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Editor's Weekly: No hand-wringing over Ralcorp

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2012 - Dear Beaconites -

If you were a Beacon editor, perhaps you would have chosen to focus on news this week that Ralcorp will soon be acquired by ConAgra.

The corporate descendent of a storied St. Louis company, Ralcorp has both emotional and economic resonance with St. Louisans. Some see its demise as more evidence that our region is losing its clout and cachet. So on one level, it would be a no-brainer to assign a reporter to explore this development. Given unlimited resources, that's what we would have done.

But the truth is that we never have enough staff to cover the many developments and trends that deserve more attention. After some consideration, we decided to pass on this one and instead point Beacon readers to coverage done by others. That choice says a lot about how the digital age has transformed both the flow of news and our region's economic prospects.

When Ralston Purina was founded, St. Louis thrived on an economy that made things. As the company grew, so did jobs, pride and philanthropy, all nurtured by hometown roots. Eventually, Ralston Purina and a few other large companies dominated our local economy and shaped our national reputation.

But as those industries matured, the landscape shifted. Local companies became part of international conglomerates, adding and spinning off divisions, cutting and shifting personnel. None dominates our region's jobs, pride or philanthropy these days.

In the wake of the behemoths, a new ecosystem of enterprises has taken hold. Part of it, including the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and other bioscience innovators, spring directly from earlier giants and require considerable institutional nurturing. Part of it, such as the small shops on Cherokee, thrive like wildflowers on the creative energy of artists and small-scale entrepreneurs.

In accepting his award as Citizen of the Year in 2009, John F. McDonnell, scion of a St. Louis corporate giant, argued that St. Louisans "should get over mourning the loss of corporate headquarters past, revel in corporate headquarters present, and look forward to a bright future."

He explained: "As industries mature and consolidate, companies get acquired, merge, or just plain go out of existence. Furthermore, that life cycle is accelerating, not slowing down. So don't expect the appearance of stability in the future like we had back in the bygone days. Losses of headquarters are inevitable. The real test is whether new companies are growing to fill the vacuum."

Looking around, he found ample evidence of economic vibrancy, including "a long list of companies which were either not around 15 years ago or were too small to be major players" and several relatively young Fortune 500 companies.

All this informed the Beacon's thinking this week when we learned of Ralcorp's sale. Was this development of cataclysmic consequence to our region? Probably not, we concluded. Could the Beacon add something to the ample coverage generated by other news organizations? Again no.

And so, we focused on coverage of news that mattered in ways that others were not. We reported on St. Louis' sustainability plan. We delved into several political and legal controversies that will shape the region's economic climate, including a GOP proposal to cut Missouri taxes and Gov. Nixon's long-delayed support for expanding Medicaid coverage.

News coverage, like the economy, is evolving. At the Beacon, we'd rather challenge conventional wisdom than echo it. That's why we left the hand-wringing to others this week.



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