Commentary
10:58 pm
Thu April 3, 2014

Editor's Weekly: St. Louis History Is A Hit With Current Residents

News is usually, well, new. But some of our most interesting stories recently have focused on things that are old – really old.

A piece of tin enameled ceramic from the colonial period found in the archeological dig below site below the Poplar Street Bridge. It is likely a Spanish ceramic of polychrome majolica.
A piece of tin enameled ceramic from the colonial period found in the archeological dig below site below the Poplar Street Bridge. It is likely a Spanish ceramic of polychrome majolica.
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio intern

This week, Alex Heuer reported that construction under the Poplar Street Bridge has unearthed remnants of one of St. Louis’ original French houses – something historians never expected to find. Shards of pottery are a clue that the city’s residents may have been more prosperous than previously thought.

Pat Rice’s interview with Osage Elder Eddy Red Eagle Jr. recounted the tribe’s experience around the time of the city’s birth. The Osage and the French did more than trade trinkets and furs. “They dined well in security and peace,” Pat noted. “Many intermarried. Old Cathedral records show that leaders of both groups supported their mutual grandchildren.”

Perhaps the city’s 250th anniversary has made all of us more mindful of the past. Perhaps humans have a natural fascination with what came before. Whatever the reason, stories about the history of our region seem to draw a lot of interest from current residents.

A few weeks ago, Joseph Leahy had some fun reporting on the way we mangle pronunciation of our French street and place names, a legacy of the city’s founders. His story quickly became one of our most popular ever. Coverage of an archeological dig near the new Mississippi River bridge generated a similar wave of interest. To find these and other stories, check out our St. Louis history page or Tumblr, both compiled by engagement editor Kelsey Proud.

Journalism is often called the first rough draft of history. These stories ARE history -- long-term perspective on the past that shaped our present. Time helps sort what matters from the torrent of disconnected facts that the digital age brings us. Good news coverage can help do that, too.

In contrast to historical reporting that looks back with clarity, I spent Monday at a conference that looked forward with some uncertainty. The gathering, called Mobile First, was organized by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Mizzou Journalism School.

Several speakers noted that mobile devices are overtaking laptops as the primary way people access information. That shift in how we consume news will also affect what kind of news we consume. But the implications of this trend are far from clear.

Among several mobile projects featured at the conference was Circa, an app that “atomizes” news, in the words of its news director, David Cohn. That allows users to easily follow the latest developments. Andre Mika described 120 Sports, a partnership that will launch soon and includes major professional sports leagues. It will spotlight highlights and developing dramas in segments no longer than 120 seconds.

Mika was one of two speakers who used the term “man-cave” in describing the appeal of his new offering. Another term, “use case,” popped up in almost every presentation – meaning you have to think about where and how someone might want to use what you’re building. Will the person be sitting, driving, walking, using a phone or a tablet? And so on.

David Gehring of Google offered some longer-term perspective on the moment. The digital revolution destroyed the business model that used to support journalism, he observed. Entertainment has forged a new model. So has sports. But serious news is still searching for a business model that generates sufficient revenue in a digital world.

What might serious journalism look like on a mobile device? Conference presenters focused on mobile’s affinity for concise presentation, but not all content need be short and simple, Gehring and other participants said. Audio is particularly well suited to mobile, he said, since you can listen while doing something else.

Still, “the content must fit the container,” Gehring noted. You can’t just stuff reporting designed for one format into another and expect people to like it.

At St. Louis Public Radio, we’re committed to finding new ways to use the tools of communication well and to serve you with news that matters. With an eye to what history can teach, we welcome the opportunity to look forward.

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