Several digitally focused nonprofit outlets sought to bolster pandemic-battered journalism in Kansas over the past year. But they remain few and far between. Is the nonprofit newsroom a long-term adaptation to difficult circumstances or just another fad?
When the COVID-19 pandemic started shutting down the American economy in March 2020, Kelsey Ryan went to work.
Ryan, a former reporter at The Kansas City Star, had been making preparations for about a year to launch a new Kansas City-based nonprofit news outlet. She sped up those plans by several weeks and jump-started her new website, The Beacon, to begin providing health and community news immediately.
By fall, the site’s offerings included a voters guide on how to vote safely in-person and how to make sure one’s mail-in ballot counted.
“We wanted to make sure we could help people get the information they needed starting in March,” Ryan says. “That was not our original plan.”
The outlet will follow up its initial year with a significant expansion. In December, The Beacon received funding from the nonprofit Report for America foundation to hire additional journalists, including four positions in Kansas. Later that month, The Beacon announced plans to launch a Wichita newsroom with its own executive editor and editorial team as part of a regional nonprofit network of news sites for Kansas and Missouri in partnership with the American Journalism Project and the Wichita Community Foundation.
The Beacon isn’t the only nonprofit news organization popping up in Kansas. States Newsroom, which covers state governments across the country, in July launched Kansas Reflector, a Topeka-based website staffed with veteran local journalists.
Sherman Smith and Tim Carpenter, formerly with the Topeka Capital-Journal, are on the staff, as is columnist C.J. Janovy, who most recently worked at KCUR-FM in Kansas City, Missouri. Noah Taborda, a reporter who also has a background in public radio, is also on board.
“Our philosophy is that state government is the branch of government that has the most impact on people’s lives, that people pay attention to least,” says Chris Fitzsimon, the director and publisher of States Newsroom. “That’s as true in Kansas as anywhere. We’re looking to be there a long time.”
The rise of digital-only nonprofit news organizations in Kansas comes as traditional for-profit media – newspapers, radio stations and even local television news – are struggling: The COVID-sparked recession has all but wiped out an already fragile advertising market that those outlets relied on for revenue. Publishers and media observers worry that many newspapers in Kansas and across the nation may be wiped out, leaving cities and counties without a reliable source for local news and information.
That’s a problem. “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked,” PEN America said in a 2019 report on the matter.
“With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed and less likely to run for office.”
Observers and activists seeking solutions to that problem are increasingly looking at nonprofits as an answer. Among the questions: Is a nonprofit business model the future of news in Kansas? Should existing newspapers shift to that model? Can nonprofit news be sustained in the smaller, rural communities that make up much of the state? And if so, who will foot the bill? Even in the nonprofit sector, after all, somebody has to pay for reporters, editors and other staffers.
The answers to these questions are more pressing than ever. Kansas communities are still fighting the coronavirus, many unemployed Kansans can’t find work, and a new, redder Legislature is in Topeka. Nonprofit news organizations will play a bigger role than ever in covering those stories.
“This is one of those critical moments in our history,” Ryan says.
There has long been a nonprofit segment of the news business – just think of the public radio stations that have provided local coverage. Nationally, though, nonprofit digital news outlets began to proliferate around the time of the last recession, in 2008, as the financial decline of newspapers began to steepen. The Texas Tribune, an unusually successful operation, launched in 2009; ProPublica, which produces investigative journalism, started up in 2007 and won its first Pulitzer Prize in 2010.
Jonathan Kealing, a University of Kansas graduate and a former editor at the Lawrence Journal-World, is now the chief network officer for the Institute for Nonprofit News, a coalition of more than 240 independent news outlets across North America. He says the sector is definitely growing.
“We’re seeing one startup a month across the country, and we pretty much have for the last 10 years,” Kealing says. “And it’s accelerating.”
The nonprofit news sector doesn’t just consist of online startups, however. Some longstanding community newspapers are getting out of the news business while staying in news – shifting away from their for-profit models in a bid to stay alive and even thrive. “We’ve had conversations with a number of state newspaper associations about how they can support their small owners who may be approaching a generational transition and are considering the nonprofit conversion as an option,” Kealing says. “Too soon to say if that will become a trend, but it’s on people’s radar.”
A couple of large newspapers have made the shift. The Philadelphia Inquirer made the transition a few years ago; more recently it was followed up by The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah.
George Pyle, a graduate of Wichita State University and a former Pulitzer Prize finalist when he was at the Salina Journal, is the Tribune’s editorial page editor. He thinks the transition offers hope for the paper’s survival. “The future of The Salt Lake Tribune is at least as secure as any other news organizations, thanks to our transition to a nonprofit status,” he wrote in May.
Fraser Nelson, the Tribune’s vice president of business innovation, said the paper made the switch after its owner, Paul Huntsman, decided there simply wasn’t a profitable way forward. A new nonprofit foundation, Salt Lake Tribune Inc., is trying to raise a $60 million endowment to underwrite the Tribune’s operations.
“We’re not turning down any revenue we can find,” Nelson says. “We’re looking underneath the couch pillows. … Being a nonprofit opens a lot of ways for people to support us.”
The new version of the Tribune uses a mix of methods to raise money. It seeks grants from community philanthropic organizations, and subscribers are offered a chance to upgrade their $7-a-month subscription to a tax-deductible $15-a-month membership, similar to public radio. “To be honest, they’re not getting a heck of a lot for it,” Nelson says. “What they’re getting is the knowledge they’re helping support local journalism.”
Though the profit motive has gone away, the reliance on advertiser dollars has been slower to recede. The Tribune took an $854,800 Paycheck Protection Program loan after the ad market crashed in March. And the transition hasn’t been without its bumps: The paper’s top editor resigned in early August, citing differences with the leader of the board of directors. And in October, the paper announced it would cease printing and delivering a daily newspaper at the start of 2021 – instead, readers will have to find their news at the Trib’s website and in a once-a-week print edition available on Sundays.
The future is still uncertain.
“We’re still in the hope phase,” she says. “It’s a work in progress. … We don’t believe we have all the answers. We’re really excited to see how other people iterate on our model.”
The question for Kansas is whether the nonprofit media model can be made to work in thinly populated rural areas. The Tribune, after all, serves a metropolitan area of more than a million people. Closer to home, The Beacon draws its support and readership from the Kansas City region, while States Newsroom plans to offer coverage to appeal to a statewide audience. It’s easier to find change in the couch pillows when your potential audience numbers in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
Kealing says there are growing signs that nonprofit media can make a go of it in rural communities. “We’re starting to see more in rural parts of communities – not just the big cities, not just the coasts, but all over the country,” he says.
There are challenges, he acknowledges. “Certainly it’s easier when you’ve got a larger philanthropic base. Is it a thousand people (in a community)? Maybe that’s tough.”
Nelson, though, believes nonprofit journalism is scalable.
“Philanthropy exists in all communities, and it’s sized to that community’s assets.” she says. “If you’re a weekly hyperlocal nonprofit … sure I think it’s scalable. Will you be a daily print product? Maybe not. Will you be a local weekly? Sure. Why not?”
A report released by Report for America in March makes the case for newsrooms to view philanthropy “as a vital revenue stream that can make up the difference between lost advertising revenue and subscriptions,” in the words of Todd Franko, the organization’s local sustainability and development director. The organization reports that its newsroom partners raised more than $4.6 million in 2020, 61% per reporter than the year before.
It’s a trend that’s slow to catch on with the remaining independent Kansas newspaper publishers, despite the challenges they have faced in recent years. Emily Bradbury, director of the Kansas Press Association, says she has not heard of any papers considering the move. And Marci Penner, executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation and a board member of the Kansas Association of Community Foundations, says she has heard little talk from community leaders across the state about filling the shortage of local news.
“Most of the discussions I’ve had about starting up a nonprofit or any kind of newspaper have been with former reporters or publishers,” Penner says. “Communities that no longer have a newspaper are more likely to talk about how to communicate with their citizens as opposed to starting up a traditional print or online newspaper. The online newsletters or e-blasts they do wouldn’t really be considered to have traditional newspaper content. I haven’t really heard community foundations talk about this as an issue at all, especially not in terms of doing something about it or helping fund something.”
The Journal is one of seven media partners of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, which launched in 2020 with the support of the Wichita Community Foundation and a $100,000 grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, based in New York.
Joey Young, the head of Kansas Publishing Ventures – which owns six newspapers in south central Kansas, including Newton Now and the McPherson News-Ledger – still believes deeply in profit-driven journalism, even though ad revenues for his business have fallen off as much as 40% during the pandemic.
“I don’t believe in markets the size we operate in it would be advantageous to do something like that,” Young says. “We find it easier to use a model that allows us to sell subscriptions and advertising to the local community. We think that’s sustainable for us. …I don’t think we have to completely change the newspaper model to succeed. We have to tweak it.”
One reason for Young’s skepticism: the news industry’s faltering efforts at reinvention. “I think some of this is a fad,” he says. “I feel like the industry is a few talking heads and everybody repeating what a few talking heads say. Lots of newspapers have tried to adapt to changing circumstances over the last 10-15 years – selling online advertising, putting up paywalls, pivoting to video, trying to do more with less, but nobody has found a silver bullet to survive and thrive.”
Ned Seaton’s family has owned the Manhattan Mercury for more than 100 years. Recent years have been challenging, he says. “We’ve been inadvertently operating a nonprofit company for a couple of years. I’m not sure I understand the nonprofit model, so I don’t mean to speak against it in an uninformed way, but I’m of the school of thought that the way a newspaper company can remain independent – present news in an unbiased and traditional way – is to have it stand on its own.”
Seaton believes local ownership – rather than the corporate owners who publish many of Kansas’ daily papers – offers a better path to the future.
“We are family owned, and that means we don’t have to respond to quarterly shareholder calls or beat analyst expectations,” he says. “We’re dedicated to that part of the mission, and we’ve been willing to sustain some losses for a while to keep doing that. Financially it would’ve been real smart to sell in 2008, and we didn’t do that. We’re still here, and we’re doing a good job.”
Kansas’ newest nonprofits are starting from a strong base. Ryan spent a year lining up donors – there were 125 founding members – in addition to securing grant funding before The Beacon started publishing. That makes it easier to do journalism currently, even as the pandemic-induced economic slowdown threatens for profit outlets. Her plan to create news-related events to bring in sponsorships has been derailed for now by the pandemic, but she believes as more readers find her website, they’ll be willing to support its journalism.
“Our grants will carry us through a year,” she says. “We just really believe as we produce more journalism, our memberships will grow.”
Similarly, the Kansas Reflector has backing from a philanthropic foundation, but it expects to raise money from readers over time. “After we prove ourselves a little bit in Kansas, we hope people in Kansas will also contribute,” Fitzsimon says. Both the Reflector and Beacon solicited donations during “Giving Tuesday,” a holiday season effort to support charitable causes.
Smith, editor in chief of the Reflector, believes that the foundation’s backing gives his new site sustainability for the long haul. “We have the pressure off us in terms of fundraising,” he says. “We just get to focus on the journalism and not worry about the funding.”
Smith spent much of his career at the Capital-Journal but spent recent years looking for an opportunity in nonprofit journalism and evangelizing about it to his peers.
“I’ve bored a lot of friends and colleagues about the potential of nonprofits to offset the decline of newsrooms,” he says, adding: “I just feel the world is a better place with more journalists.”
Nonprofits aren’t immune from questions about if or how their revenue streams influence their news coverage. States Newsroom, for example, was launched with backing from the Hopewell Fund, which has been described as a left-leaning foundation whose donors are unknown. But Fitzsimon said his newsrooms play it straight – though, like many newspapers, the websites feature clearly marked opinion columns as well as objective news stories.
Smith says he wouldn’t have taken the job if States Newsroom had an agenda to push.
His bosses “were very clear throughout the interview process this needs to be a straightforward, independent news operation. I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Smith says. “For me it’s about going out and covering the state of Kansas, and doing it with quality journalism.”
Kealing says members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which includes The Beacon but not The Reflector, are required to be transparent – and that communities might want to take a closer look at outlets whose finances are obscure. “Not to say there’s not a place for advocacy or policy-oriented journalism, but it should be clear what that is,” he says.
The question of profit or nonprofit is no longer an either-or matter. For-profit news outlets are increasingly relying on philanthropy to support their journalism – The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle have hired reporters funded by Report for America, a national foundation, while The Community Voice, which serves Black readers in Wichita, Kansas City and across Kansas, received a $100,000 grant from Facebook as well as support from Report for America. And the Kansas Press Association has launched a program to accept donations that will be redirected to local newspapers to support local reporting.
Bonita Gooch, the Voice’s owner and editor-in-chief, says a hybrid approach makes sense for outlets that have – until now – focused exclusively on a profit-driven business model.
“We’re the real nonprofit. We never make one,” she says, laughing. But her point is serious: News organizations have public missions and obligations that many for profit businesses don’t have to worry about – and there are times when that community service mission means media outlets must forgo opportunities for-profit. Instead of being either a for-profit or nonprofit, she says, “we’re a for-profit public benefit corporation.”
Despite their skepticism of the nonprofit model, both Young and Seaton have tried to take advantage of such opportunities. The Mercury applied for a Facebook grant, but Seaton was uncomfortable doing so. “There are usually strings attached to the money,” he says. “It just depends on the particular strings attached.”
Young succeeded in getting a Facebook grant, and has also accepted donations from readers. “We haven’t gotten a ton, but we’ve got 4,500 bucks here and there,” he said. “It’s been nice. It helped.”
For now, a switch to a nonprofit or hybrid mode – increasingly relying on grants, reader donations and other methods of fundraising – can keep some news outlets in business. The old advertising-driven model is becoming too difficult for most news organizations to maintain.
“I feel like we’re in a weird point in history where there are a lot of different models happening,” Smith says, “and we’ll see which models survive and thrive.”
Fitzsimon agrees: “I think philanthropy is going to play a role. I don’t know if it’s the long-term answer, but it’s part of the answer now. We can’t wait around to figure out solutions – there are too many stories to tell about the time in which we’re living.”
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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