Elections provide test for unique media collaboration

In the first collaboration of its type in the nation, media members in the St. Louis area are banding together to map out the political landscapes in Illinois and Missouri.

If successful, the Internet collaboration could serve as a blueprint for combined coverage in other community-focused endeavors across the region.

Dick Weiss, a contributing editor at the online-only news site St. Louis Beacon (www.stlbeacon.org), said the name for the collaboration is Beyond November. Its website, beyondnovember.org, was expected to be up and running in early July.

Weiss said the website “will aggregate the work from each of the entities – Nine Network of Public Media (ninenet.org), St. Louis Public Radio (www.stlpublicradio.org) and the St. Louis Beacon – and also provide some content unique to the site.”

“We will be developing a Twitter handle and hashtags, and a Facebook site as well,” Weiss added. “My goal is to have something popping politically through our collaborative just about every hour of the day, and often more than that.”

Margaret Wolf Freivogel, editor of the St. Louis Beacon, provided some background on how the collaboration took root.

“The three organizations share a common mission of helping St. Louisans come to grips with significant issues,” she said. “We realized our election coverage together could be much more than the sum of the separate parts. And we’re eager to figure out how such an extensive collaboration can work. We’re grateful to the Deer Creek Foundation for funding to get this off the ground.”

The St. Louis-based Deer Creek Foundation is a private philanthropy that supports majority rule of society within the context of basic constitutional rights.

Weiss emphasized two facets of the collaboration: civic engagement and social networking.

“We aim to get the community involved and engaged with the election and the issues,” he said. “More than anyone, we are prepared to do that. Nine Network and the St. Louis Beacon long ago became part of the Public Insight Network, which reaches out to members of the community asking for their input and sharing their expertise. We have thousands already participating and expect that our coverage will draw in many more. Already, the PIN members have helped us draft questions for our Voter’s Guide, which should be available in the first half of July and will be the handiest, most useful guide ever published in this region.”

Weiss said, “Our coverage is regional – though, of course, when you are on the Internet, your reach is worldwide. Generally, our coverage will extend as far west as Jefferson City (Mo.) and as far east as Springfield, Ill., as far south as Carbondale (Ill.) and Cape Girardeau (Mo.), and as far north as Quincy (Ill.) and Hannibal (Mo.).”

“State and local races are the main focus,” he added. “The presidential race is less so, though of course it will play a role as it relates to red-state Missouri and blue-state Illinois, and the way in which state and local candidates are using (presumptive GOP nominee Mitt) Romney and (President Barack) Obama in supporting roles or as whipping boys.

“I should add that our coverage isn’t just about races, as in the horse race, but about the issues, the role of money in politics, fact-checking candidate claims and so forth. So what we are doing is beyond what many news outlets are now doing, and it will go beyond November in that we aim to hold elected officials accountable after the election for what they promised to deliver.”

The collaboration has some of St. Louis’ best political journalists working for it, including Jo Mannies, the dean of St. Louis political reporters. Also working as political reporters will be Rob Koenig, one of two remaining St. Louis reporters working in Washington D.C. and Jason Rosenbaum, a Missouri political reporter. All three work for the Beacon.

For Weiss, the measurements to determine if the collaboration is successful are straightforward.

“We have an expert in Charles Gasper, director of evaluation at Nine Network, who will be helping us to establish benchmarks,” he said. “They have not yet been set, but from my point of view I think we will be successful if an increasing number of residents find us and engage with the information we provide; consider us credible, serious and worth visiting more than once; learn something they didn’t already know and consider us insightful; believe we are the best source of accurate, unbiased information; and believe we are worth supporting by recommending us to their acquaintances – and maybe even becoming members of one or more of our organizations.”

Weiss envisions the collaboration continuing well past this year’s election season.

“In terms of politics, we aim to keep this going beyond November as a means of holding officeholders accountable, and as a means also to keep residents engaged and involved in civic life,” he said. “In terms of our organizations, I consider this a demonstration project to show how we can work together effectively and use our resources to their best advantage. In terms of doing great journalism, these are challenging times. If we can do this well together, we can also cover health care and education probably equally as well . . . and if we can get that far, we can become a model for others around the country.”

Note: William H. Freivogel, publisher of GJR, was the founding board chair of the Beacon. His wife, Margaret Wolf Freivogel, is editor.