Beacon Benchmark: A more resilient funding model for local journalism—what do you say?

Over the last two months, revenue for the B Square Beacon is up about 20 percent. The number of “paid subscribers” is up by the same amount.

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At last count, 108 patrons have pledged a total of $856 a month to support The Square Beacon.

It’s a solid number. But it won’t sustain one reporter, let alone the full newsroom of journalists that I think this community deserves.

Still, any upward trend is counter to the sharp revenue drop that traditional news outlets have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That makes me believe a full local newsroom could be supported with the voluntary subscription model used by The Square Beacon.

Compared to traditional news outlets, it’s a model that relies on more rank-and-file  community members to provide smaller contributions.

I think that approach will be more resilient in times of economic crisis than one that relies on fewer, but much larger contributions.

Who makes the fewer, but larger contributions to traditional news outlets? It’s the business community—in the form of advertising.

For printed publications, this approach is understandable, because the cost of press and distribution can’t be covered by subscriptions priced at levels that individuals can afford.

But accepting an outsized share of revenue from the business sector means that a publication accepts an outsized risk of steep revenue drops during an economic downturn. Yes, an economic downtown could translate into revenue declines from individual readers, too. But those declines, spread across more sources, are not as likely to be as abrupt.

Of course, rank-and-file readers benefit from advertising. They don’t have to pay as much as they would if the publication were ad-free. Advertisers benefit, because their published ads give them a way to connect with potential new customers.

But at the end of the day, advertising does not serve the primary information needs of readers. Much of the ad revenue that flows to a publication does not directly support journalists.

People who sell advertising have to be paid, too. Obviously, ad reps should be fairly compensated for the work they do. But the work they do only indirectly supports a journalistic mission. When every revenue dollar goes to support only journalists, less revenue is required to get the job of journalism done.

Instead of asking individual business owners to see a news outlet as a way to get their message to customers, The Square Beacon’s model asks them to see it the same way all community members should: A news source is a way to keep informed about what’s happening in the place where they live.

Ownership also plays a role in revenue requirements. When the ownership of the publication is based outside the community, at least some local revenue has to be diverted outside the community. When ownership is local, like The Square Beacon’s is, every revenue dollar from readers stays local and gets recirculated here in the Bloomington area.

If 10,000 Bloomington area households contributed an average of $5 a month, that would mean an annual budget of $600,000. If every dime goes to compensate reporters and editors, that translates into a newsroom of maybe 10 journalists.

If you don’t already contribute financial support to The Square Beacon, please consider using the Patreon platform to set up a monthly pledge. If you manage email lists, please consider flogging the link to the Patreon platform. If you have a favorite social media platform, please consider sharing a link to this column. Posting this column to Twitter and Facebook is easy with the links at the bottom of the page.

If you’re not comfortable paying money online, here’s a physical address where you can send a check made out to The Square Beacon.

PO BOX 3355
Bloomington, IN 47402

If you’re on the fence about trying this different approach to funding local news reporting, consider what some B Square Beacon readers say:

The Square Beacon is doing wonderful independent journalism, rare and unusual in these times. I’m thrilled to support them on Patreon.
—Ben Fulton

The B Square Beacon has been consistently providing in-depth coverage of Bloomington and Monroe County government meetings and actions. Every concerned citizen should be reading the B Square Beacon to follow local issues.
—Tom Zeller

The Square Beacon is an excellent news source for local government issues and activities. I frequently find useful information that I do not see in other news outlets.
—Stephen Hale

The Square Beacon’s coverage combines important local information with pithy commentary. Having attended some of the local government meetings Dave covers, I appreciate his ability to sift wheat from chaff. Plus, the photos are worth several K words.
—Debora Shaw

Dave and The Square Beacon have brought a new depth of reporting and analysis to Bloomington and Monroe County government operations—square information!
—David Ferguson

The B Square Beacon does an excellent job of covering the news of local government. Dave covers more events than our local paper. He gets the story out sooner most always. He does a great job of analyzing and presenting data often digging into historical records to give background to current events. His daily email let’s you know what he will be covering and how to watch it yourself. The Beacon is a real bargain.
—Jim Shelton

I want to contribute some money every month to keep this coverage. I’ve gotten more out of the eight Square Beacon articles I’ve read over ten days than a year’s worth of articles from another locally available publication.
—Ryan Cobine

I really appreciate the news that your newsletter provides and I often share it on my neighborhood Facebook page so my neighbors are aware of these very important news items. Thanks so much!
—Becky Hill

I hate to say it, but our local newspaper is seriously losing weight. We really need good, local journalism to fill the gap, or our democracy is in real trouble. So…Be Square.
—Phil Stafford [Longtime aging (and now he is one) advocate]

The Square Beacon gives readers more depth than is found in other local media. For that reason, I have doubled my support and encourage others to do so as well. While Square Beacon may not replace other media, it is a valuable niche news provider to help fulfill the role of public watchdog. Sic’em!
—Rural Reader

Unlike many of the recurring emails I receive, I look forward to news from The Square Beacon and always check it out. The content is timely and succinct, and it focuses on “need to know” local topics. The Beacon’s conversational style makes it easy to read and understand. A great addition to Monroe County media.
—Local nonprofit leader