Can St. Louis Public Radio fix problems and regain its footing?

The broad outlines of a possible way forward for the
troubled newsroom at St. Louis Public Radio are starting to become clear, as
interim General Manager Tom Livingston takes stock of the organization and
engages staff members in a new effort to tackle diversity concerns.

Livingston, who took over on Sept. 22, told Gateway Journalism Review he
intends to create an internal working group focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
The intent is to form a group with the teeth necessary to address issues raised
by more than two dozen staff members in a July 1 letter to former General
Manager Tim Eby and Executive Editor Shula Neuman. The letter focused on what
the signers called the station’s legacy of structural racism.

Under intense pressure, Eby resigned as GM in
September, although he continues to work as a consultant until early April.
Neuman remains in her role.

(Photo by Jack Grone)

“My job at this point is to listen, and I’ve done a
lot of that,” Livingston told GJR during an Oct. 13 phone interview. “In the
first meeting I had with the news staff, there were quite a few comments saying
‘we can’t just keep talking about this; we have to do something.’”

Regarding the working group, Livingston said: “We want
to invite a broad cross-section of the staff to participate.” He added that
he’s working closely with University of Missouri-St. Louis Vice Chancellor
Tanisha Stevens, who oversees diversity and inclusion efforts at UMSL, as well
as with the university’s human resources office.

“For my purposes, the power of a group like this is in
its agency,” said Livingston, who made it clear he expects the station’s staff
to have concrete input into matters including the hiring of Eby’s permanent successor.
“We need to work together.”

The interim GM conceded that the mood at the station
remains tense, with some newsroom staffers still highly skeptical that UMSL is
committed to addressing their demands for more diversity and better
opportunities for journalists of color.

But if Livingston can convince enough staffers to buy
into his efforts, it could mark the beginning of a less contentious phase at
STLPR. Since early August, when the accusations of racism went public, several journalists have pointedly criticized the
station’s managers for what they say is a lack of concrete action. The staffers
also made it clear they have no confidence in an investigation UMSL
launched in early August. That investigation is expected to release a report
soon on the station’s track record in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion.

GJR contacted four staff members at the station to ask for their views on the current situation, including three journalists who signed the July 1 letter. None of them responded before press time.

A period of relative stability could also reassure
STLPR’s individual donors and corporate sponsors. In 2019 they provided over $7
million to support the public-service journalism of the station, which boasts
one the biggest newsrooms in the St. Louis area.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic sank the economy, though, STLPR was operating at a loss. In April the station laid off three full-time and two part-time staff members; a few weeks later, UMSL announced pay cuts on a sliding scale of up to 10% to cope with the pandemic.

Livingston told GJR that corporate sponsorships are
down by about 30% during the current year, in line with a broader trend across
public media. For STLPR, that implies lost revenue of roughly $600,000.
Individual donations have remained relatively stable, he added.

In the July 1 letter to Eby and Neuman, the signers
identified 20 main action points to be addressed. Their points included job
specs for senior roles, recruitment techniques to identify more Black job
candidates, more rigorous training programs, rating managers’ job performance
based on how well they train and mentor employees of color, and ending
requirements for Black staff to attend donor galas.

Since then several reporters and editors, often
appealing to their significant numbers of followers on Twitter and other
platforms, have racked up at least three significant victories (See timeline).

In July they succeeded in forcing the resignation of
programming director Robert Peterson. In August, after the journalists went
public, Eby admitted to systemic racism at the station, and UMSL launched its
investigation. In September came Eby’s own resignation.

In the meantime, while other supervisors’ heads have
rolled, managers like Neuman have tried to keep things on track in the newsroom
and on the programming team. The station continues to crank out spot news
stories and longform features on the election, COVID-19 and other topics, as
well as podcasts such as “We Live Here,” which focuses on issues related to
race and class.

In an earlier interview with GJR Neuman described the
staff as “exhausted,” which she attributed to a variety of factors: the
pandemic, the stresses of working remotely, and the political uncertainty in
the runup to the November elections. Also taking a toll, she said, is a hiring
freeze that means the station cannot fill several positions.

STLPR currently has 29 reporters, editors and
producers on the news team that Neuman oversees, including the team that
produces the station’s midday talk show, “St. Louis On the Air.” Beyond this
there are four vacant reporting positions: science & environment, politics,
data reporting and a photojournalist. Neuman said other open roles at STLPR are
a senior producer position for podcasts as well as the programming director
position that Peterson formerly held.

Livingston has not ruled out further layoffs. “My
immediate next priority is to get my arms around the budget,” he said. “It’s
too soon to tell any additional steps that need to be taken.”

It’s a sobering time for a journalistic enterprise
that had grown in recent years to become the area’s second-biggest newsroom
after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where coverage areas like politics, public
affairs, education, environment, the arts and race issues are concerned.

Much of this growth was the result of STLPR’s merger
with the St. Louis Beacon, an online publication dominated by journalists who
had worked previously at the Post-Dispatch. After the merger took effect in
late 2013, it was hailed as a model for combining nonprofit, public-service media

“It was a categorical leap forward in terms of size
for both organizations,” said Margaret Wolf Freivogel, the editor of the Beacon
who became editor of the combined newsroom. “It enabled people to pursue beats
in more depth. Equally important, it enabled the organization to have not only
a radio presence, but a really vigorous online presence.”

An early challenge for the merged newsroom was the
police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the protests that followed;
Freivogel recalls the station throwing all the resources it had at the story.

Yet even as the station’s ambitions grew, Freivogel,
who retired at the end of 2015, said its goal was never to become the media
outlet of record for St. Louis.

“I don’t think the goal was ever to replace the
Post-Dispatch,” she said. “It’s to be the outlet that really focuses on depth
and context, and breaking stories that might not come to light if they weren’t
being done there.”

Linda Lockhart, former outreach specialist and copy
editor at STLPR, said the station faces the same challenge as organizations
like the Saint Louis Art Museum and the St. Louis Symphony: finding ways to
engage new audiences as the ranks of their traditional, largely white audiences
continue to shrink.

“We have to break out of this mold, and restore
honesty and rebuild trust with the audiences: with the readers, the listeners
and the donors,” said Lockhart, former national secretary for the National
Association of Black Journalists and a founding member of the organization’s
St. Louis chapter. Like Freivogel, Lockhart is a Post-

Dispatch veteran who joined STLPR as part of the
Beacon merger.

“How much has been lost these past six months? I don’t
know how much goodwill has been lost, but I would expect it’s significant,”
Lockhart said.

Looking forward, Livingston has to begin sketching out
a road map for an organization that until 2012 had an all-white newsroom. Even
today, only one out of five journalists at STLPR is a person of color,
according to the Journalists of Color group. The national average for online
newsrooms is about 30 percent, a News Leader Association survey found last year. Most recent
Corporation for Public Broadcasting data put the percentage of
journalists of color in newsrooms at 23 percent.

Livingston notes the importance of the arguments the
journalists laid out in their July 1 letter.

“Their sense of the situation at the station that led
to that memo is critical. The framework they laid out is a very detailed
agenda, but the overarching part of it all looks right to me, so that’s a
starting point for me,” Livingston said.

One area that has caused angst in the newsroom is the
nature of the station’s continuing relationship with UMSL. The Board of
Curators of the University of Missouri holds the station’s broadcasting

In a Sept. 25 press release, UMSL Chancellor Kristin Sobolik said the university
wants to “best align the work of the station with the needs of our community as
well as the academic, research, service and outreach mission of the

Some reporters expressed alarm, questioning what
Sobolik meant by “align.” But Livingston, who reports directly to the
chancellor, told GJR that Sobolik understands the importance of the station’s
editorial independence.  As an example of
alignment, he said the station’s director of finance and administration,
Maureen Hughes, now has a dual reporting line: to both Livingston and UMSL Vice
Chancellor Tanika Busch, who serves as the university’s chief financial

The search for a permanent GM will begin in earnest
after a job description is created, Livingston said. As an executive recruiter
specializing in public media, he has conducted approximately 350 job searches,
including about 100 for a GM role. His work at STLPR is the 13th
time he has served in an interim role.

“Having the most diverse candidate pools starts with
being clear about what you really need,” Livingston said.

How likely is it that the new permanent GM will be a
person of color? According to Livingston there are no guarantees, but he made
it clear that he expects to station staff to have real input into the process.
In past searches involving university-licensed stations, he said staff members
have been especially involved in two areas: helping to design the GM position
description, and during interviews with finalists for the role.

“Who comes in as the next general manager is
critical,” said Lockhart. “I can’t say absolutely that it has to be a person of
color, because there just aren’t enough people to pick from. But it has to be
somebody who ‘gets it’ – somebody who is ‘woke’ to a degree. It’s going to be
difficult. There’s not a lot of trust in the newsroom right now. You don’t want
to lose your staff.”

Freivogel said that even though STLPR doesn’t know
exactly where it will land following the upheavals of 2020, she continues to
believe public radio can be the framework for rebuilding in-depth, local news

“I would hope in the long term that it would enhance the ambitions of the organization,” Freivogel said. “Working through these things is a necessary phase, and hopefully it will lead to a greater degree of trust, and increased capacity in the future.”

St. Louis Public Radio In 2020 – A Timeline

July 1: Twenty-six STLPR journalists send a letter to General
Manager Tim Eby and Executive Editor Shula Neuman outlining concerns over
diversity at the station. They demand the departure of Robert Peterson from his
role as director of radio programming and operations. They call for concrete
efforts to hire, train and retain more reporters and editors of color
(particularly Black journalists). They also ask for better transparency about STLPR’s
finances, following layoffs and pay cuts earlier in the year.

Late July: Eby announces the retirement of Peterson, who
staffers accused of denying professional opportunities to women of color. Under
pressure, station managers cancel a planned farewell celebration.

Aug. 7: Staff at the station go public with their complaints.
A group calling itself STLPR Reporters & Producers of Color publishes an
open letter on Medium calling on Eby and others to take responsibility for
“cultivating a culture that perpetuates racism.” Simultaneously, the station’s
only newscaster of color, Marissanne Lewis-Thompson, publishes her own Medium
essay detailing specific instances of racism since her arrival in October 2017.

Aug. 10: In a post on the station’s blog, Eby admits that
systemic racism exists at the station. UMSL launches an investigation led by
Vice Chancellor Tanisha Stevens and an external law firm into the station’s
practices involving diversity, equity and inclusion.

Sept. 5: The Reporters & Producers of Color group
expresses concern in a Medium post about the goals and scope of UMSL’s
investigation, saying they fear staff members who speak up about racism could
face retaliation. In a follow-up post on Sept. 17 they say 21 staffers have no
confidence in the investigation.

Sept. 24: UMSL administrators announce to staff that Tim Eby is
no longer general manager, and that public media consultant Tom Livingston will
be managing the station on an interim basis.

Sept. 25-26: Several journalists react angrily on social media after UMSL discloses in a news release that Eby will continue at the station for six months in a “consultancy role.” Reporter Brian Munoz, brought on by STLPR to provide independent coverage of the station’s woes, later reports Eby will keep earning the same salary, meaning he’ll be paid about $70,000 in total through early April 2021.

Jack Grone is editor of McPherson, an independent journalism start-up based in St. Louis. He is a former reporter and editor for Dow Jones Newswires whose writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s. Follow him on Twitter at @McPherSTL.