gives students the opportunity to gain experience serving a community audience while helping fill a void. Finneman says in a university news release that community-university partnerships can be mutually beneficial and help address declines in news literacy and growing confusion about where to access trustworthy information.

Examples of nonprofit ventures give Reinardy hope for the future of Kansas journalism.

“I believe local communities will clamor for that,” he says. “There are plenty of people willing to go out and do great journalism. It’s a matter of having the backers and resources to do that.”

A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/1yrgiftsub.

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