If the merger makes business sense for the Beacon, what does that say about the prospects of its small nonprofit brethren? Considering The Bay Citizen’s absorption by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the merger of I-News in Colorado with Rocky Mountain PBS, the partnership between the Connecticut Mirror and WNPR, and the tenuous economic prospects of the acclaimed AxisPhilly, not to mention the failure of the Chicago News Cooperative, it’s worth asking the question: Does the scrappy nonprofit startup have no hope for the future but to latch on to a bigger lifeline, often one provided by public media?

Not according to Coats, who counts a number of smaller media entities among his clients.

“With the right focus, they’re very sustainable. What they could not do, and what the Beacon could not do, is ‘level up’—double their newsroom. You can find a way to merge together, and ‘level up’ together.”

“I don’t think it’s a sign of failure,” Freivogel says. “I think it’s a sign of continuous experimentation.”

Whatever it means for the future of small nonprofit startups, the success of this marriage would be welcome news in a tumultuous era for the industry—and it could mean bigger things ahead.

In their 2009 report for CJR on “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson lamented “the failure of the public broadcasting system to provide significant local news reporting” even as local for-profit newsrooms downsized. The report recommended that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should boost funding for “more robust and creative local news coverage by public stations both on the air and on their Web sites” and also “aggressively encourage and reward collaborations by public stations with other local nonprofit and university news organizations.”

Now, St. Louis Public Radio, Rocky Mountain PBS, and others are taking on that challenge themselves, trying to fill the local coverage gap by collaborating with nimble, news-savvy nonprofits. If they succeed, others may follow.

“I can look across the country and see at least 10 other markets where this could work,” Coats says. Schaffer adds that she expects ultimately to see “a statewide nonprofit news site operating in every state in the country.”

For now, however—as they undertake the task of merging two newsrooms, seeking out new revenue streams, and aspiring to “national leadership in journalistic innovation,” even while doubling down on their public-service mission—Freivogel, Eby, and co. will have to stay focused on the present.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent seven years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.