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.

“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.”

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.

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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.