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UM curators OK merger of Beacon, St. Louis Public Radio

In Region

12:57 am on Fri, 11.22.13

Updated at 12:26 pm on Fri, 11.22.13

The merger of the St. Louis Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio will serve more than news junkies, University of Missouri officials said Friday. It will also help train the journalists to cover the news in new ways, using new techniques and new technologies.

The university’s Board of Curators unanimously approved the merger Friday morning at a meeting on the St. Louis campus. Curator approval was necessary because the license for St. Louis Public Radio is held by the university system.

The two organizations will formally merge operations next month; no new name for the new entity has been selected.

At a news conference after Friday’s meeting, university President Tim Wolfe said that combining the expertise at the journalism school on the Columbia campus with the opportunities to practice their craft in an urban setting will provide an added dimension for the education of aspiring reporters and editors.

“The journalism school’s strength is the ability to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to live settings,” Wolfe said. “That applied knowledge is going to be used in this merger as well.

“What we really are striving for here are the academic possibilities on the St. Louis campus by working with the No. 1 journalism school in Columbia.”

Wolfe noted that the public support that both the Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio have received over the years give an indication of their value to the community.

“For the health of our democracy,” he said, “we have to have the opportunity for great reporting and great coverage on all matters. … We’re very, very excited about this. We think it’s a model for others to follow.”

The merger was approved with only one comment, by curator John Phillips of Kansas City. He called it a wonderful opportunity and a good example of the strength of the university system and expressed his hope that it will become a sustainable business model.

Dean Mills, dean of the journalism school at Mizzou, told the curators at their meeting that he was excited about the chance for students to work in the St. Louis area and for the Reynolds Journalism Institute on the Columbia campus to apply its research on a new journalistic structure.

When approached about the idea, he said, “it took me 20 seconds to say yes, yes, yes.”

UMSL Chancellor Tom George noted that the merger will require no new resources from either the campus or the university system and that the new news entity will be involved with a number of partnerships with other companies and agencies in the St. Louis area.

By expanding the philanthropic ties that both organizations have developed, he said, “we think we’re going to get some synergy here and some enhancement when we bring together these two fund-raising organizations.”

George told the curators that the combination of the Grand Center neighbors is "an exciting proposition." He cited the opportunities to bring together not only the two news organizations but the St. Louis and Columbia campuses for opportunities to practice journalism in an urban setting and conduct research into sustainability of nonprofit news organizations.

"We have other people across the nation watching this," George said.

In a statement released by UMSL, Richard Weil, chairman of the Beacon’s board of directors, said that Tim Eby, general manager of STLPR who will head up the new operation, and Margie Freivogel, editor of the Beacon who will run the new newsroom, “already have established themselves as an outstanding team.

“They’re aligned in philosophy and will keep getting better as things move forward.”

Overall, Weil added, the two news organizations combined will be able to provide news of importance to the St. Louis area in a more comprehensive way.

“The merger of these trusted news organizations will be something far greater than the sum of the parts,” he said. “It will provide better and more creative coverage aimed at serving the St. Louis region in new ways.”

Emily Pulitzer, who has been a major donor to the Beacon, also praised the merger, saying:

“Joining two quality institutions that are currently providing first-rate journalism augurs well for the future of maintaining and increasing informed and thoughtful St. Louis citizens. The curators of the University of Missouri System are to be commended for their support of an effort that will put Missouri in the forefront of journalism and convergent media.”

Friday's meeting was Wayne Goode's last as chairman of the Board of Curators. He will be succeeded as president by Don Downing, an attorney from Webster Groves. Donald Cupps of Cassville was elected vice chair.

Read the Beacon's original story below:

After more than a year of discussion, two Grand Center neighbors are about to take the plunge in the belief that one news organization plus another news organization can add up to more than two.

If the curators of the University of Missouri, meeting on the St. Louis campus, approve the merger Friday as expected, St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Beacon will become one, still-unnamed entity designed to cover local news online, on the air, on social media and on any new technologies that come up. The deal would take effect next month.

The Board of Curators has the final say because it holds the license for the radio station, which is based at the university’s St. Louis campus.

The newly combined staff won’t necessarily be covering different topics than what the organizations do now, says Beacon editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel, who will oversee news operations for the new entity. But she hopes they will be able to do it better.

“The kind of coverage that in my mind is most valuable and most endangered is serious, in-depth, ongoing looks at issues and opportunities in St. Louis,” she said. “Not that none of that is going on, but I think we can do it in a much more coherent and useful way.”

Tim Eby, who heads STLPR and will be the general manager of the new operation, says his public broadcast colleagues around the country will be watching the merged operation closely.

“They think it’s really interesting,” said Eby, who returned last week from a meeting of his counterparts in Washington.

Tim Eby
Tim Eby

“So many of the organizations have ambitions to increase their local service but are finding challenges. When we can tell the story about what we are doing here, combining our newsrooms in the way we are doing it, they find it quite interesting and quite attractive.”

Combining the two entities is designed not only to deepen news coverage but also to ensure that the newsrooms can stay strong in a time of proliferating media operations and increased competition for financial support. St. Louis Public Radio’s larger group of relatively small donors and the Beacon’s smaller group of larger benefactors mesh well.

And an academic component, using the radio station’s new facility at 3651 Olive St. and the UMSL campus, will conduct research into the sustainability and structure of newly configured news operations as well as train reporters and editors who will be working in them. The heralded journalism school on the university’s Columbia campus will be involved as well.

“Nowhere has there been an attempt of this kind,” said Dean Mills, dean of the J-school at Mizzou, “to provide in-depth public affairs reporting to a community that combines not just an online news outlet and a public radio station but also some of the community leaders. To me, that’s really the heart of this experiment: People in the community who care enough about good journalism that they care to support it financially.”

If all goes as envisioned, the deal could give journalism entities everywhere a glimpse into a successful future, says Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida.

“It’s sort of a case in point of something that’s happening a lot right now,” he said. “Many nonprofits are partnering with someone else right now. Those kinds of partnerships are kind of a classic win-win.”

From collaboration to marriage

When Eby and Freivogel first began talking last year about ways the Beacon and STLPR could work more closely together, the discussion ranged from more collaboration, such as what the two had done with the Nine Network for last year’s elections, to more formal arrangements.

It soon became clear that the Beacon, which began in 2008, and the radio station, which has been on the air since 1972, could best achieve their similar goals of serving the St. Louis area by an out-and-out merger.

Not only would their combined newsroom be stronger, with the relative strengths of each organization bolstering those of the other, but the joint fund-raising efforts could help ensure the financial future. Nonprofit news startups have had mixed success, in terms of viability, and with content from National Public Radio available elsewhere besides at 90.7 on the FM dial, St. Louis Public Radio needed to provide a stronger local news report to grow its audience and its fiscal support.

Margie Freivogel
Margie Freivogel

“Pretty quickly,” Freivogel recalled, “as we systematically looked at the opportunity, we realized that the greatest benefit would come from full integration of the organizations.”

They engaged a consulting firm, Coats2Coats, which studied every aspect of the possible deal and surveyed the news landscape in the St. Louis area to determine where the strengths of the two organizations could have the greatest impact and serve their audiences best.

As planning for the merger proceeded, an academic component was added, to align with the strategic priorities set out by UM President Tim Wolfe, and collaboration with the journalism school at Columbia became a prominent piece of the puzzle. As the possibilities became clear, Eby said, the path became more obvious.

“There were several times you could have looked at this and said, ‘No, this is probably not the way to go,’” he said. “But we never saw that all along the way.”

The result of all the discussion, according to Wolfe and Wayne Goode, who heads the university’s Board of Curators, promises to create “exciting academic and research initiatives in a three-way partnership” of the new organization and the St. Louis and Columbia campuses. Also involved is the Reynolds Journalism Institute in Columbia.

“The list of partners at both the regional and national levels for this endeavor is amazing,” Goode and Wolfe wrote in a letter to backers of the Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio in September. “We recognize that the world of media is watching this with keen interest. We are proud of this pioneering effort in the future of media and journalism, and we are grateful to you for your tremendous support and enthusiasm.”

For a better St. Louis

The vision of the new organization is spelled out in a statement that describes the goal this way:

“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. We pledge to create a common space where fairness and facts prevail, where our region as a whole benefits from the effort and experience of people in its many parts, and where St. Louisans connect with each other, our nation and world. At a time when other news organizations are shrinking, we embrace the opportunity to make public service the focus of our work and the foundation of a strong and sustainable future.”

The New Organization

The combination of St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Beacon will have about 60 employees and an annual budget of $7 million. For the transition to the new operation, $2.5 million in private funds have been raised, with a total goal of $3 million, to be spent over five years. Those who work at the new entity will be employees of the University of Missouri.

Just as the St. Louis area is reinventing itself, from its history as a Mississippi River port to a center for biotechnology, the Beacon-STLPR organization hopes to forge a new type of journalism, the document said.

It plans to focus on stories about politics, education, the economy, the arts, race/culture/diversity and science/technology/health, supporting in-depth coverage with data and an authoritative voice that shows how events in the past affect those of today.

In an interview, Freivogel put it this way:

“We are living in a time that St. Louis is trying to reinvent itself in many different ways: economically, in the schools, maybe culturally as well. We’re reinventing ourselves and see our work as part of that larger process that is going on. We think good reporting and thoughtful discussion are essential to the future of the region.”

Nonprofit journalism, she added, can play a special role in that kind of reporting.

“You can put the mission at the center of what you do rather than a responsibility to shareholders at the center of what you do,” Freivogel said. “I think it also opens up opportunities to welcome and educate people throughout the community about the value of journalism to our community and the need to step up and support it.”

But, she added, a goal of improving the St. Louis area doesn’t mean the new organization is going to abandon a traditional journalistic stance of objectivity.

“To say that I want St. Louis to be a better place doesn’t make me a biased journalist,” Freivogel said, “and it doesn’t make me a decision maker either. It just says solid, hard-hitting reporting can help people understand how to make St. Louis a better place. It’s not our job to make decisions for people and not our job to be boosterish. It’s our job to give people an understanding of what is going on.

“Because of how the world has changed, you can’t just sit back and only publish reporting anymore. You have to be participating, be out in various areas connecting with people and using every tool at your disposal to understand what people are talking about and what people are interested in and making sure the reporting you  are doing becomes part of the conversation. I think people sometimes think if you are participating in that way, you are changing the role of journalist. I don’t see it that way at all. I think we will be very grounded in traditional journalistic ethics.”

Kevin Davis, executive director of the Investigative News Network, which includes the Beacon, said nonprofit news organizations need to be actively engaged in the community in that way.

“Journalism may be the No. 1 thing the combined entity produces,” he said in an interview, “but it is equally important to be actively involved in the community you serve.

“Whether it’s bringing people together at a forum or sponsoring an event, there is a danger to being activists and shaping events. But to judge the effectiveness of a nonprofit, one has to be able to demonstrate that who you serve values you. That often means interactions, either on social media or elsewhere.”

The academic angle

While reporters for the new entity are gathering and publishing the news, another part of the venture will be working on making sure the foundation for the organization is solid.

Dean Mills
Dean Mills

Mills, dean of the journalism school at Mizzou, said research, along with teaching and reporting in the field, will help bolster the entire enterprise.

“Both for-profits and not-for-profits are trying to figure out how to do engagement, how to engage citizens in journalism,” he said. “All news organizations are trying to figure this out, whether they are controlling it or whether business leaders or community activists or ordinary citizens are going out with cell phones and taking pictures of events. It’s a new era in which we’re trying out lots of things.

“This country does not have a shortage of good journalism or shortage of good journalists. What it has is lack of a business model that is sustainable."

He said plans are for the Reynolds Institute to provide fellowships for research and help provide answers to what Mills called “some pretty interesting questions” concerning the future of journalism and how it will be configured.

Though journalism education at the University of Missouri traditionally has been centered in Columbia, the new organization will provide an opportunity for more work in urban journalism to be conducted at UMSL. Mills said joint classes between the two campuses are a possibility.

“The school of journalism is a very different operation from the things that UMSL does,” he said. “I think this will probably lead UMSL to engage a little more in what we call professional journalism education. That’s fine with us.”

Along with helping the communications area at UMSL grow, the collaboration also reminds Chancellor Tom George of another community-based effort that has greatly benefitted both the campus and the region at large – the presence of Express Scripts in north St. Louis County.

Tom George
Tom George

“In the Express Scripts deal,” George told the Beacon, “I could have not have envisioned back then everything that has transpired now. The list goes on and one – internships, curriculum development. When you put something exciting together, you can never predict what you’re going to get.”

Curator Goode said the project is a good opportunity for the University of Missouri to play a key role in developing the newsroom of the future.

“Journalism is certainly a changing profession, a changing business,” he said.

Wayne Goode
Wayne Goode

“Everything connected to media is rapidly changing, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, in the Post-Dispatch, whatever. Information is changing, so we could be a leader in that direction. I would think the university is looking to be a leader there.”

What will success look like?

Once the newsrooms are combined and the new entity has a name and a website and a presence in the local journalism landscape, how will those in charge determine whether it’s a success?

For Eby, it’s a matter of making sure the growing use of technology serves the audience in the best way possible.

“Five years down the road,” he said, “there will probably be an amazing transition in the way people are using media. If we have gotten through that and can continue to provide service to the community, from listening to over the air broadcasts to other technologies, we will be setting ourselves up with a sustainable economic model.

“From the standpoint of service provided to the community, I hope in five years we are the trusted source in St. Louis for information, the standard. I hope the audience uses our service, on whatever devices there are in five years, and we are the primary source of news in the region for what is happening of importance.”

Freivogel put it this way:

“First of all, we would be a bigger and more vibrant part of the conversation that’s going on in our region about its future. I think that we will have pioneered a path in how you operate as a truly multimedia news organization. And I hope that we will look back and see that the St. Louis area has made some strides and our reporting has helped people create that improvement.”

And as far as the project’s importance for journalism in general, Davis of the Investigative News Network says newsrooms, particularly those in the nonprofit sector, need to do more than simply stay alive. They need to expand their scope and their influence.

“Public media organizations have to date been good at doing what they do in the medium they focus on,” he said, “but they have not yet been able to broaden what they do across media. When the synergies are there, the combination is truly additive on both sides.

“You have to look at it on several levels. If you look at the pure point of mission, it’s what projects have had a demonstrable impact in the community that you serve. That could be a breaking story, it could be a forum, it could be many different things. But the ability to demonstrate value to community you serve is absolutely essential. It’s not enough just to produce content. It has to have impact.”

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