An online beacon for St. Louis

Launch gives hope for the future

By Margie Freivogel

Launching the St. Louis Beacon has been thrilling and terrifying, meaningful and confusing. Every day, I’m grateful to be part of this nonprofit online-only regional news adventure.

We’re casting a stone into the pond of the future of journalism. You should throw some, too.

Mike Miner of the Chicago Reader captured why this is so much fun when he asked me, “Doesn’t it feel good to be on the right side of history for a change?” Yes, it does.

Much as I hate to admit it, Sam Zell is right when he says the business model that used to support newspapers doesn’t work anymore (though the Tribune Company’s owner is wrong on what to do about it.) The same goes for broadcast. This has consequences —and not just for employees and stockholders. Mainstream print and broadcast organizations still provide the basic diet of facts and disclosures that the rest of the Web chews on and all of us need.

So-called citizen journalists enrich this news diet. But they can’t entirely substitute for a press corps that is trained and paid to ask tough questions and feels obliged to represent all sides fairly. (Whether the press lives up to this standard is a discussion for another day.)

If we want good journalism to continue, then we’ve got to find a way to make it happen. It may be midnight for old media, but it’s barely dawn in the new media world. There’s no guarantee what the day will bring, but there’s still plenty of opportunities to shape it.

Of all the things I learned while developing plans for the Beacon, this surprised me most. I had assumed that online journalism was already well established. In fact, it’s more like television in the early ’50s — still open to experimentation, still searching for its economic underpinnings, still finding its nature as a unique medium rather than an echo of others.

At the Beacon, we hope to help create a responsible and vigorous new journalistic form. News that matters is our motto. We feature original reporting and thoughtful discussion of the kind that is getting squeezed out of traditional media. Depth, context and a distinctive approach are what we’re looking for.

Some examples from our first few weeks of operation: An explanation of why Anheuser-Busch is vulnerable to a takeover, video interviews with alums of the St. Louis area school desegregation program, reflections on why we love to hate “Richard III” while the play was being produced in St. Louis. The story that’s drawn the most traffic to date was an extensive interview with two abuse victims who met with the pope. Other media could do these pieces. But they hadn’t.

With a paid staff of about a dozen, including a core group of ex-St. Louis Post-Dispatch veterans, we’re one of the heftier Web-only regional publications. Some of us once tried to purchase the Post-Dispatch through an employee ownership arrangement. Now we’re glad that failed. We’re unencumbered by the rhythms and obligations of print, and that leaves us freer to explore the potential of online.

While we may compete with the Post-Dispatch on some stories, we’re not competing to put them out of business. The whole point is to provide more reporting, not less. We think a little healthy competition will be good for everyone — us, the Post-Dispatch, journalism in general and especially the readers.

Some of you may remember that our original plan was to call ourselves the St. Louis Platform. That honored Joseph Pulitzer’s Platform, or statement of journalistic principles, as well as evoking platform as a tech term and a place from which to speak. After we began operations, the Post-Dispatch launched a blog for its editorial page called, surprise, “The Platform.” Rather than fight over the name, we switched to avoid confusion.

Our success will depend partly on making good use of what we already know as newsroom veterans with deep community roots. It will depend more on what we can learn, with help from younger journalists and others in our community.

The Web has fantastic potential. We can publish instantaneously but also provide depth and context through links to earlier stories and other sources. We can use whatever tool makes the most sense to tell a story — images, video, graphics or text.

Most important, we can engage people in a rolling conversation that draws out their experience and wisdom for the benefit of everyone. All this makes journalism fun again.

Now you’re wondering how we’ll pay for all this. To get us started, St. Louisans pledged more than $1 million in donations. That includes a challenge grant from Emily Rauh Pulitzer of the family that used to own the Post-Dispatch and a major donation from William Danforth, retired chancellor of Washington University and brother of the Republican former senator. We’re working to raise another $1 million so the seed money can carry us while we ramp up other revenue sources. We expect to achieve economic self-sufficiency through a combination of ads and ongoing small donations in the manner of public radio and television.

A key partner is the local public television station, KETC. The station has given us office space, and we’ll eventually share some content.

During the 18 months we were planning the Beacon, JAWS friends were invaluable in providing moral support, practical advice and a wealth of ideas. Special thanks go to Pam Johnson and Esther Thorson at the University of Missouri, to Geneva Overholser, Gina Setser, Martha Shirk, Pat Sullivan, Rita Henley Jensen, Jane Stevens and to many others. I hope I have many chances to pass their good will along to others.

You may or may not be ready to start something new like the Beacon. But whatever your situation — working or bought-out, in an organization or on your own — you have a role to play in securing the future of good journalism. Find the stone you want to cast into the pond. Watch the ripples.

Margie Freivogel is a founder and editor of the St. Louis Beacon and a former JAWS president. She worked for 34 years as a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.