AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December/January 2009

A Beacon for St. Louis   

A nonprofit Web site aims to round out the local news menu for the Gateway to the West.

By Lindsey McPherson Megan Miller

When her 34 years with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ended in a buyout in 2005, then-Sunday Editor Margaret Freivogel looked at the state of America's shrinking newsrooms and decided something important was being lost.

"There were about 40 people who left the Post-Dispatch newsroom at the time I did, and we looked around and tried to put what had happened in perspective. What we saw was that what happened at the Post-Dispatch was happening all over the country, and it amounted to less reporting," Freivogel says.

She and several colleagues decided they were in a position to do something about it. In April, they launched an online news site, now called the St. Louis Beacon (stlbeacon.org) to cover the Gateway region. "We saw this as a service to the community, to provide the kinds of in-depth reporting and context..that is being cut back all over the country," Freivogel says.

The Beacon uses a simple, clean design. It organizes news articles, editorial cartoons, videos and other multimedia content into categories of "Issues/ Politics," "Health/Science" and "Arts + Life." Along with traditional news items, a substantial portion of the site is devoted to arts- and culture-related content and opinion articles.

When creating the Beacon, the staff drew inspiration from Web-only local sites like Voice of San Diego (www.voiceofsandiego.org), Gotham Gazette (gothamgazette.com) and MinnPost.com (see Drop Cap, February/March). Freivogel hopes to make community interaction central to the operation as those sites do. The Beacon allows comments on its work, and frequently receives story ideas and other suggestions from its audience. The site has a presence on social media sites Twitter and Facebook and has sponsored events such as a book signing by Beacon contributor Harper Barnes, author of "Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement." Whether in person or in the digital space, Freivogel says, audience interaction is the key to "trying new things, pushing the envelope on things you can do."

The Beacon runs on the work of 15 staffers and dozens of outside contributors. It also aggregates stories from other news outlets, a growing trend on news sites. "We kind of function as a shortcut and a guide for people," Freivogel says.

The nonprofit has been largely funded by donations, including a $500,000 challenge grant from Emily Pulitzer that requires the Beacon to raise an additional $1.5 million from other sources. The Pulitzer family owned the Post-Dispatch until the summer of 2005, when it sold the daily to Lee Enterprises.

The Beacon "is an attempt by a group of responsible, experienced journalists to provide news to the St. Louis community, and I think it's a valuable cause," Pulitzer says. "The challenge grant is both a help to get them going and an incentive to gather more support. If the Beacon is going to be a success, it must have wide-based community support."

Freivogel agrees. "I think that building a base of people in the community who understand what we're trying to do and are willing to help us with it is very important to our long-term stability," she says. "Our plan is to get enough in the bank to carry us for the first two years while we ramp up other sources of revenue." She hopes these will include donors, sponsors, members, advertising and journalism foundations.

The choice of nonprofit status is part ideology, part necessity, says Richard Weil, chairman of the board that runs the Beacon. "We all have a not-for-profit mentality, because quite a lot of us have long thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have a nonprofit newspaper?' But we couldn't be for-profit if we wanted to," he says, laughing. "If we at the Beacon say to investors that we're going to be a for-profit organization, can you imagine all the investors breaking down our doors to give us money?"

Roy Malone, editor of the St. Louis Journalism Review, is uncertain about the Beacon's income-generating prospects. "I think the big question is whether or not they can attract enough advertising revenue to support their operation. If they don't, will they run out of money after two years and have to shut it down?" he asks. "We all hope that it succeeds, but they're in direct competition with the Post-Dispatch."

"I think the Beacon is going to appeal to people in the arts and cultural fields and [by covering] public issues rather than fires and murders and the news that the newspaper has to handle," Malone says. He cites the example of St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols' calf injury in June. "That was big news in this area, and the Beacon didn't even do a story on that. They didn't think that sports news was an area that they needed to get into."

Freivogel says the Beacon has already garnered attention for its coverage of some big local stories. She points to its ongoing reporting on the mortgage crisis in the St. Louis region, a joint project with public television station KETC. The project includes a three-part, deeply reported series on Maureen McKenzie, a resident of Kirkwood, Missouri, who lost her family home to foreclosure. Freivogel says this type of coverage helps to bring home the story of the mortgage crisis for the Beacon's audience.

Freivogel also speaks proudly of the Beacon's coverage of the October 2 vice presidential debates at Washington University in St. Louis. In covering the debate, the Beacon was competing with the Post-Dispatch and its Web presence, stltoday.com.

Mandy St. Amand, continuous news editor for stltoday.com, says she welcomes the competition but doesn't consider the Beacon a threat. "I would beg to differ with the categorization of us as the 'other' online news source [in St. Louis], because I think we are the online news source in the St. Louis area," St. Amand says. "We have a vastly larger number of resources that we can put at a major event like that. We have a lot more resources we can marshal and a lot more ways that we can get our news and coverage out there."

Freivogel hopes the Beacon will not only compete with but also complement the Post-Dispatch. (When the paper was for sale in 2005, Freivogel was part of a group of journalists who attempted to buy it through an employee stock ownership plan.) "We didn't go into business to put them out of business. Our idea is that more reporting is better for everybody. We hope some healthy competition over stories will actually enhance everybody's quality."

Weil, himself a 30-plus year veteran of the Post-Dispatch, echoes Freivogel's sentiments. "One of the great things about earlier times in America is that every town used to have its own newspaper, and cities had multiple newspapers. Democracy was so alive and the newspapers were an integral part of it," Weil says. "We think back to a day of many voices, and we hope that both we and stltoday can survive and flourish."