On Oct. 18, we rolled the dice on the Rochester Beacon. Would the community welcome a new digital publication devoted to high-quality local journalism?
Among the small group of founders, most of us were at least cautiously optimistic, though one now admits to doubts the Beacon would survive its first month. Happily, it did. In fact, at the six-month mark the Beacon is outpacing some of our most ambitious goals.
Our mix of narrative journalism, analysis and fact-based opinion seems to have struck a chord. Total readership of articles posted to RochesterBeacon.com and delivered each Thursday in the Rochester Beacon Weekly Review email has grown steadily. The number of website users and email subscribers in our first half year is well into the five figures. Given the Beacon’s strong local focus, it’s not surprising that the vast majority of readers are in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region—but our content also has been viewed in places as far-flung as Canada, the United Kingdom, India and parts of Asia.
We set out to probe the broad spectrum of complex issues and challenges facing Rochester. The topics covered so far span economics, education, health care, innovation, culture, justice and more. Beacon readers’ interests clearly are very diverse. Among the most-read stories of the first six months are Senior Editor Sally Parker’s two-part examination of the Rochester Historical Society’s plight; Managing Editor Smriti Jacob’s story on the United Way under new CEO Jaime Saunders; Opinion Editor Kent Gardner’s examination of opportunity zones; Senior Writer Will Astor’s two-part article on teachers union chief Adam Urbanski; Senior Editor Cathy Salibian’s profile of the X-Cats robotics team at Wilson High School; and Publisher Alex Zapesochny’s article on Rochester as a STEM leader .
Early this year, Peter Lovenheim joined the Beacon as our Washington correspondent. Peter is a journalist who has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post and other notable U.S. publications, and author of books including “In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time.” He divides his time between Rochester and D.C., and his pieces for the Beacon—among them one on Rochester’s connection to the Impossible Burger —have gained a big following among our readers.
Articles by a wide array of community contributors also have been a big part of the Beacon’s early success. We have been gratified by the number of people who have been willing to write thoughtful, deeply researched pieces on difficult subjects. Two examples from our most-read list: “Rochester’s misdirected war on poverty” by Jim Ryan, and “Why our Silicon Valley company chose Rochester” by Mark Oney.
The Beacon is a digital-only publication, but our goal of serving as a public square—a place to offer and debate ideas that drive informed public action—extends to live events. In January, the Rochester Beacon 2019 Economic Forecast Forum drew 150 people to the College at Brockport Downtown. Our second event—the Rochester Beacon Solutions Forum: The City School District—is slated for May 13, and again we’ve partnered with Brockport Downtown’s Institute for Poverty Studies and Economic Development. The free event now has a wait list; if you’d like to join it, you can do so here.
The Beacon is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization. We run a lean operation, but it’s not cost-free. We are very grateful for the financial support provided by businesses like Bond, Schoeneck & King —a sponsor of our website and weekly email, and presenting sponsor of our first two events—and numerous individuals. A recent Pew Research Center study found that fewer than 15 percent of adults nationwide (and in Rochester) paid for local news in the last year. The Beacon does not charge for access to our content—and we have no plans to do so. We believe financial contributions from community members who support our mission will sustain us. (To learn how to make tax-deductible donations to the Beacon, go here.)
How else might you support the Beacon? If you haven’t done so already, sign up for the free Beacon weekly email. Also, consider writing for the Beacon; we welcome guest opinion pieces on important local issues. Or suggest topics we should cover. (To submit essay or stories ideas, email: [email protected].) Do you have expertise in areas such as finance/tax matters, event planning, marketing and photography? Consider donating your time and expertise. Finally, tell others about the Beacon and share articles through email and social media.
After six months, the Beacon is very much a work in progress—by design, that’s how it will remain. As we grow, we’ll continue to experiment, exploring new ways to present high-quality journalism and spur discussion about solutions to the challenges facing Rochester. If you have thoughts or suggestions, please share them with me or any member of the Beacon staff.
Again, thanks for reading the Rochester Beacon and supporting nonprofit, locally based journalism!
Paul Ericson is Executive Editor of the Rochester Beacon.