The Beacon marks its fourth anniversary

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Each day, the New York Times website attracts more visitors than the Rochester Beacon has over the last four years—by a large margin.

But when the Beacon reached 1 million total pageviews this summer, it was a notable milestone. After all, when the Beacon launched on Oct. 18, 2018, some people (including a few of our co-founders) had doubts it would survive the first month.

Yet day after day since then, we’ve continued to deliver our mix of in-depth journalism and fact-based opinion. And today, the digital news startup that faced long odds begins its fifth year of publication.

Paul Ericson

I won’t say it has been easy. All new ventures face challenges; for the Beacon, the list has included a global pandemic. But it has been evident from the outset that many people in our community were ready for a new digital publication devoted to responsible, high-quality journalism.

In fact, it seems clearer than ever today that there is a need for a local nonprofit dedicated to news and investigative reporting, analysis and opinion grounded in facts.

With mounting financial woes and declining circulation, newspapers here and around the country have cut staff repeatedly in recent years. From 2008 to 2020, newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers declined from 71,000 to 31,000, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the same period, newspaper circulation dropped by roughly half.

Like many businesses, newspapers have struggled with digital disruption. After a slow start, most have aggressively sought an online model that works for them, but they haven’t found it.

In the last year, their woes have worsened, with weak demand for advertising, climbing newsprint and delivery costs, and a sharp drop in website traffic industrywide. In August, Gannett told employees it would cut roughly 6 percent of its staff through layoffs and leaving open positions unfilled. This month, the company went further, with steps including a hiring pause, one week of mandatory unpaid leave in December, and a voluntary severance offer.

Most of the Beacon’s founders were veterans of the newspaper business. We’d seen the industry’s deterioration firsthand. We knew that preserving high-quality local news coverage required a new approach.

Today, we remain sharply focused on the need to create a model that works. The Beacon is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit—we’re not about making a profit—that started as an all-volunteer operation. Since our second year, all writers and photographers on assignment have been compensated. Those expenses, along with other costs such as website maintenance and insurance, require a solid financial base. Unlike many news sites that have erected paywalls in an attempt to boost revenues, we have never charged for access to our content. The heart of the Beacon’s model centers on financial contributions from community members who believe in our mission.

Our biggest annual fundraising campaign will start Nov. 1. For the fourth straight year, we will be participating in the annual NewsMatch campaign, which will run until Dec. 31. A national matching-gift campaign now in its seventh year, it matches up to $1,000 per individual donor to eligible nonprofit news organizations. The Beacon has raised more than $20,000 from individual contributors each year so far, making NewsMatch the single most important source of funds to sustain our operations. Details will be posted on our website prior to the start of this year’s campaign and we hope you will consider donating.

Financial contributions are not the only way to support the Beacon. If you have expertise in areas such as marketing, audience development, fundraising, technology, events, accounting, it’s possible we could use your help. Other, easy ways to support the Beacon include signing up for the free Rochester Beacon Weekly Review email or, if you’ve already done so, asking your friends and colleagues to join you as subscribers.

Over the last 12 months, our base of email subscribers has continued to grow, with quarterly year-over-year gains ranging from 13 percent to more than 20 percent. Growth in the number of website users and pageviews increased even more dramatically—through the end of the third quarter, both were up nearly 50 percent compared with the year before.

Rochester is a diverse community, and we strive to provide content that reflects this reality. The broad spectrum of issues and topics we covered over the last 12 months includes education, economics, innovation, health care and science, arts and culture, government, politics, justice and public safety. Here’s a sampling of those articles:

Managing Editor Smriti Jacob’s piece on the public/private partnership devoted to building up the EMMA and Beechwood neighborhoods; Senior Writer Will Astor’s examination of the harmful chemicals in our environment that are linked to Parkinson’s disease; Washington Correspondent Peter Lovenheim’s story on the controversy in Brighton over the removal of “Jingle Bells” from an elementary school’s repertoire; Opinion Editor Kent Gardner’s piece separating myth from reality in the student loan crisis; contributing writer Mike Costanza’s article on the COVID mental health crisis among adolescents and young adults; Senior Editor E.C. Salibian’s look at Rochester’s vibrant documentary film scene; and the nine-day coverage of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival by Frank De Blase and Jess Williams.

The most-read Beacon story published since last October concerned what may be the most pressing challenge facing our community today: Rochester’s homicide surge. This article was written by contributing writer Jacob Schermerhorn, who also has done superb work creating data visualizations for Beacon stories over the last year.

Jacob started writing for us as an intern. Thanks to Smriti Jacob’s efforts, we have offered internships to a growing number of young journalists who have gained valuable experience and contributed quality work. For news organizations like the Beacon to thrive, it’s essential to help develop the next generation of journalists.

From the start, the Beacon has published articles from members of the community who also want to contribute to the discussion of important social, economic and political issues. Among the most-read of these articles over the last year were the story by Michael Warren Thomas on the environmental stakes in cryptocurrency mining along Seneca Lake and a piece on bail reform by Rosemary Rivera, co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York.

Another way we’ve tried to promote responsible discussion and debate of key issues is through events. When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, we shifted to virtual offerings. So far this year, we’ve presented one online event (on Rochester’s homicide crisis, moderated by Smriti Jacob) and the first in-person event since the pandemic began (on the future of downtown revitalization, moderated by Publisher Alex Zapesochny). We’re now partnering with Good Conflict, a venture of award-winning journalists Hélène Biandudi Hofer (a Beacon board member) and Amanda Ripley, and expect to announce an upcoming event soon.

The generous support of sponsors has made these events possible. Special thanks go to Bond, Schoeneck & King, lead sponsor of our website and weekly email, and also a sponsor of many events, and Tompkins, which joined as a website and weekly email sponsor this year.

I’ve said a number of times that Beacon’s model is still a work in progress—and always will be. The newspaper industry once thought its success was immutable; we believe nothing is guaranteed.

We are very fortunate to have a terrific group of external board members who are helping us navigate the way forward. In addition to Hélène Biandudi Hofer, they are: Alex Amorese, a licensed real estate salesperson at CB Richard Ellis; Kimberly Jones, president and CEO of Butler/Till; and Thomas Richards, former Rochester mayor.

Here’s one thing that won’t change: our mission. High-quality local journalism, exploration of possible solutions to the challenges facing Rochester, and creation of a sustainable business model for the digital era—these are the Beacon’s reasons for being. If you have thoughts or suggestions on how we can advance our mission, please share them with me or any member of the Beacon staff.

Finally, we’d like to pay tribute to you: the Rochester Beacon’s readers. Without you, the Beacon’s brand of nonprofit, locally based journalism would not be possible! 

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

3 thoughts on “The Beacon marks its fourth anniversary

  1. Thanks to the Rochester Beacon for providing in-depth coverage of local topics. Gannett for too long has had a stranglehold on local news. We finally have an alternative source for news.

  2. I adore the Beacon, and my husband and I will continue to support it annually. Not all of the topics interest me – that doesn’t matter. It is essential that we have strong, local investigative journalists working to help us keep track of key community concerns. I have read the data that communities who lose this local presence see increases in corruption and other similar problems. Thanks to all of you for serving as our eyes and ears as well as writing about what you learn.

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