Kansas City Defender team posing in front of a mural thet reads "Dream."

This is what a youth-led editorial agenda looks like

The Kansas City Defender has become the most-trusted news outlet for local Black youth and organizers. Here’s how, and why, they do it.

Lauren Kaljur Lauren Kaljur  - June 7, 2022

Since launching in July 2021, The Kansas City Defender has surfaced stories by and for Black youth that would not have been told otherwise. The independent non-profit news outlet has built trust with youth across Kansas and Missouri high schools by centering their voices and inviting them to produce content.

Indie Publisher’s Lauren Kaljur caught up with founding editor Ryan Sorrell to learn more about what’s possible when youth lead the news direction of an online outlet.

They speak to youth, and youth speak to them

Social media is central to The Kansas City Defender’s content and editorial strategy because their audience is predominantly Gen Z. The Defender’s Instagram feed is filled with hyper-shareable videos and bright yellow text over images, which relay everything from student walkouts to sports wins to youth profiles. The effort clearly resonates, with nearly 12,000 followers helping to fill each post with lively comments.

Instagram post from The Kansas City Defender that reads "A Lincoln Prep HS Male Teacher Sent Explicit Images of Himself to Girl Students. Today the Students Wlaked Out in Protest."

The page’s popularity is not by accident. As a news outlet in service of Black youth, they’re often reporting on racism in schools, Sorrell explains. “That’s really how we were able to garner such a large Gen Z audience, because a lot of other media outlets weren’t covering these things.” 

When legacy media outlets such as The Kansas City Star cover these incidents — if they cover them at all — they often describe the story using headlines like: “Olathe South principal vows to ‘immediately address’ student’s racist homecoming sign,” Sorrell said. “Whereas we would say something like, ‘Racism exposed.’”

Instagram post from The Kansas City Defender that reads "RACISM EXPOSED: 'If I was Black I  would be picking cotton, but I'm white so I'm picking you for homecoming.'"

After confirming facts and gathering information on the ground, Sorrell said the publication goes on to describe why the incident is not okay and contextualize the reaction with information about the school district’s history of racism.

“We’ve gotten a lot more tips, I think, than other media outlets do just because more and more students are trusting those outlets less and less, because of how those outlets report on these situations,” he said. “It’s like a cyclical kind of thing, where we continue to get more and more tips as people continue to trust us more.”

They earn trust through collaboration

“We don’t consider ourselves to be an objective media outlet. We consider ourselves to be advocates. We’re unapologetically a pro-Black organization, pro-marginalized people, and pro-LGBTQ. And so that has garnered us a lot of trust with young people,” Sorrell said.

With trust comes deeper engagement, and The Defender connects with students throughout the district to see how they can support them to tell their stories collaboratively.

Because they’re a small team of four main reporters and editors, The Kansas City Defender relies on students to share information from about 12 or 15 schools in the surrounding area. If something happens at any of these schools, they can ask students to film or send pictures, Sorrell explains. “So it’s almost like having reporters in the school in a way.”

These on-the-ground sources were doing such a great job that the team asked if they would be interested in an internship last fall. Five student interns are now working voluntarily for the outlet. 

“They’re just as much a part of the team as anybody else,” Sorrell said. They produce stories and content for the Defender’s Instagram and TikTok. “They know a lot more and are living with social media. And so they have a very good understanding of, number one, what interests other students.”

A recent story about student mobilization in response to the presence of a white extremist group in their school was written entirely by a student intern. In February, the interns led a Twitter space that included journalists from The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post.

By embracing the interns as community organizers, The Defender was able to establish more relationships with students across Missouri and Kansas, resulting in an ad hoc group called The Black Futures Coalition. There, students share coping strategies in the wake of racist incidents or in one case, a school shooting. They also share strategies for protests or walkouts.

A piece the student interns collectively wrote for Martin Luther King Jr. Day outlined the way Black history is censored and white-washed in schools. The coverage resulted in a feature on the local NPR station.

“I pretty much give them full creative reign to produce the type of content, stories and media they think will best resonate with our audience,” Sorrell said. “I’m just a guiding person. I ask them what they’re interested in, and how can I help them.”

What’s next?

“We are following in the tradition of the radical Black press,” says Sorrell, pointing to the resurgence of Black media organizations in the United States — particularly outlets in Detroit, Dallas and Chicago’s The Triibe. “I think it’s necessary, especially with the state of what’s happening in the United States right now,” he adds. “We are very much trying to challenge people’s understandings of journalism, and to try to move it into the future.”

With support from Indiegraf, The Defender is also expanding its newsletter audience. In the span of three weeks, the publication drastically increased subscribers from about 300 to 1,500. “We have figured out the strategy to reach young people, so we have wanted to reach older people. And that will ultimately also help us by bringing in more audience revenue.”

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