April 25, 2011

When the St. Louis Beacon launched three years ago, its staff made a conscious effort to get out into the community. They wanted to engage with readers not just online, but in person — at museums, coffee shops and hipster bars.

The nonprofit site, which covers a range of topics in the St. Louis region, frequently hosts meetups for community members who want to talk about diversity. And it has created local partnerships that have enabled it to reach new audiences in-person, online and on air.

Recently, I talked with St. Louis Beacon Editor Margaret Freivogel and Associate Editor Robert Duffy to find out more about how the staff’s engagement efforts have helped both the site and the community.

Meeting with members of the community

Every other Monday, Duffy heads to a local bar to lead a conversation about diversity. He’s led the conversations at various places throughout the city — at the Royale, a hipster bar in South St. Louis; the Schlafly Tap Room near downtown; and most recently the Six Row Brewing Company in midtown.

The conversations tend to attract a variety of community members, ranging from college students to an octogenarian college professor. Some weeks, two or three people show up. Other weeks, a dozen or more do. Participants have talked about tensions between African Americans and Jews, discrimination in housing, and “the brown paper bag test,” which distinguishes light-skinned African Americans from dark-skinned ones.

Duffy, who’s sometimes joined by other Beacon staffers, said he’s developed a connection with participants by sharing his own experiences.

“We talk freely about discriminations we have felt personally; I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am gay, and that raised some eyebrows at first,” Duffy said, noting that diversity coverage is integral to the site’s mission. “I think because we are all so frank about our situations, the participants feel it is safe to be frank.”

Freivogel said it helps that the St. Louis Beacon has a diverse staff — diverse in gender, age and race/ethnicity. She’s attended some of the conversations and taken note of the impact they have on both the staff and the participants.

“Frequent comments we hear go something like this: ‘I never thought about it that way. I never realized that the things I do could offend someone. Now I can see why you might feel that way,’ ” Freivogel said in a phone interview. “That tells us that we’re engaging people — and helping them engage with each other — in a way that builds the kind of deep and continuing relationship we aim to develop with our community. We haven’t yet figured out a way to quantify this, but we feel this kind of anecdotal information is an indication of what makes us valuable to people.”

The conversations give the site a way to promote their content, and they inform the Beacon’s reporting.

“What’s a question that’s on people’s minds? What are they grappling with? What do they want to know, and what can we do to offer that to them? You can ask these questions digitally, but it’s also nice to ask them face-to-face,” Freivogel said. “That’s one of the opportunities we have as a regional news organization. We’re not just a virtual community; we’re an actual community.”

Partnering with the local museum

Freivogel said that early on, the Beacon recognized the value of partnerships. One of its biggest partnerships has been with the Missouri History Museum. Last year they co-sponsored a series of race-related talks and events, which helped draw attention to the Beacon’s year-long “Race, Frankly” series.

The Beacon also helped provide material for the museum’s national exhibit, called “Race: Why Are We So Different?” The exhibit didn’t have any local content, so the Beacon wrote scripts for audio recordings of some of the site’s race-related stories. The recordings ultimately served as the audio tour for the exhibit, which attracted about 22,000 visitors.

The Beacon is partnering with the museum again this year and has launched a new series to complement the museum’s new series of speakers on class. The year-long series, called “Class: The Great Divide,” looks at how class divisions shape the lives of St. Louis residents.

Similar to “Race, Frankly,” the project has given the Beacon a chance to put a different spin on timely topics. On Opening Day, for instance, the series featured a story about how class divisions have played into the history of St. Louis baseball.

Freivogal said these types of stories add depth to the city’s diversity coverage, which she believes has suffered as a result of newsroom cutbacks.

Other local news organizations say they still value diversity coverage, but they’ve faced challenges. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch launched a “Conversation about Race” blog in 2009 but ended it last year after about half the staffers who wrote for it left the paper. Doug Moore, who covers diversity for the Post-Disptach, said the blog wasn’t generating the kind of conversation that he had hoped it would.

“It was really just becoming a depository for people who wanted to get into racists commenting,” Moore said by phone. “It was one of those things you had to constantly monitor. How long do you want to provide a voice for those folks to continue spewing ignorance?”

Partnering with other news orgs, building a loyal audience

Part of the St. Louis Beacon’s goal is to dispel ignorance and partner with other news organizations that want to do the same. During Black History Month, the Beacon provided the local Fox station with a series of vignettes that it hoped would educate local residents about the African American community.

The vignettes were drawn from the Beacon’s coverage of the African American community, which included a story on a local civil rights leader and a piece on Westland Acres — a historic African American neighborhood that’s now surrounded by a wealthy growing suburb. The Beacon wrote scripts for the vignettes, which ran on air and online.

By partnering with the station, the Beacon engaged new audiences on different platforms.

“We think part of our job is to reach people where they are with coverage they will find useful and interesting, not force them to come to us,” Freivogel said. “So working with partners like this is an end in itself because it helps us share our work with people who would not otherwise see it.”

While the site’s diversity initiatives aren’t directly funded, they’re the type of projects that the site’s donors value.

“Most of our money at this point comes from individual donors in St. Louis, and I think a lot of those people are very civic-minded people who want good things to happen in the future in St. Louis,” Freivogel said. “They see diversity as an important piece of that.” Recently, local donors contributed $2.6 million to the site.

The site’s diversity-related stories aren’t huge traffic drivers, but they’ve generated an engaged and loyal audience over time. From the beginning, this is what the Beacon staff had hoped to do.

“So often, people who work online make the assumption that your goal is always to build traffic,” Freivogel said. “Of course, we love to have a lot of people looking at what we do, but we try to think of measuring what we do in terms of the value of what we’re bringing people — and the quality of the engagement.”

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