St. Louis Gets A Beacon for Online Journalism

Can it really be almost three years since we launched the St. Louis Beacon?

Seems like only a few keystrokes ago when associate editor Bob Duffy, general manager Nicole Hollway and I sat down at borrowed tables in KETC’s building, opened our laptops, and our non-profit regional news organization became reality.

Yet so much has changed. Back then, serious online journalism was widely regarded as an oxymoron. Today, serious independent news sites have multiplied, and nonprofit news organizations are widely regarded as essential to the future of journalism.

In our first three years, Beacon reporters delivered on our promise to provide news that matters to St. Louisans. That includes Jo Mannies’ reporting on politics, Robert Joiner on health, Dale Singer on education, Mary Delach Leonard on the economy and Kristen Hare on race and immigration, to single out some of the topics we cover. Together, these reporters and more tackled our region’s most sensitive issue in an extraordinary yearlong project called Race, Frankly.

Now, we’re excited to be adding a Washington correspondent Rob Koenig, who will bolster our already robust coverage of issues and politics and who will also appear on St. Louis Public Radio in a new collaboration. Koenig is a native St. Louisan and veteran of Washington reporting having worked in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Washington Bureau two decades ago. The Washington job is one of four jobs we advertised this fall – a sign of confidence in our work and our future and a contrast to the cuts still afflicting most newsrooms.

Moving beyond our startup phase, we are ready to dig in for long-term growth and improvement — building a news organization that is both excellent and economically sustainable. Most people currently think of the Beacon as a Web site (www.stlbeacon.org) or perhaps as an online newspaper. But the vision we have in mind is more innovative.

We want to serve the public’s needs as journalists have always done — providing facts, context, analysis and ways to discuss what it all means. But in doing so, we want to take full advantage of tools that were not previously available or not used to their full potential. Instead of just a Web site, we see our job as building an engine of engagement that uses journalism, technology, events and partnerships to arm St. Louisans with understanding they need to make good decisions.

On the business side, our goal of economic sustainability requires a similar shift in perspective. In most news organizations, revenue flows from advertising. The emphasis is on drawing a large audience while holding newsroom costs down — a combination that makes it easy to understand why crime news and celebrity gossip get so much attention.

But the Beacon’s business model grows from the conviction that our most important assets are the excellence of our work and the quality of our engagement with those we serve. To cheapen our content would threaten both our journalistic mission and our bottom line:

In today’s tumultuous media world, these thoughts about the fundamental nature of our work set the Beacon apart — from most traditional media organizations and even from many fellow journalistic innovators. At the Beacon, we believe that wisdom lies in turning much of conventional wisdom on its head. Here are three important ways.

  1. 1. Emphasize quality over quantity.

Conventional wisdom holds that online journalism thrives by providing more, faster. But you can’t slake a reader’s thirst for knowledge with a fire hose of disconnected tidbits. Of course, the Beacon likes to report things first. But our goal is more understanding, not just more information. That means taking time to connect the dots among developments, to present various perspectives on issues and to check assertions against reality.

The breathless tone so prevalent on most news Web sites can command attention and drive traffic – to a point. But a steady diet of mayhem and McNews does not meet people’s very real need to understand the challenges and opportunities they face. By focusing on significant issues and perceptive coverage, the Beacon aims to give St. Louisans what they need to improve their own lives and the collective life of our region.

In the process, we’re building trust — trust that the Beacon will be fair, interesting, useful and worthy of attention. Trust is essential for o

ur journalistic mission. And by understanding people’s needs and serving them well, we’ll also build the foundation for earning revenue that will sustain our work.

  1. 2. Meet people where they are.

Conventional wisdom holds that online news organizations must drive huge amounts of traffic and hold users on site as long as possible. The Beacon wants to meet you where you are in ways you find convenient and useful.

We connect with some area residents through email, Facebook and Twitter. Some people come to our events but rarely find us online. And some find our work through partnerships with other organizations, including appearances by Beacon reporters on radio and television. If people never come to our Web site but benefit from our work, then that helps fulfill our mission.

To see how all this works, look at our Race, Frankly project. In addition to extensive reporting on our Web site, we used social media for alerts and discussions. One month’s coverage – about Kirkwood’s efforts to come to grips with racial issues  – was printed and distributed free around that community thanks to our partnership with Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

We initiated a series of barroom conversations, still ongoing, where people discuss race in a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. Partnering with the Missouri History Museum, we co-sponsored films, skits and other events to draw attention to the issue. And when a national exhibition on race came to the museum, our reporting became the audio tour, adding local perspective.

Race, Frankly also benefited immensely from our Public Insight Network, a tool that helps us broaden our base of sources. We use the PIN to ask people what they know and what they want to know. More than 1,500 people have signed up to become sources through the PIN for the Beacon and KETC-Channel 9, our partner in the project.

While our Web site is currently the primary way we distribute our work, it is only one way. Through technology improvements now in the works we hope to make it easier for users to find what interests them. We also hope to enhance ways to help people discover things of interest they did not know to search for.

  1. 3. Diversify revenue sources.

Conventional wisdom holds that most nonprofits get 80 percent of their funding from 20 percent of their donors. At the Beacon, generous St. Louis donors and foundations have provided much of our seed funding. But we know large donations can’t sustain us forever.

In the future, we’ll look to multiple revenue sources. That will include support from a larger number of small donors. It also will include sponsors and advertisers interested in finding new ways to reach audiences with information that will interest them.

Events like the Beacon Festival will continue to showcase special treasures of our region. The festival, nine events in eight July days, featured a variety of performances and talks in unusual locations, from a visit to hear a gospel choir at New Sunnymount Missionary Baptist church to a discussion of St. Louis architecture at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. The festival delivered — literally — on the Beacon’s goal of looking at the region from multiple perspectives.

Five years from now we expect our business model will differ significantly from the typical nonprofit organization and also from existing public broadcasting organizations.

Following the road less traveled comes naturally to the Beacon. Our organization includes an unusual combination of assets — seasoned reporting, digital savvy and business discipline. Our board adds experience and extraordinary commitment to the welfare of our region. Most important to launching this entrepreneurial adventure has been support from civic-minded St. Louisans. They understand that good journalism is essential for a thriving region and have stepped up to make things happen.

Perhaps that understanding is the legacy of another St. Louisan. More than a century ago, Joseph Pulitzer invented the modern newspaper. We’re excited that St. Louisans can be in the forefront again as together we invent a new kind of news organization to deliver the excellence people here expect and deserve.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon and a founding board member of the Investigative News Network.

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