Shining a Light on Independent Journalism

The local news landscape has changed drastically over the last two decades. But there is a rise in nonprofit indepedent journalism in Wichita.

THE PENDULUM

Over the past 15 years, Wichita has seen a significant decline in local news coverage. Hedge funds from outside Kansas have purchased legacy news entities. Their for-profit model has led to consolidation and liquidation in order to stay in the black. Newsrooms have shrunk in the process. This has led to large holes in local news and information. But as the pendulum swings towards national news, there are many who are looking to bring vital local journalism back to Wichita. This includes the Wichita Community Foundation, who works to provide financial support to enhance the quality of life in our community. One of their largest initiatives focuses on access to information.

“We partnered with the American Journalism Project and looked at Wichita in comparison to other markets of our size,” said Courtney Bengtson, director of strategic initiatives at the Wichita Community Foundation. “We found we are in a significant need of higher local news quantity. While we have numerous organizations in our city that provide fabulous information to our constituents, we need more of that. We need that on steroids.”

This absence of local news is the same for many communities across America. In fact, since 2008, newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers has been cut in half. This not only has an impact on the reporters but also on every local citizen. Robust and accessible local news provides residents with a deeper understanding of their community.

“I think newspapers and news organizations can be a reflection of their communities,” said Sherman Smith, editor-in-chief at the Kansas Reflector, an online, independent publication that provides in-depth reporting and daily coverage of state government and politics. “They give you the opportunity to really look closely at who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are.”

THE NONPROFIT SCENE

The Kansas Reflector is one of many nonprofit news operations that have begun to emerge across the country. According to the Institute for Nonprofit News, nonprofit newsrooms have been launching at a pace of more than one a month in the U.S. On June 1, 2021, The Wichita Beacon became one of latest nonprofit news organization to begin operating in the city, funded in part by the Wichita Community Foundation. It’s first community newsroom started in Kansas City in 2020. Since its launch, Kelsey Ryan, founder of The Beacon, has been working to create a Wichita newsroom and become an integral part of the community.

“I grew up in Newton, used to work at the Wichita Eagle, lived in Riverside and I just really loved the community,” said Ryan. “I went to the [Kansas City] Star after the Eagle. It was a really difficult personal move to make, but I’m so excited to bring the Wichita Beacon here to the city I love.”

Along with an increase in nonprofit journalism, a wide variety of news outlets have joined forces through the Wichita Journalism Collaborative. The WJC is a coalition also funded in part by the Wichita Community Foundation to support and enhance quality local journalism. This group is comprised of established local newsrooms and community institutions and began by focusing on meeting the information needs of Wichita during the global pandemic. The WJC members include media partners like The Community Voice, The Journal, KMUW, KSN-TV, The Sunflower, The Wichita Eagle, and community partners such as the Wichita Public Library, AB&C Bilingual Resources and The Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.

“We feel that it's really important to offer our news ecosystem the opportunity to learn from others around the country and from each other,” said Bengtson. “The members of the collaborative were the ones that sort of put their hand up and said, ‘Yeah, we're ready to try some different things and we're willing to put time and effort into that.’ All of them have already done tremendous work.”

For Ryan, this collaboration approach is in line with her hopes for The Wichita Beacon to serve the city and engage the community with independent journalism that is shaped by the citizens themselves.

“It remains really important that the journalists in the communities are making local decisions with their communities about the reporting that they do, and it's not coming from another community or from somewhere else,” said Ryan. “What we're trying to do is a little bit different because we’re going to do community listening sessions and ask for feedback. I want to see actual community journalism occurring. So what that actually ends up looking like or what the end result will be is going to be different. The community has to decide what that is.”

For both Smith and Ryan, it’s not just about the quantity of local news organizations, it’s about the opportunity that nonprofit news organizations provide truly local and independent information to residents.

“I was really drawn to the independence of the organizations,” said Ryan. “The fact that they weren't connected to hedge funds, that they weren't connected to a shareholder. You don't have a CEO five states away in California. You have local accountability, local business frameworks, local journalists. Everything's staying local."

“I think you really have to run with the torch of that old adage that a journalist's role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” said Smith. “You need to have people who are questioning whoever is in power in that community and holding them accountable for their decisions. I think in my experience in the past, that wasn't necessarily the case. So, there were some strings on that. I think there is just the financial reality that starts to drive business operations. That’s not the case with the Reflector, I have complete journalistic freedom.”

Both the Kansas Reflector and The Beacon have had early success. And people are taking notice. The Reflector’s first ever package was about a strange unemployment lockout rule. Their reporter discovered that if a person filed for unemployment and entered something incorrectly, whether it was a mistake or not, they would be locked out from filing again for five years. When the pandemic hit, many realized then they were locked out and were denied unemployment insurance because of it. After the story was published, the legislature made changes to the lockout rule in their overhaul of the unemployment system.

This is a unique opportunity for Wichita and that it's one that we need this community to kind of grab by the horns.Kelsey Ryan

In 2020, The Beacon partnered with other nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations in Kansas City to create a targeted, pop-up campaign on how to vote safely in the pandemic. They created fliers in five different languages about the voting process and safety measures citizens should take. The fliers were distributed to zip codes with low voter turnout. The Beacon has also started social justice text message initiatives to keep people up to date on the protests and local action being taken as well as moderating and fact checking a local coronavirus Facebook group with more than 5,000 members. Ryan hopes that The Beacon’s momentum in KC and with the Wichita Journalism Collaborative can be a catalyst for Wichita. The Wichita Beacon has launched with three reporters focusing on local government accountability, education and as a community watchdog.

“This is a unique opportunity for Wichita and that it's one that we need this community to kind of grab by the horns,” said Ryan. “We will need the Wichita community support in order to keep this going and to continue to do this public service. This is something that we're trying to build a foundation for, but need support for sustainability."

Those interested in helping advance local, nonprofit journalism efforts can do so by supporting the publications directly. At The Wichita Beacon website, visitors can participate in surveys, become a founding donor and sign up to receive access to articles and additional information via their email newsletter. The Kansas Reflector offers a morning newsletter and the ability to fund their work through donations.


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