Between his day job as an education professor at Baldwin Wallace University, Ken Schneck also runs the only Ohio publication dedicated to covering the state’s LGBTQ community. He knows it’s the only one because he was at the helm of what used to be the only Ohio LGBTQ publication, Prizm, before it folded in 2020.
Out of Prizm’s ashes came The Buckeye Flame, an online-only nonprofit news site that relentlessly covers every facet of LGBTQ life in Ohio. With help from Indiegraf, The Buckeye Flame’s readership is up 91 percent since early 2022. In 2023 alone, its website logged 165,000 unique users from all over the Buckeye State (and beyond).
One of those distant Flame readers, by the way, is Ken’s mom in Florida. “She’s probably the most informed Floridian on LGBTQ Ohio. I stand by that,” Ken jokes. “But it’s not for my mom, right? It’s for LGBTQ+ Ohioans.”
Ever since it joined the Indiegraf network at the end of 2022, The Buckeye Flame has managed to significantly grow its audience, use sponsorship to drive its Pride Guide, and even exceeded recent fundraising goals by $24,000.
Here’s how they did it — and why The Buckeye Flame isn’t going cold anytime soon:
1. Knowing their turf — and staying within it
The Buckeye Flame is about Ohio’s LGBTQ community. Period. Full stop. While there are plenty of important national queer stories to cover, from Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill to Texas’s assault on trans children, the Flame stays firmly within Ohio’s borders. That isn’t just because there’s plenty to write about at home — like drag bans and lawsuits against anti-discrimination rules, but also the return of a 5K Pride run at an Ohio Air Force base and an LGBTQ Ohio take on the Met Gala.
“If you try to be all of the things for all of the people, you will be nothing,” Ken says. “Nobody will know what to turn to you for. We have been tempted any number of times to get off the LGBTQ+ Ohio brand. That is literally everything we do. All of our success stays with that focus.” With 400,000 LGBTQ+ adults in Ohio, there are plenty of readers to go around.
And the Flame’s relentless commitment to that audience — and its inclusive values — also helps their revenue game. Alongside Indiegraf, the Flame put together a sponsorship policy that makes it crystal clear that any successful partnership needs to be with an organization that respects its commitment to telling LGBTQ+ Ohio stories.
“They are really the perfect audience for a lot of businesses and organizations that want to support the LGBTQ population in Ohio,” says Allison McIlmoyl, Indiegraf’s senior manager of development and sponsorship. “We really are selling based on that audience.”
2. Driving interest (and donations) through a weekly newsletter
A lot of readers mistake The Spark, the publication’s Thursday newsletter of original reporting, for The Buckeye Flame itself. “In some ways, this whole thing is reverse engineered to the newsletter,” Ken says. The goal is to put five original articles in every Spark without throwing in reruns. At this point, Ken says, you can check out the newsletter and not see his name near any of them: an impressive feat for a publication with just one dedicated staff writer.
But the Spark doesn’t just act as a promotional tool for the Flame’s editorial side. It also sparked a Wildfire — aka, Wildfire Week, the Flame’s campaign for NewsMatch, the largest collaborative fundraising campaign for U.S. nonprofit news organizations. “With Indiegraf’s help, we really created a whole communications plan, but we focused it on one week instead of doing the two month NewsMatch that a lot of people do,” Ken says. “We raised $26,000.”
He’d only expected, at most, $2,000. But the wild success of this campaign helped the Flame create two internship positions and hire a part-time philanthropy specialist. It used the newsletter to draw in revenue, on a tight deadline, and drive the Flame to newer and greater heights. As Ken put it, “Wildfire Week was hot.”
3. Leaning into sponsored stories
Plenty of indie publishers turn to events as a way to generate revenue outside of paid subscriptions or advertising. Ken isn’t a fan. “We’ve hosted a couple of events, and I feel like I’ve learned each time — yep, that’s really not what we do,” he says. Instead, The Buckeye Flame turned to editorial sponsorship as a way to pay for reporting.
Most publications are wary of sponsors throwing money at a story published by a writer, but The Buckeye Flame is using them as a way to underwrite content while also retaining an arms-length relationship. Sponsors can support Buckeye Flame stories, but don’t get a say in how a story (or series of stories) are produced. “He was able to find quite a few sponsors who were interested in working with him,” Allison says.
Take Pennrose, a rental housing developer with projects in Ohio. It sponsored a story in April about life in Cincinnati as an older Black queer man. Sure, the story gave a nod to the John Arthur Flats, a Pennrose project, but the building is an affordable housing option for LGBTQ+ people over the age of 55. It is totally relevant to the issue at hand: how Black elders can remain out and proud into their golden years.
4. Letting competitors steal their work
The Buckeye Flame doesn’t just let other publications take their stories, it gives an entire breakdown of how to do it for free — with attribution, outside of a paywall, and with a linkback. That might seem like a needless giveaway, but Ken says this drives way more attention to the Buckeye Flame’s reporting.
The massive gap between the Flame’s subscriber base of 6,200 and its 165,000 unique website visitors in 2023 alone suggests the pro-theft strategy is paying off. “We reach the tiniest fraction of the audience that our stories are getting to,” he explains. “These other outlets are 50-60 times our size. We have no metrics on how much our stories are being seen by these outlets that are so much bigger than us, but we know that they are being seen by a much wider audience.”