FAIRWAY, KS — So much for Midwestern reserve. The St. Louis Beacon, a digital news startup founded in 2008, and St. Louis Public Radio are not quite household names in the halls of big media. But with the two outlets headed toward a merger soon, their leaders are not being shy about airing their ambitions.
By merging, the organizations “will be building a new economic model for responsible journalism,” Beacon editor Margaret Freivogel wrote in September. “That effort can make St. Louis a national leader in the reinvigoration of local news.”
“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,” reads the vision statement developed by Freivogel and Tim Eby, the general manager of St. Louis Public Radio, along with Florida-based media consultant Coats2Coats.
The public media world is not always known for visions of grandeur and entrepreneurial spirit, but count this as one more sign that the landscape has changed.
Last year, the leaders of these two public service-minded organizations, which have partnered on various projects in recent years, decided that they could benefit by permanently joining forces. The Beacon, a small startup with 14 reporters on staff, wanted access to the station’s broadcasting capacity and large donor base; St. Louis Public Radio (90.7 KWMU FM), a 41-year-old operation with some 17 news and content producers, sought to expand its local coverage. If the deal goes through as expected, the Beacon’s Freivogel will hold the title of executive editor, while KWMU’s Eby will be director/general manager. (The proposed new entity itself does not have a name yet.)
This merger is part of a wave of similar endeavors across the country. Though some recent efforts have stalled, the last year has seen a wave of aggressive moves toward consolidation, collaboration, and expansion in public media. This summer, a report by American University’s J-Lab looked at nine case studies from across the country in which public broadcasters were “beefing up”—either through mergers as in St. Louis, cooperatives and partnerships, or by “adding reporting firepower.”
St. Louis is unique among these, J-Lab executive director Jan Schaffer told me in an email, because “it not only merges two organizations, it merges two full-blown existing newsrooms. I don’t believe this has ever been done before in public radio….
“I can’t say it will be the largest public radio newsroom in the country,” Schaffer added, but with a combined newsroom expected to contain nearly 40 staffers, “there will be some serious news chops here.”
From rear guard to vanguard?
More than a year in the making, the merger could be completed by the new year. The University of Missouri Board of Curators, which has final say over the move because St. Louis Public Radio is connected to the university system, may sign off on the deal when it meets later this month.
Then comes the hard part: following through on that ambitious vision statement.
When Eby and Freivogel commissioned Coats2Coats last year to evaluate their organizations and help develop a merger strategy, they may not have been prepared for the frank assessment they received—particularly on the Web front.
According to the report released by the consultant in April, “Neither organization is even close to maximizing the digital experience for users. In fact, both are treating their websites as very flat, one-dimensional media rather than exploiting the possibilities for linking, for interaction, and for creating true multimedia experiences through audio, video, and data.”
This was a particularly surprising verdict for the Web-only Beacon, which has twice been nominated for “General Excellence in Online Journalism—Small” in the Online News Association awards. (Update: The Beacon has actually been nominated four times for general excellence, including twice in the “micro site” category.)
“Both Tim Eby and I went into an immediate depression when we read that report,” Freivogel told me.
The same report, however, said the post-merger news organization proposes to achieve “[n]ational leadership in journalistic innovation, with the capacity to simultaneously maintain a high level of quality and to experiment with the tools and forms of the future.”
So how do these two organizations make the leap from “flat, one-dimensional websites” to becoming digital innovators?
In fairness, the perceived limitations of the existing sites don’t mean that they lag behind the industry standard. Rusty Coats, president of Coats2Coats, told me he would have rendered the same verdict for most news websites. Indeed, merely by using basic Web tools such as links and video on a consistent basis, the Beacon site already outclasses most newspaper websites in the region.