When De Correspondent launched in 2013, the Dutch news website posted a set of founding principles that would guide its operations. No. 1 was to “provide an antidote to the daily news grind.” De Correspondent quickly raised more than 1 million euros in a crowdfunding campaign and since its start has grown to roughly 60,000 members who pay more than $60 a year to support the for-profit site. It now has ambitions beyond the Netherlands; a U.S. version of the site is in the works.
At the Rochester Beacon, our ambitions are decidedly more modest. The focus is strictly local, and we can only dream of one day having a six-figure operating budget. But like the founders of De Correspondent, we believe there is a need—and a desire among readers—for journalism that strives for relevance, diversity and depth versus random facts, stereotypes and clichés. Some think it’s necessary to dumb things down to gain an audience. We believe there’s a better way, one that spans narrative journalism, analysis and opinion grounded in facts.
The idea of the Rochester Beacon was born in summer 2017 when a small group—veteran Rochester journalists and others with strong community involvement—began to discuss what it would take to get an independent, high-quality journalism website off the ground. We drafted our own set of core principles. First among them: to build a stronger Rochester by serving as a source and forum for ideas and perspectives that are rooted in intellectual openness and drive informed public action. (Read the full Rochester Beacon mission statement.)
De Correspondent was an inspiration, but in some key ways we’ve chosen another path. One is the strong Rochester focus. Another is our decision to operate as a nonprofit. We believe this is the best way to make it clear we have no goal that comes before creating an enduring journalistic enterprise devoted to narrative writing, analysis and opinion that help build a better community.
Operating as a nonprofit also allows us to draw knowledge from the growing ranks of nonprofit news organizations around the country. We are associate members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a membership group of more than 100 media organizations including ProPublica, which has received four Pulitzer Prizes.
Another early decision was to make the Rochester Beacon digital-only. It wasn’t a difficult choice. Cost certainly was a factor; producing and delivering a print edition would be much more expensive than publishing online. But more important to us were the opportunities we could pursue if focused solely on digital. One is the potential audience: A Pew Research Center study last year found that 43 percent of Americans now often get news online, trailing only TV (50 percent, but steadily declining) and far ahead of print newspapers (18 percent). Being digital also allows us to experiment with multimedia.
We don’t underestimate the work required to draw readership online. The bigger challenge, however, will be to build a sustainable digital journalism operation. After more than 20 years of trying, the newspaper industry still is searching for a business model that will enable it to thrive online. Legendary investor Warren Buffett, whose BH Media publishes dozens of daily and weekly papers, has acknowledged that newspapers have not “cracked the code yet.” Most digital-only news ventures have not fared much better. Like legacy newspapers, most are faced with a fundamental supply/demand dilemma: too much undifferentiated news content and too few people willing to pay for such news at any price.
Why do we believe the Rochester Beacon can succeed where others have failed? Because we think Rochester is ready for a new digital publication devoted to responsible, high-quality journalism and dedicated to fostering open-minded conversation and debate about important social, economic and political issues facing our community.
So, we now take our first steps. We hope you will join us for the journey.