“The bad news was we were missing out on a lot of things we could be doing,” Freivogel says of the Coats findings. “The good news was no one else was doing it better, so there was an opening.”
Coats, who is continuing as a consultant as the deal goes through, wants the new, merged entity to be a leader in data visualization, online audience engagement, and Web curation—to make the new site a destination for local news consumers.
That will require not only vision and commitment, but money and manpower. The “news chops” in this newsroom may be robust, as Schaffer says, but if the Coats report is any indication, the tech chops apparently aren’t quite there yet. And there are no immediate plans to staff up other than filling a few current vacancies, according to Freivogel and Eby.
The hope that this new, merged entity will be in the vanguard of digital news rests largely on an “innovation fund” that will seed these efforts. But for the moment, fundraising efforts at both the Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio remain limited to more basic operating expenses.
“The next phase of the fundraising will focus on the innovation fund,” Freivogel says.
Saying no to crime and the Cardinals
As he seeks to ensure financial sustainability for the new enterprise, Eby has said he is closely following the nonprofit Texas Tribune and what he calls its philosophy of “aggressiveness without apology” in pursuing corporate sponsorships. Even so, he insists that the organization’s focus will be “audience-first as opposed to sponsor-first.”
“Unless there’s a reason to put a puppy on the homepage,” he told me, “we probably aren’t going to do it.”
So what can the merged newsroom deliver that St. Louis isn’t getting now? In evaluating local media, Coats says, he found that the market is dominated by “commodity news” that doesn’t address the larger issues facing the city.
In order for this merger to succeed, he adds, “It means going up a level and saying, ‘What is the master narrative of this city? How do we really focus our coverage on what animates the life of this place, and not just listening to the scanner and responding?’”
Both the Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio have already adopted this philosophy—defined largely by the twin “commodity news” products that they both eschew: crime and the Cardinals.
“We will cover the Cardinals when they are in the World Series,” says Eby, “and if we cover crime it’ll be in a big-picture perspective, not who got shot this weekend.”
“If a tornado occurs, you’re going to cover it,” Coats says, “but the mini-tornadoes you need to filter out.
“What journalism does best is going deeper. It’s the deeper journalism—that’s why we got into journalism, and it serves the community best.”
Of course, in the world of for-profit media, this kind of public-service journalism is traditionally supported by, well, crime and the Cardinals—and more recently, puppies on the homepage. Seldom has the “deeper journalism” been self-supporting. For nonprofits like the Beacon, this is why merging with a larger entity holds such appeal.
Crossing the revenue streams
Nonprofits “do great work because big foundations gave them an opportunity to do so,” Michael Meyer, who has written about news startups for CJR, told me in an email. “And we still have a ways to go before we see how many of these local startups wean themselves off of national foundation funding, and how successfully they do so.”
Some of them, unfortunately, haven’t made it.
“My view is that nonprofits are not the future,” journalist James O’Shea told the American Journalism Review last year after shuttering his own nonprofit venture, the Chicago News Cooperative. “My experience with them was that no matter what your source of philanthropy or donations, the first thing they’re really looking at is can you wean yourself from philanthropy in a short and, I think, unreasonable time…. Eventually, I think that everybody’s going to run into that same problem.”
This very problem, in fact, explains in part why a merger was so attractive to the Beacon, which is looking to diversify its small base of foundation donors and individual benefactors—almost two dozen of whom are at the $10,000-and-up level.
“We’re really strong in major donors, large donors; we have a certain amount of foundation revenue, we have some revenue from events. St. Louis Public Radio’s revenue is very heavily from a large base of small donors,” says Freivogel. “…Either organization separately would have to build out all these revenue streams as the way to a sustainable future … so doing it together just gives us a real head start in figuring that all out.”