When we launched the Rochester Beacon on Oct. 18, 2018, there were no thoughts about how it might feel to reach our fifth anniversary. We were focused on surviving the next four or five weeks.
Happily, the Beacon made it to the one-month mark, and beyond. Today, I’d like to pause for a moment to reflect on our first five years.
As I wrote in a post on our first day of publication, the Beacon was created because we believed there was a need—and a desire in the Rochester community—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.”
We didn’t underestimate the challenge. Most of the Beacon’s founders had decades of experience in the newspaper business. We’d witnessed the industry’s relentless decline. We knew that a new model was needed to preserve high-quality local news coverage, but also that there was no guarantee we’d succeed. (We had no idea, of course, that a global pandemic would hit only a few months after our first anniversary.)
Yet we truly believed in the idea, and now here we are, at the start of the Beacon’s sixth year of publication.
So, how does it feel? Most of all, I am filled with gratitude for everyone who has made this possible.
First, I’d like to thank you: our readers. We had faith that Rochester was ready for a new, digital publication dedicated to responsible, high-quality journalism and open-minded conversation and debate about the most important issues facing our community. You have proved that’s true. Our readership has grown steadily and with increasing momentum: In summer 2022, a few months before we marked our fourth anniversary, the Beacon’s total website pageviews topped 1 million; today, that figure has jumped to more than 1.5 million. What’s more, Beacon readers are the No. 1 source of financial contributions to support our operations.
I also want to thank the companies and organizations that have supported the Beacon, through sponsorship of our website, weekly email, and in-person and online events. Very special thanks go to Bond, Schoeneck & King, lead sponsor of our website and weekly email since year one, and also a sponsor of many events, and to Tompkins, which joined as a website and weekly email sponsor last year.
Next, thanks go to our board members. Since our third year, we have been fortunate to have a superb group of external board members who are helping us achieve our mission: Thomas Richards, former Rochester mayor; Kimberly Jones, president and CEO of Butler/Till; Hélène Biandudi Hofer, an award-winning journalist and producer and owner of media group HBH Enterprises; and Alex Amorese, a licensed real estate salesperson at CB Richard Ellis.
Finally, I want to pay tribute the people who are the Rochester Beacon—the talented, determined individuals who have made it possible for us to publish every weekday for the last five years. To start, thanks to our cofounders, all of whom remain involved in the Beacon: Will Astor, senior writer; Kent Gardner, opinion editor; Cathy Salibian, senior editor; Sally Parker, co-founding senior editor; Alex Zapesochny, publisher; and especially Smriti Jacob, managing editor, whose title does not begin to describe how she has poured her heart and soul into the Beacon and worked tirelessly on virtually every aspect of our venture.
Thanks also must go to Peter Lovenheim, our Washington correspondent, who became a dedicated member of our core group not long after we launched; contributing writer Jacob Schermerhorn, who started with us as an intern and has done terrific work creating data visualizations along with his reporting; writer Mike Costanza, who has contributed stories on a wide range of topics; and contributing editor Esther Arnold. We’ve also benefited greatly from the work of a great group of editorial interns and community members who have shared their thoughts and expertise with our readers.
Each year so far, we’ve published more than 250 articles and features that have covered a wide spectrum of issues and topics including education, economics, innovation, health care and science, arts and culture, government, politics, justice and public safety. The three most-read articles to date reflect this diversity as well as readers’ desire for in-depth coverage of sometimes difficult topics: Will Astor’s 2023 story on accusations of falsified results and plagiarism brought against a globally lauded University of Rochester researcher; Jacob Schermerhorn’s 2022 article on Rochester’s homicide surge; and Peter Lovenheim’s 2021 piece on the controversy over the removal of “Jingle Bells” from a Brighton elementary school’s repertoire.
Since the Beacon’s launch, we’ve never lost sight of the fact that building readership and building an enduring business are closely related yet distinct objectives. Our mission combines high-quality local journalism and exploration of possible solutions to the challenges facing Rochester with creation of a sustainable operating model. The original idea for the Beacon was inspired in part by De Correspondent, a highly successful Dutch website that aimed “to provide an antidote to the daily news grind.” Yet when its founders started an English-language site in 2019 aimed at the U.S. market, it lasted little more than a year.
Our ambitions were more modest, with a strictly local focus. We also chose to operate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which allowed us to tap the knowledge of the expanding ranks of nonprofit news organizations nationwide. The Beacon is part of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a membership group that has grown to more than 425 media organizations including Pulitzer Prize winner ProPublica. But the struggles of an industry leader, the Texas Tribune, which a few months ago laid off 11 employees (including two original staff members), illustrates how success needs to be earned every day.
We started as an all-volunteer operation, but since our second year, all writers and photographers on assignment have been compensated. That’s our biggest expense, but not the only one; website maintenance and insurance are among our other costs. Many news sites have erected paywalls as a way to boost revenues; we have never charged for access to our content—and we have no plans to ever do so.
Our strategy is different. It centers on financial contributions from community members who believe in our mission.
For the fifth straight year, our biggest annual fundraising campaign—NewsMatch—will start Nov. 1 and run until Dec. 31. A national matching-gift campaign, 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, and we hope you will help us surpass that mark again. Details will be posted on our website prior to the start of this year’s campaign.
Financial contributions are vitally important, but that’s not the only way to support the Beacon. Do you have expertise to share in marketing, audience development, technology, events or accounting? If so, please contact us. In particular, we are looking for people who believe in our mission and have experience applying for grants from foundations and other nonprofit funders. The easiest way to support us, of course, is to sign up for the free Rochester Beacon Weekly Review email or, if you’ve already done so, to ask your friends and colleagues to join you as subscribers.
In the five years since the Beacon began publication, the need for a local nonprofit dedicated to news and investigative reporting, analysis and fact-based opinion has not diminished. Inarguably, it has grown more pressing. With worsening financial woes and falling circulation, newspapers here and nationwide have responded chiefly by slashing staff. Many papers have gone out of business. This trend presents a looming crisis for communities like Rochester—and for our democracy.
In her 2020 book “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” Margaret Sullivan wrote: “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.”
She added that “we must energetically support and foster the newer models (that are) forging the local journalism so necessary for today and tomorrow.”
I used this quote when I wrote a piece marking our second anniversary. I am including it again three years later because its truth is even more necessary to recognize today.
Once again, thank you for being part of our journey so far. With your ongoing support, the Beacon will continue to grow and serve the Rochester community for many years to come.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].