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Editor's Weekly: News organizations that dare to be substantive

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2013: Dear Beaconites -

This week, the Beacon was pleased to learn that we've again been chosen as a finalist for the Online News Association's General Excellence award. ONA is the world's largest organization of its kind, including media of many types and sizes, so its awards carry some heft. This is the fourth time the Beacon has been named a finalist — not bad considering that we're only five years old.

Over the years, Beacon staffers have won many awards, most recently including Dale Singer's first place for education reporting from the Missouri Press Association. We especially prize the ONA recognition because it involves the entire staff, and we're honored to be in the company of the other three finalists in the small division — AxisPhilly, EarthFix and Voice of San Diego.

A quick look at their websites reveals a common thread: At a time when people are awash in oceans of infobits, these four organizations provide deep, steady, coherent streams of attention to substantive local issues. Interestingly, this common mission grows from disparate origins and takes different approaches — a reflection of the experimentation underway on how journalists can serve the public better.

At the Beacon, we debate this question constantly as we decide what to cover — and how. What seems hot today may not be significant tomorrow. What seems boring today may prove to be of great consequence. We don't have enough staff — nor do you have enough time — to pay attention to everything. And so, the Beacon aims to identify news that matters longterm and to cover it now in ways that help St. Louisans make our region a better place.

This week, for example, Mary Delach Leonard took stock of St. Louisans' economic prospects five years after the economy imploded. She found an uneven recovery that may explain why so many people still feel pessimistic despite overall positive trends. While the incomes of the top 1 percent are nearing complete recovery, the bottom 99 percent have "hardly started" to recover, an economist explained. Some see the economy heading toward an hourglass shape, with the middle class shrinking as the top prospers and the bottom grows.

Next week, you'll see Jason Rosenbaum's report on St. Louis' effort to become a world leader in plant sciences. We're not the only place with a claim on that title, he found. But the region has succeeded in establishing a global reputation and in attracting scientists and entrepreneurs whose work contributes to our economic reinvention.

The Beacon not only digs into important topics, but aims to be part of the ongoing conversation as it unfolds around them. The other three ONA finalists in our category are pursuing similar goals in a variety of ways.

Voice of San Diego was one of the first nonprofit local news organizations to emerge in the last decade of innovation. When we started the Beacon, we turned to Voice for advice. Founded with backing from a local philanthropist, Voice has expanded its base of support and the scope of its work. More than just a source of news, Voice aims to be the center of a civic-minded community.

AxisPhilly grew out of systematic study of news needs and sources in Philadelphia. Axis, initially funded by the William Penn Foundation, focuses less on breaking news, more on what it calls "news that breaks through the clutter, tools that break through to understanding, conversation that breaks through to action."

The fourth finalist, EarthFix, is a partnership of several public media organizations in the Northwest — part of a larger experiment in collaboration by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The idea is that local public radio and television can provide deeper coverage if they feed into and draw from a shared effort. EarthFix concentrates on environmental issues.

At the Beacon, we appreciate the ONA honor for what we've accomplished so far. More important, we're inspired to learn from others how we might serve St. Louisans better.

Sincerely,

Margie

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