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How the Kansas Reflector is reaching rural communities

Editor Sherman Smith saw a need for state news where it wasn’t reaching readers

Shawna Bethell  - June 21, 2021

When Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith scheduled the newsletter to hit inboxes at 7 a.m., some of his readers balked. By that time, they were already out feeding their livestock. They wanted to read the news with their morning coffee.

Smith listened, and responded by sending the newsletter at 4 a.m., instead. 

As newsrooms across the country are forced to cut budgets, it is often statehouse coverage that suffers. Fewer reporters covering the breadth of decisions being made under the Capitol dome means it is likely the larger urban papers that decide which stories to publish. And those stories may not include the issues affecting people in rural areas, leaving readers unaware of the decisions being made in cities that directly impact their lives in small towns.

Smith had covered Kansas news for nearly two decades when he was furloughed from the Topeka Capital-Journal in 2020. Recognizing an opportunity, he partnered with States Newsroom, a non-profit that supports statehouse news in regions that are underrepresented due to the cost-driven lack of on-the-ground reporting. Together, they launched Kansas Reflector. Smith solidified the team by recruiting fellow prize-winning journalists he’d known throughout his career.

“We write stories that affect people’s lives,” said Smith. His goal from the outset was to reach underserved populations. Kansas Reflector has no paywall for its online news and is available via all social media outlets. When the Reflector was launched, Smith sent news releases to small town papers without statehouse coverage and let them know they could reprint Reflector stories free of charge. 

“They fill a void in state coverage and provide quality content. We’ve used them since they began publishing,” said Dale Hogg, editor of the Great Bend Tribune.

How does a non-profit publication provide such services for no cost? Though funds used for salaries, office space and computers come from States Newsroom, there remain costs such as travel expenses for reporters; Kansas is a large state. Fees for state and federal information requests are also costly— donors cover those expenses. 

“I didn’t have experience fundraising,” said Smith. “But I had experience building an audience. And I knew if we had an audience, the donations would come.” 

And so far, that seems to be the case. The Reflector has a donation page on their site, and they run a quarterly fund drive via the newsletter. The response has overwhelmed Smith.

“It’s surprising in such a refreshing way,” he said. “People have been generous. Donations may not come in large amounts, but they come in small amounts — sometimes only $5 or $10 — regularly.” Smith believes people support the Reflector because they can read quality news without cost before deciding it is worth the investment. 

Reader loyalty may also be a response to Smith’s ability to listen to his audience. A recent op-ed examined how the importance of reputation in small communities can affect the mental wellbeing of ranchers and farmers. It’s a story that reaches to the heart of rural America, where no decisions go unnoticed by neighbouring landowners. Another story covered private property rights versus the designation of regions of Kansas to National Heritage Areas. 

Not all Reflector articles focus directly on rural communities. As a news publication, they cover issues impacting the entire state: cities and small towns alike.

“We are constantly thinking about the volume of stories we produce, who and what we are writing about, and geographic diversity,” said Smith. “Aside from producing compelling stories of public interest, that is the best way to grow our audience.”


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