The Rochester Beacon yesterday marked its second anniversary. When the Beacon launched on Oct. 18, 2018, we knew that as a startup we’d face a number of challenges—among them producing high-quality content on a daily basis, building a sizable readership and becoming sustainable financially.
None of us expected a global pandemic to be on the list, though.
As we start our third year of publication, I’m happy to report that these challenges have not gotten the best of us. Today, our focus is on growth, not surviving from week to week.
We’ve been fortunate, to be sure. When COVID-19 arrived in the Rochester region, we’d recently completed participating in NewsMatch, the nation’s largest grassroots fundraising campaign for nonprofit news. The Beacon raised more than $20,000 from individual contributors over the last two months of 2019, surpassing our NewsMatch goal, and was well-positioned to weather the pandemic lockdown in the spring.
It certainly also helped that from day one, the Beacon had been a virtual operation. When New York’s stay-at-home orders forced businesses to pivot to remote work, we were already there.
Some changes were necessary, but new opportunities have come with them. The pandemic has made it impossible for us to hold in-person events such as the 2019 Economic Forecast Forum and the Solutions Forum: The City School District that took place in our first year. Instead, we’ve presented several online events with Upstate Venture Connect and recently held a Zoom conversation with John Harris and Tom Hamburger, Rochester natives who are among the nation’s most respected political journalists.
I believe the Beacon also rose to the challenge of covering the pandemic with depth and insight. To date, we’ve posted more than 100 articles on the impact of the coronavirus spanning health and science, the economy, education and more. (All of our COVID-related articles are collected here.)
And we’ve continued to explore new ways to provide important information to the community, such as the 2020 Election Dashboard we unveiled last week.
From the start, the Rochester community welcomed the Beacon’s mix of narrative journalism, analysis and fact-based opinion. In the first six months, total readership of articles posted to RochesterBeacon.com and delivered each Thursday in the Rochester Beacon Weekly Review email grew steadily, with the number of website users and email subscribers reaching well into the five figures. At the one-year mark, we’d exceeded all of our key readership goals.
We wondered if we could keep up that pace in year two. In fact, the Beacon’s growth in its second year accelerated. The number of website users more than doubled, and pageviews increased by two-thirds. While the subscriber base for our weekly email did not grow as rapidly as website traffic, it still expanded at a very healthy double-digit rate.
The Beacon strives to provide content that’s as diverse as the Rochester community. The wide spectrum of issues and topics we covered over the last 12 months—including education, economics, innovation, health care and science, arts and culture, government, politics, justice and public safety—is evident when you look at the articles by Beacon staffers and community contributors that drew the most readers.
Some examples: Opinion Editor Kent Gardner’s retrospective analysis of what went wrong at Kodak; Managing Editor Smriti Jacob’s examination of Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary’s “trial by fire”; Publisher Alex Zapesochny’s look at Rochester’s response to the 1918 flu pandemic and the lessons for us today; Will Astor’s article on the promise of remdesivir, written in the early days of COVID’s local onslaught; Senior Editor E.C. Salibian’s piece on racial justice, “Dear white people: What is ‘the work’ and how do we do it?”; Mike Costanza’s profile of Monroe County health chief Michael Mendoza; and Esther Arnold’s story “Labor, temperance, and the vote,” part of our package marking the 200thbirthday of Susan B. Anthony.
The most-read article of the last 12 months (by a wide margin) was another piece from that package: “On her 200thbirthday, should we ‘cancel’ Susan B. Anthony?” by Peter Lovenheim, the Beacon’s Washington correspondent. No. 1 among the articles from community contributors was a critical piece on the Rochester City School Board by Patty Malgieri and Edwin J. Lopez-Soto.
The Beacon is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that began as an all-volunteer operation. We continue to run a very lean operation, but various expenses—such as compensating writers and photographers on assignment, insurance, and website and email costs—must be met. That’s why we are so grateful for the financial support provided by businesses like Bond, Schoeneck & King—a sponsor of our website and weekly email, and all of our events to date—and numerous individuals.
As I noted, we’ve built a solid financial base. But additional support is needed to achieve long-term sustainability and to expand the amount and scope of our coverage. Once again, we will be participating in the annual NewsMatch campaign. A national matching-gift campaign now in its fifth year, NewsMatch matches up to $1,000 per individual donor to participating nonprofit news organizations. NewsMatch 2020 will run from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31; look for details posted on our site prior to the start of the campaign.
Are there non-monetary ways to support the Beacon? Absolutely. Sign up for the free Rochester Beacon Weekly Review email or, if you’ve already done so, encourage your friends and colleagues to join you as subscribers. Also, consider writing for the Beacon or suggesting topics we should cover. You can submit essay or stories ideas by email—to [email protected]—and likewise share other thoughts or suggestions with me or any member of the Beacon staff. If you have journalism experience, please contact us to learn how you might contribute to our efforts.
The Beacon’s Zoom event with John Harris and Tom Hamburger focused in part on the imperiled state of local journalism. In the digital era, newspapers in particular have struggled to find a viable business model. In “Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy,” Alex S. Jones wrote that “news organizations are trying, rationally, to save their business, but that is not the same thing as saving the news. Indeed, they increasingly view their news operations … as an expense that doesn’t contribute as much as it costs.” Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize while covering the newspaper industry for the New York Times, added: “(Many journalists) have come to feel they are on a treadmill of mediocrity, asked only to provide a quota of ‘content’ that will fill the news columns at the lowest cost.”
His book was published in 2009. Since then, the trend lines for traditional news publishers have only grown worse.
Research has shown that showed fewer than 15 percent of adults in Rochester and nationwide pay for local news. Some people in the news business think the answer is erecting paywalls; we do not. We think financial contributions from community members who believe in our mission will sustain us.
In her 2020 book “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” Margaret Sullivan pointed to the same research. Sullivan, media columnist of the Washington Post and former public editor of the New York Times (as well as editor of the Buffalo News, where we were colleagues in the early 1980s), observed: “When local news fails, the foundations of democracy weaken. The public, which depends on accurate, factual information in order to make good decisions, suffers. The consequences may not always be obvious, but they are insidious.”
In addition to public policy changes and supporting legacy news organization, Sullivan believes “we must energetically support and foster the newer models”—such as nonprofit journalism ventures—that are “forging the local journalism so necessary for today and tomorrow.”
No doubt, the Beacon’s model is still a work in progress. But with your support, we think it will serve the Rochester community for years to come.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.