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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

To Collaborate or to Merge?   

St. Louisí public radio station and a local news Web site are figuring out whatís the best way for them to join forces. Thu., October 25, 2012.


By Hannah Porter
AJR editorial assistant Hannah Porter (hporter@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.      

In recent years, when representatives of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit digital news outlet, and St. Louis Public Radio got together, they'd talk about the possibility of joining forces.

This fall they've decided to take it to the next level.

The two organizations have entered into a conversation about how the alliance might take shape. The goal is to figure that out by early next year.

"At this point we don't exactly know where it could go," says Margaret Freivogel, one of the founders and editor of the Beacon. "It could be a merger or more of a collaboration."

She adds, "The driving force is how can we serve the public. Both organizations have strong newsrooms," and together would offer a Web, mobile, on-air and social media presence. "It could be a more complete set of resources to reach people and could think of more innovative ways" of gathering and presenting the news.

The Beacon's main platform is its Web site, stlbeacon.org. It also utilizes social media and stages in-person events. St. Louis Public Radio is on air and online. In the past year it has increased its on-demand streaming usage with a new mobile app.

Recently, the radio station relocated to a new facility next door to the Beacon's offices. "With our move right next door geographically, it was easier to envision what a more formal alliance would look like," says St. Louis Public Radio General Manager Tim Eby.

Once anathema to many news organizations, collaboration is a hot trend these days, both for nonprofit and for-profit outlets. With resources often hard to come by, teaming up seems to make sense in the digital age.

"This is an opportunity to create a new model: How nonprofit journalism can move forward in the digital age," Eby says.

Collaboration between the two organizations is hardly uncharted territory. Beacon reporters occasionally appear on the daily public radio talk show "St. Louis on the Air," and the Beacon's Washington correspondent serves as a resource for the radio station. Currently, the Beacon, St. Louis Public Radio and public television station Nine Network of Public Media are partnering on a project called "Beyond November," aimed at sharing political and policy news that is relevant to the region.

"The Beacon is very comfortable with exploring opportunities and innovation. It's in the DNA of our organization," says Freivogel, who took a buyout from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2005 after working there for 34 years. She launched the Beacon in 2008, three years after the Pulitzer family sold the paper to Lee Enterprises and in the wake of cutbacks at the paper.

According to Freivogel, the impetus for getting serious about a partnership was a casual conversation between the Beacon's board chairman, Richard Weil, and Eby that got them thinking about working together formally rather than on a case-by-case basis.

"Long-term financial concerns are also an issue," Freivogel says. "We have the potential to build a new business model. We are getting into it at a sound financial standpoint, but in the long term we need to be thinking differently about our sustainability."

Nonprofit news outlets have come to the fore in recent years as traditional news organizations have cut back, but questions remain about their staying power over the long haul.

William A. Babcock, editor of Gateway Journalism Review, sees a major upside to the alliance, saying it has the potential to make the news report of two established and successful news organizations even stronger. The Gateway Journalism Review, based at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, covers journalism in the Midwest.

Babcock says he sees the appeal of collaboration, "especially in a time when much of the U.S. media is in an economic free fall. This could bolster revenue--anything to stop the hemorrhaging of blood at this time is to be applauded."