Editor’s note: This story ran in the Summer 2014 print issue of GJR
On one wall of the St. Louis Public Radio newsroom hangs an electronic sign resembling a large flat-screen television with colored graphs, charts and numbers telling the story of the station’s website.
One recent summer afternoon, a visitor saw that 89 people were checking out the site to see what the news operation had to offer. Tim Eby, director and general manager of St. Louis Public Radio, said more people have visited the station’s website since it merged with the online startup the St. Louis Beacon six months ago. The number of listeners to KWMU, 90.7 FM, has remained about the same.
While the news staff was roughly doubled to 21 and the Beacon as a brand disappeared, the combined operation remains a boutique for news consumers. Eby said the station has averaged about 120,000 unique visitors a month.
March was the high point when the website attracted 149,000 unique visitors viewing some 400,000 pages of content. During the same month, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, stltoday.com, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website, attracted 4.7 million unique visitors who looked at 67.9 million separate pages of information.
Some view the Beacon-KWMU merger as an experiment in the development of new media, a window into what may sustain serious journalism in the future. But for now, the numbers show that even if non-profits such as the Beacon line up with state university-sponsored operations like KWMU, they attract a comparatively small following. Without investigative reporting, crime coverage, sports, business news, editorials, obituaries and columnists, they remain a supplemental news service.
“Of course there are websites that get much more traffic,” said Margaret Wolf Freivogel, editor of St. Louis Public Radio. “I know generally speaking sports and crime drive web traffic. Those are not what we are spending a lot of time on because a lot of other people are, and we’re not going to duplicate what other people do. It’s important for people to see our work, but we’re not measuring ourselves totally on eyeballs.”
Freivogel is a former Post-Dispatch editor who left the paper in a buyout in 2005. Three years later, she co-founded the Beacon with other former newspaper colleagues. At the Beacon, her emphasis was on the kind of copy she edited at the newspaper, interpretive stories and news analysis pieces. The Beacon also focused on art and culture.
The Beacon’s slogan, “News that Matters,” has been retained by the newly combined operation. About half a dozen former Post-Dispatch reporters and editors joined Freivogel at the Beacon. Now they’ve moved with her to the modern, well-equipped St. Louis Public Radio newsroom and studios at 3651 Olive St. in Midtown, St. Louis. They are now university employees since the station is owned by the University of Missouri.
Twenty-four blocks east, in the offices of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the disappearance of the Beacon has largely gone unnoticed. “Nobody here at the paper hardly ever talked about it,” said one veteran. “I never heard anybody say, ‘Did you see what the Beacon had?'”
“There are some sites that I read and checked every day, but the Beacon’s was not one of them,” said Amanda St. Amand, the Post’s online editor. “My mission was not to keep up with the Beacon’s deep, thoughtful analysis, which I don’t believe is important to 98 percent of the people in St. Louis.”
When the merger began to develop between the Beacon and the radio station, it appeared on the radar screen of columnist Joe Holleman. But as he said to the general public, few seemed interested. “It was an inside-baseball creation to start with, except that it had no baseball,” Holleman said. “I don’t think it was something that invited the general masses to come see it, nor do I think they aimed to get the general public reading it.”
During the execution of the Beacon-KWMU merger, Freivogel and Eby drafted a vision statement with the help of a consultant, which stated a lofty goal: “A vigorous, powerful, forward-looking news organization can light the path to a better St. Louis and lead the way nationally in reinventing journalism as a trusted partner in a better democracy.” The merger attracted national attention, and the Columbia Journalism Review last fall quoted Freivogel as saying the combination could make St. Louis a leader in “the reinvigoration of local news.”
An examination of a run of stories provided by St. Louis Public Radio shows the news on the site duplicates much of the meat-and-potatoes journalism practiced elsewhere: the travails of a local school district, the City of St. Louis’ decision to allow gays to marry despite the state’s ban, a political controversy within the St. Louis County Council, the decision to sell to the public a former Nike missile site in nearby Illinois. Their stories may sometimes be longer, contain more details or offer a different approach, but nearly all of them were being covered by other local media, especially the Post-Dispatch, which at the same time offers much more.
On the other hand, St. Louis Public Radio offers another viewpoint on some of the same news — a diversity of approaches that gives readers the chance to carefully examine an issue from several aspects.
Frank Russell, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has been studying the merger. Based on an interview with Freivogel and an analysis of the content of the new organization’s website compared with the two old ones operated by the radio station and the Beacon, Russell found that the combined news organization has made progress in integrating their strengths.
“We concluded the staff had begun to combine complementary strengths to increase its capacity to cover news that was important in the St. Louis region,” Russell wrote. “We found improvements on quantitative indicators of news quality. The combined staff also showed progress in use of multimedia items such as photographs, embedded documents, and especially audio clips.” (Russell’s paper will be presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Montreal.)
While the St. Louis Public Radio website does not cover sports, it does have a weekly column on chess. “It’s a very popular column,” Freivogel said. “A lot of people look at it. Online, you have the opportunity to cover topics that are of interest to a lot of different people, but you also have the opportunity to cover a topic that a smaller number of people are intensely interested in, and chess falls into that category.” Between Dec. 18, 2013 and July 2, 2014, the website featured 28 separate columns on chess that attracted a total of five online comments.
When asked about which KWMU story has had the most impact, Eby pointed to a series of reports by Véronique LaCapra and radio reporter Chris McDaniel, who have been investigating Missouri’s execution process. They focused on the legal and ethical questions of how Missouri obtained its execution drug. Last October, the station disclosed that Missouri had turned to an unauthorized distributor for an execution agent.
While the stories took place before the merger, Freivogel said that since then, the beefed-up staff has enabled McDaniel to be free from other reporting duties to concentrate on the continuing execution controversy.
“You can be covering major developments that are happening day by day, and also give people time to work on longer range things, and you can juggle that to get a respectable amount of breadth and depth,” Freivogel said.
While the addition of the Beacon reporters to the news staff has not increased the number of radio newscasts, Eby said there had been an increase in the number of locally produced stories that are inserted during NPR segments “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
KWMU’s market share has remained constant at about 3.5 or 4, meaning that at any given time, about four percent of the St. Louis area listeners are tuned in. Eby said compared to public radio stations in other markets, those figures are “pretty competitive.”
“The newscasts are better,” Eby said. “We are probably using less wire copy than what we may have done before. We’re still learning about how to take an enterprise story on the website and how do we use that in a newscast. We don’t have the answer for that yet, but we’re learning how to do those types of things.” He said the former print reporters seem to enjoy their new roles behind the microphone.
KWMU recently announced plans to add four additional radio reporters in St. Louis as well as a correspondent to cover the Missouri delegation in Washington, D.C.
According to Eby, March was a good month for website visitors because that is when the station does its on-the-air pledge drives that bring people to the site to donate money. For the Beacon, the merger was like a lifeboat since the radio station had a broader base of donors who would pay the bills. The Beacon relied on a smaller list of contributors who would give larger sums of money.
To help pay for the merger over the next five years, a $3 million fund was created through special donations. Eby said the combined operation hopes to grow new sources of revenue so that by year six of the merger, the operation will be self-sustaining without the $3 million cushion.
The University of Missouri has provided a direct subsidy to St. Louis Public Radio, but the amount has been decreasing. During the last fiscal year it was about $250,000. “We don’t expect we’ll get any more because of the challenges facing university funding,” Eby added.
To meet a $7 million annual budget, more money must come from additional individual giving, corporate sponsorships on the radio, admission fees to special events and website advertising. Eby hopes to raise more money through advertising generated by increased website traffic.