St. LOUIS, MISSOURI — Margaret Freivogel’s thirty-four years as a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch came to an end when she took a buyout in 2005. “Several of us took buyouts without any intention of doing anything else at that point,” Freivogel says. “We were just kind of weary.” But within a year, Freivogel and a few former colleagues had begun work on the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news website. After hiring a number of Post veterans, the Beacon partnered with local PBS affiliate KETC (which was itself in the process of becoming a multi-platform news provider) and set up shop at two tables in the KETC building. By mid-2008, the Beacon was live on the web and a staff of twelve was covering, per the Beacon’s tagline, “news that matters” with, per Freivogel’s formula, “depth, context, and continuity.”
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The Beacon now boasts close to twenty full- and part-time reporters and an expanded, slick workspace adjoining the KETC newsroom. It tends not to touch sports and cops—coverage areas that other local news organizations have well in hand. Rather, the Beacon focuses on education, health, the economy, and the arts. It also covers state, local, and even national politics. (Unlike many small local news organizations, the Beacon has its own Washington correspondent.) The Beacon has explored the devastating local impact of the mortgage crisis — partly through a series of community profiles — and delved into the 2010 Census’s implications for redistricting in Missouri. On the lighter side, one of its most popular articles to date was a 2008 profile of a teenaged vinyl zealot with over 1,200 albums to his name.
Such stories represent only part of the Beacon’s work, however. Says Freivogel: “We’ve come to think of ourselves less as a website and more as a kind of public service.” A case in point is the Beacon’s coverage of race—a story that needs no news peg in St. Louis, which remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States. As part of a project called “Race, Frankly,” the Beacon moderates periodic discussions about race at a local bar. The Beacon turned some of its reporting into the audio tour of an exhibit on race at the Missouri History Museum, and Beacon reporting contributed to Black History Month spots on local TV stations.
It’s this kind of off-the-web presence that forms the core of a five-year sustainability effort the Beacon launched in 2010, aimed partly at shifting its revenue base from donations. Big donations from individuals like Emily Pulitzer, who gave a challenge grant of $500,000 in 2010, currently account for over ninety percent of the Beacon’s income. Foundations contribute about four percent of the revenue, events about five percent, and advertising less than one percent. General manager Nicole Hollway is hoping that donations will make up only thirty to forty-five percent of the Beacon’s revenue within the next four years. “Philanthropy is not the answer,” she maintains. “Philanthropy is a part of the picture.”
The rest of that picture will come into view, Hollway hopes, through the site’s relationship with its community. The Beacon might, for example, host receptions aimed at introducing readers to a new business. Rather than getting pay per click style ad revenue, then, the Beacon could earn a sort of “pay per meeting.” It’s an advertising strategy that relies, in Hollway’s words, on “being able to connect people where their interests are.” The Beacon is also aiming to earn more revenue from ticket sales for several types of social events, like a New Year’s Day performance of the operetta H.M.S. Pinafore starring various local music celebrities.
Since it launched as a news website, the Beacon has evolved into roles beyond those strictly reserved for journalism. Says Hollway: “We’re in the business of making St. Louis a better place, helping solve problems for St. Louis, and sticking around to be able to do that.”
St. Louis Beacon Data
Name: The St. Louis Beacon
City: St. Louis
Principal Staff: Margaret Freivogel, editor.
Affiliations: The Clifford Willard Gaylord Foundation; The Danforth Foundation, Inc.; The Horncrest Foundation; William A. Kerr Foundation; The MasterCard Worldwide Matching Gift Program; Missouri Foundation for Health;
The Mildred, Herbert & Julian Simon Foundation; Sinquefield Charitable Foundation;
The Trio Foundation of Saint Louis; University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism - The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships; The George Herbert Walker Foundation; Nine Network KETC; Investigative News Network; St. Louis Public Radio.
CJR on the St. Louis Beacon:
10/20/10: Community News: “Where’s the Money?” - Medill’s series on business models for news sites - Lauren Kirchner