After a merger, St. Louis Public Radio was ‘reborn’ through its coverage of Ferguson

Margaret Freivogel has seen a lot of change over more than four decades in journalism. When she first walked into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building in 1971, says Freivogel, who is retiring at the end of the year, “there were a couple of spittoons on the floor, and most of the staff were men, and there were typewriters and carbon paper.”

But few of those changes have been more momentous than the events of the last two years, which saw Freivogel lead the merger of two newsrooms, in an effort that could become a model for other local news nonprofits—and then, soon after, direct coverage of one of the biggest stories in the country.

The merger happened in late 2013, when the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news site Freivogel founded in 2008, joined forces with St. Louis Public Radio. The goal was to combine and grow the audiences, donor bases, and reporting capabilities of the two organizations.

Less than nine months later, Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking months of protests that put officers’ use of force and relationship with minority communities on the national agenda.

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For the merged newsrooms, the process of covering the shooting and its aftermath truly consummated the partnership. “We were really reborn as a united organization in Ferguson, because we needed all the skills that we had,” says Freivogel, who became editor of St. Louis Public Radio–as the combined entity was called–after the merger. “We depended on each other in a really tumultuous and emotional situation.”

The combined news staff numbers about 40 people, and St. Louis Public Radio put all its resources into the story, centering its coverage on a liveblog that linked to its own stories and tweets, along with links and social-media posts from other news organizations and the public. “If you were not part of the online conversation,” Freivogel says, “you were really irrelevant as a news organization.”

“Having the size and capacity that we had after the merger was important,” says Tim Eby, the outlet’s general manager and Freivogel’s counterpart in the decision to merge. “We probably would have drowned in trying to cover that story before the merger.”

Instead, the organization made important journalistic contributions to Ferguson coverage. And now, two years after the merger, St. Louis Public Radio is healthier than ever, Freivogel and Eby say.

On the financial side, individual giving in fiscal year 2015 was up 17 percent, about $3.9 million, over 2014, according to Eby. A broader donor base had been part of the appeal of the merger for the smaller Beacon, which had relied on high-dollar donors and foundation revenue.

As for audience, Eby says that listenership is “a little flat, which is kind of where public radio is right now,” but average monthly unique visits for the station’s website since the merger are up 87 percent over the 12-month average before the merger, and average monthly pageviews are up 94 percent.

Those averages are inflated by a Ferguson-related traffic spike in 2014, which has since subsided. But the protests didn’t ease up for months, and neither did the outlet’s coverage; the liveblog was still updating well into 2015. In February, the station launched We Live Here, conceived as a yearlong podcast addressing the issues that Ferguson had brought to the fore. Now, this well-produced and well-reported program—which has tackled such subjects as the criminal justice system, school discipline, and the recent racially charged controversy at the state university—is likely to continue indefinitely, Eby says.

Even more ambitious was “One Year in Ferguson,” a multimedia project that combined audio clips—beginning with Wilson’s first radio calls on Aug. 9, 2014—with pictures from the scene of the shooting and from the protests taken by staffers at St. Louis Public Radio and its content partner the St. Louis American, the local African-American newspaper. The website also features an interactive map of the shooting and protest sites, and a compendium of documents including grand jury testimony, forensic evidence, and the Department of Justice reports on Ferguson.

The website still has room to grow, but that sort of technical presentation would have been unthinkable before the merger, when an outside consultant concluded that “neither organization is even close to maximizing the digital experience for users.”

Of course, Ferguson and its aftermath is hardly the only story the outlet is following. “They really have established a practice of long, multi-sourced, balanced stories on complex developments in education and government,” says Chris King, editorial director of the American, who adds that sharing that content has been a “huge blessing” for his paper.

At the same time, King offered a critique of his content partner: It would be better if those stories were delivered by a more diverse set of voices.

“They do a good job of reporting black sources and news of interest from the black community, but their reporting corps seem much less diverse than our region,” he says. “This is a long-standing problem in St. Louis media generally and in National Public Radio affiliates, in my experience.”

Eby acknowledges that Ferguson delivered “a wake-up call” regarding the lack of diversity in the organization. Since then, he says, the number of people of color on staff has doubled—but that amounts to only four staffers. “There’s still more we need to be doing to increase the diversity in our staffing, sourcing, and audience,” he says.

As the station works to keep improving, it seems likely to be watched closely by an industry in search of new models–especially if it shows it can sustain support for a robust news operation.

Partnerships between public broadcasters and nonprofit outlets are increasingly common, and the alliances can help support skilled reporting, bring added news capabilities to public stations, and bring news to wider audiences, says Sue Cross, executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which counts St. Louis Public Radio among its members. But along with the 2013 merger of Rocky Mountain PBS and I-News in Denver, the merger in Missouri is the most aggressive example of the logic behind these alliances.

Joining forces, of course, means marrying someone else’s vision–and institutional demands–to your own. Freivogel says she sometimes reflects back on her beloved Beacon and wonders what might have been had it soldiered on independently. But, she adds, “I realized that what we can do now is so much greater.”

And at the conclusion of a four-decade journey spanning everything from newsroom spittoons to podcasts, she says, “I’m grateful that the most fulfilling years of my career have happened at the end of it.”

 

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine 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.