Dear Greater Kansas City,
I just got back from Cleveland, where I had the exciting opportunity to meet with 36 leaders of nonprofit journalism organizations at the American Journalism Project Conference. And I’ve got to confess that, after seeing the strides Ohio is making towards a brighter future, I left feeling a bit of FOMO.
AJP’s leaders brought us to Cleveland to show us the magic of a non-profit journalism collaborative that’s developing across the state. And seeing the community support for this incredible project got me thinking – why haven’t our city’s business and community leaders done more to rally behind local news? Kansas City desperately needs high-quality, local, independent news too – so why aren’t we making the same push towards a more equitable future?
After all, Kansas City’s problems aren’t all that different from Cleveland’s. Our citizens have the same desire for quality schools for their children, affordable healthcare for their families, and a healthy and representative democracy. So what can we do? How can we all get together and solve some of the serious challenges we’re facing in this city?
The answer, I believe, is strong, reliable, independent journalism. It’s the backbone of a healthy democracy, providing essential oversight and keeping citizens informed – and here in Kansas City, we desperately need it.
Why does the decline of local journalism matter?
If local journalism were an animal, it would have had an endangered label affixed thirty years ago – and it’s been careening towards extinction ever since. According to a study by the University of North Carolina, over the last twenty years, more than 2,100 newspapers have closed down across the country, leaving millions of people living in news deserts without adequate access to information. In Missouri, we’ve lost 32 newspapers, leaving more than half the counties with only one newspaper – or worse – none at all. The situation isn’t much better in Kansas, where 20 newspapers have closed down, leaving a third of Kansans counties without a single newspaper, or reliant on just one.
Why does this matter? The lack of a meaningful and trustworthy local source covering issues such as schools, local government, and public health creates a vacuum that leaves voters and taxpayers unaware of what’s happening in their communities. It means people can’t fully participate as informed citizens – they can’t make educated decisions on who to vote for, or what policies to support, or where their kids should go to school. It means that, as a society, we grow more and more divided about what is and isn’t real, what does and doesn’t matter.
The problem is particularly acute in Kansas City. Our city’s unique structure, fragmented by historical segregation policies and a lack of comprehensive planning, creates unusual challenges that become more difficult to overcome without high-quality local news. Our struggle to cooperate across two states and more than 100 different municipalities hinders our ability to make meaningful progress toward a more equitable community. And for the last two decades at least, we’ve lacked a centralized, reliable source of local information.
It hasn’t always been this way. According to the book “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism” by Christopher B. Daly, in the early 20th century, the Kansas City Star was one of the most influential newspapers in the country, with a staff of more than 1,000 employees, including reporters and editors. And that remained true for decades. In the 1970s, The Star employed hundreds of reporters, who covered a population of one million people. For years, The Star produced powerful, impactful work that was recognized across the country – in 1982, the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. But by the late 1990s, the newspaper that had kept Kansas Citians informed for more than a century was beginning a long, steep decline.
By the time COVID hit, at a moment when we needed accurate information more than ever, the paper was a shell of its former self. In March of 2020, just as the virus was beginning to spread across the country, McClatchy, the media company that owned The Star, The Wichita Eagle, and more, filed for bankruptcy. The paper was ultimately sold to a hedge fund in New Jersey, whose goal is to wring as much profit as possible out of this critical source of community information. Today The Star employs just sixty reporters to cover a metropolitan area with a population of more than 2.5 million.
Those reporters, editors, and support staff are doing their best. But it isn’t enough. The shrinking of The Star means that important beats like education and local government get short-changed. It means that people don’t know what’s being debated at city council meetings, that government spending goes unmonitored, and that many neighborhoods don’t get covered at all. Many of our citizens’ voices and experiences, obstacles, and successes go unshared. And very little changes – at least not for the better.
Our city needs high-quality local news now more than ever. We’re facing some of the most critical challenges in our history as we grapple with rising economic inequality, high homicide rates, widening disparities in educational outcomes, and our history of deeply rooted and systemic racial inequity. While occasionally, a terrible story like the shooting of Ralph Yarl draws the attention of the national media, the city’s reporters are spread so thin that important issues rarely come to the attention of the citizens of Kansas City – let alone the rest of the country.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The power of philanthropy to support independent Kansas City journalism initiatives
So that brings me back to Ohio. Why am I so jealous of Cleveland? It’s a great city, but it certainly doesn’t have Patrick Mahomes or any quality gas station BBQ.
It’s simple – in Ohio, citizens have organized to defend their democracy and build one of the largest and most effective local nonprofit news startups in the country. Backed by a coalition of local organizations and community leaders, Signal Cleveland is the first newsroom to launch under the Signal Ohio umbrella, and it’s just the start of a state-wide network of local, non-profit digital newsrooms designed to bring critical civic information to communities all across Ohio. A second newsroom will soon be launching in Akron, with more to follow in the coming months and years.
Maybe most impressively, in under a year, the initiative has already raised more than $19 million from local philanthropists, businesses, and dedicated citizens in a collective effort to address many of the same issues we face here in Kansas City: economic inequality, crime, educational inequity, police accountability, and housing discrimination.
The American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy organization that helps to build local news nonprofits, is working with a cohort of some of the most promising and innovative digital newsrooms across the country. In addition to Signal Ohio, they’re helping launch connected networks of newsrooms like Cityside in San Francisco, and The Houston Landing. And they believe Kansas City has the potential to be next.
But we can’t do it without your support.
The impact of fact-based, data-driven reporting
Just like Cleveland, Kansas City needs fact-based, data-driven, and problem-solving reporting – the kind that Signal Ohio is stepping up to provide – to empower us with the information we need. Without this reporting, we risk being uninformed – or worse yet, misled by misinformation, which allows our most vulnerable community members to be exploited.
You might be thinking, don’t we have TV and radio? And we do – TV stations and NPR have stepped up to provide local news coverage as newspapers have declined, and they’ve done an admirable job. But it’s not enough. While TV and radio can be useful sources of information, they often provide only brief, surface-level coverage of complex issues. To truly understand and address the deep-seated problems in our community, we need access to news in formats that allow us to delve deeper into the issues and explore multiple perspectives. Only then can we make informed decisions and take meaningful action to effect real change.
Here at The Beacon, we’re already working towards building the type of news organization that is having such a positive impact in Cleveland. Just three years after our launch, The Beacon is becoming an important part of our community. Unlike hedge fund-owned legacy newspapers, our mission is not profit – it’s ensuring that our citizens have access to the independent Kansas City journalism they need to live their best lives. So we don’t compete with other outlets – we collaborate. Our team helps lead the Kansas City Media Collective: we’re working with American Public Square, Kansas City PBS/Flatland, KCUR, Missouri Business Alert, and Startland News in a formalized collaboration that’s one of the first of its kind in the country. We share resources, projects, and content. We also allow for our stories to be republished to ensure that they are reaching the widest possible audience, particularly among citizens who might not have access to traditional news sources.
We’re also exploring innovative approaches to get the best information possible to as many people as possible. We’ve had our eye on a program modeled on Ohio, called Documenters, through which in any given month, 40-50 trained members of the community (“Documenters”) attend board meetings and log what happens into a publicly available database, ensuring greater transparency and accessibility. I’m also leading a new partnership we’re launching with Kanbe’s Markets to reach communities east of Troost in an effort to address independent Kansas City journalism AND food deserts at the same time.
Most importantly, our work is changing the lives of the people in our community. For example, over the last few months, our Labor and Housing Reporter Mili Mansaray has been doggedly following the story of missing Black women. After she exposed the KCPD’s poor handling of missing person cases, the Jackson County prosecutor’s office released a statement and some data regarding missing black women in KC. They linked to Mili’s article and detailed a significant change they were making – moving forward, they will now mask the race of a defendant or victim before a prosecutor reviews the case. Their new “race-blind charging” system will be monitored and studied by a neutral third party to empower the KCPD to have a better understanding of its biases.
We’re proud of this impact and excited to do more. And with your help, we can.
What we can do to rebuild and invest in independent Kansas City journalism for a better future
It’s time to invest in the kind of independent Kansas City journalism that holds power accountable and sheds light on the issues that matter most to our communities. If we don’t act soon, we risk falling behind cities like Cleveland, which are already taking serious steps toward equitable information distribution.
I’ve been back in my beloved Kansas City for almost a week now, and I’ve mostly gotten over my FOMO. Why? Because I know we can do this too. The charge to build back local news in our community seems daunting – I definitely feel overwhelmed when I think of how much we’ve lost, and how far we need to go to rebuild it. But then I look around and I realize that Kansas City has successfully rallied around deserving causes before – and we can do it again. Remember how hard it was to build the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum? The museum was on the verge of collapse in 2008, before it hired new leadership and devoted itself to reengaging with the local community – by 2012, it was turning record profits, and in 2019, the Museum was awarded the Gold American Award for Nonprofit Organization of the Year from the American Business Awards. It’s now a proud, thriving Kansas City institution.
We can do this to save our democracy, too.
I know nobody likes to talk about money – especially for public goods like journalism. I realize many of you would rather be supporting public health or education – and I understand why! But the fact of the matter is, high-quality, accurate, independent Kansas City journalism is critical to advancing all of the causes we care most about. Nothing in our community gets better without investigative journalism. Without dogged reporting, public health suffers and decisions about education are made without the input of the families they impact. Kansas City cannot live up to its potential without good journalism – and we can’t produce this type of reporting without your support.
I’ve seen what’s possible in Cleveland, and I want it for my city too. Will you join us to build a better future for Kansas City?