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Looking back at the Beacon: Here's to us. Here's to you. So long, until tomorrow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2013 (Note: The Beacon site was compromised and we are working to transfer all stories to the St. Louis Public Radio site. That means we had to remove all the links to the Beacon site.) - St. Louis Magazine once dubbed us “earnest and wonky”:

“The Beacon, which is so smart and serious, reading it feels like the intellectual equivalent of flossing.”

We took that as a compliment. After all, daily flossing is not a bad thing.

Though we also enjoyed lighter moments these past 5 1/2 years, our motto was "News that matters,” and we never forgot it.

At our largest, we had 15 or so reporters and editors, not counting our business side. Beacon staffers covered politics and elections, the housing bust and the recession, race, education, health, immigration, entertainment and culture, the impact of floods, tornados and nature’s mayhem and, sometimes, stories that were so St. Louis we jumped in just for fun. We made up for our small numbers with enthusiasm and willingness to pitch in and give it our best shot.

Tomorrow, the Beacon staff will begin anew. We are merging with our colleagues and friends at St. Louis Public Radio, our longtime partner. We’ll have a new name in the coming weeks. Please look for our bylines on the website. And listen for our voices on the air at 90.7 FM. This is an exciting time for all of us as we combine forces and forge ahead.

But today we pause to celebrate the Beacon and our half-decade of covering news that matters in the St. Louis area. Before heading off to a new challenge, journalists often look back. (Usually beer or wine is involved. And so it was at a final staff potluck presided over by editor Margie Freivogel and associate editor Bob Duffy.)

To see more of the Beacon staff’s thoughts on our work, see High Fives, a collection that marked our five-year anniversary

We’ve compiled a sampling of our work -- an eclectic mixture of the recent and the past. 

Meanwhile, here’s to the St. Louis Beacon: Our little nonprofit upstart that could. And here’s to you, St. Louis, for supporting us.

We will see you tomorrow morning.

Thanks to our good friends

From the get-go, the Beacon found support through a host of partnerships and foundations. A few shout-outs to:

* The folks at the Nine Network of Public Media who welcomed us into their home in Grand Center, giving us a place to hang our hats, an address to put on our business cards and invites to their chili cook-offs and barbecues. They also joined with us in our nonprofit media experiment. Here are two notable examples of our many combined efforts:

Election coverage: Just six months after our launch in spring 2008, Beacon and Nine Network staffers joined together to produce a live broadcast of the November 2008 election with live interviews and guests. As staffer Dale Singer put it, “It showed a spirit and an imagination and a resourcefulness that I think has come to mark what the Beacon does every day.” That first election night production grew into a four-hour broadcast in 2010, and in 2012 morphed into Beyond November, a partnership that also included St. Louis Public Radio.

The housing market crash: Beacon and Nine Network staffers produced an extensive reporting and public awareness project on foreclosure that took on added urgency after the nation’s financial meltdown in the fall of 2008. Facing the Mortgage Crisis included a wealth of consumer information. The complexities of subprime mortgages were explained in a three-part series by Beacon reporter Mary Delach Leonard, Anatomy of a Foreclosure, that detailed the efforts of a Kirkwood woman to save her family home. Facing the Mortgage Crisis was the foundation for a national outreach effort on foreclosures by public radio and television stations.

* The Missouri History Museum partnered with us on two tough issues facing the St. Louis region:

For the series, Class: The Great Divide Beacon staffers looked in depth at how the American middle class was faring during the Great Recession. The History Museum hosted events on the topic. That series kicked off on Jan. 25, 2011: The late, great middle class.

In Race, Frankly, Beacon reporters looked at how race affects many aspects of life in our region, including education, health, jobs and politics. The museum hosted events and a national exhibition on race that used Beacon reporting for the audio tour. The first story in the series by staffer Kristen Hare was published on July 2, 2009: What is you? Look at race through different lenses and you’ll see very different pictures.

* The Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis awarded several grants to St. Louis freelancers who produced major projects for the Beacon, including Ready, or not, a 2009 series on emergency preparedness by Nancy Fowler, who later joined the Beacon staff. Another Press Club grant allowed St. Louis photojournalist Jerry Naunheim Jr. to team with the Beacon's Mary Delach Leonard in chronicling the struggles of a laid-off Chrysler worker for Class: The Great Divide. August 2011: Water tower down: Icon’s demise breaks ex-Chrysler worker’s link to past.

Yes, we wrote about the serious

* Health care

In his series World’s Apart, reporter Robert Joiner examined the pervasive health disparities in St. Louis' black community. That concern continued in his coverage of For the Sake of All. Looking back, Joiner pointed to a story he found particularly meaningful because, he said, Medicaid is usually discussed in the context of urban Missouri. But lots of people in small towns across the state lack health insurance and are affected by whatever decision the state ultimately makes on the Medicaid expansion issue." To get a sense of that, he visited the south central Missouri town of West Plains and talked to residents: April 10, 2013: Debate over Medicaid expansion is as hot as gun control in parts of south Missouri.

* Race

In an installment of Race, Frankly, The Beacon took a careful look at the aftermath of the city hall shootings in Kirkwood in 2008. Beacon staffer Linda Lockhart and contributor William Freivogel, both Kirkwood residents, shared perspectives. Said Lockhart, “For me, this mattered to me because I was able to share my personal insight into a very public situation." Feb. 8, 2010: My Kirkwood: Reflections on slow change; Feb. 9, 2010: My Kirkwood: Reflections on subtle snubs.

* Education

When Normandy designated Francis Howell as the district it would transport students to, the initial reaction was emotional. Throughout the process, Beacon reporter Dale Singer provided steady reporting and analysis. He explained complex issues through his articles, including a story that walked people through new school evaluation sysem.

Singer also followed the controversy surrounding St. Louis University president Lawrence Biondi that eventually led to his retirement in September 2013. His coverage of SLU included a memorable interview with departed law school dean Tom Keefe. March 6, 2013: SLU's Keefe says he left to avoid being lightning rod.

* Politics

After veteran political reporter Jo Mannies joined the Beacon in February 2009, her Backroom posts became the go-to-place for local politics. Her work was often picked up nationally, including her coverage of the 2012 senatorial contest between U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, which included initial reporting following his "legitimate rape" comment.

Jason Rosenbaum delved deep into data for his 2012 Power Players series in collaboration with the Investigative News Network and the Center for Investigative Reporting. The result was a useful resource to people interested in learning about money in Missouri politics.

* Transgender issues

Staffer Nancy Fowler's series on transgender issues gave voice to people who are just starting to make themselves heard. Feb. 7, 2013: Beyond the Gender box: It’s a queer world. Said Fowler, “Pink or blue? Action figure or princess Happy Meal toy? Whether you're expecting, raising a toddler or checking a box on a medical form, the world makes us choose. But some people are transgender, others are intersex and a few simply call themselves queer.”

* The economy

While attention was focused on the national economy in 2009, Beacon staffers Mary Delach Leonard, Robert Joiner, Kristen Hare and Elia Powers visited local Main streets to see how St. Louis area residents were faring. Their series Uneasy Street focused on Granite City, Maplewood, Granite City and O’Fallon, Mo. Included in the coverage was a straight-talking video in which the mayor of Granite City talked about his community's successes and challenges. 

* Culture

The Beacon’s cultural reporting delved into the importance of both recent developments and longtime institutions. Robert Duffy has followed the evolution of the acclaimed Citygarden, the sculpture park and greenspace on the Mall downtown. Dec. 25, 2009: Beacon update: Citygarden quickly captured St. Louis’ heart. He has also chronicled The St. Louis Symphony, including the recent celebration of the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth. The Symphony's production of "Peter Grimes" was performed in St. Louis at Powell Hall in mid-November and on the exact birthday -- Nov. 22 -- at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Nov. 23, 2013: Reflection: Symphony’s ‘Peter Grimes’ triumphs at Carnegie Hall.

Beacon reporter Nancy Fowler looked for new stories to tell, including a piece that delved into a unique production at the Fringe Festival. June 20, 2013: 'Next to Neorotypical?’: Playwrights set Asperger’s to music at Fringe Festival

Her series on The Art of Collecting was predicated on the fact that you don't have to be wealthy to collect art.

We kept our eyes on Washington

Veteran journalist Robert Koenig joined the Beacon staff in 2010, providing reports for both the Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio that offered the Missouri and Illinois perspective on the political goings-on in Washington. A sense of that is captured in this quote by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in a story by Koenig published on Dec. 17, 2010: Blunt looks back on his House history; looks forward to future in Senate: "If you understand Missouri politics, you have a better view of the politics of the country than you would from almost any other state. Missouri really is where the country comes together, politically and economically."

Koenig provided national perspective on crucial local issues, including the controversial flooding in 2011 of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway in the Missouri Bootheel. He and Mary Delach Leonard produced an in-depth series Meandering Mississippi in the aftermath of the action. The two teamed up again in July 2013 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Great Flood of ’93.

Koenig's work wasn't limited to policy and politics. He was at the White House when Cardinals great Stan Musial was honored. Feb. 14, 2011: Obama honors Musial with Presidential Medal of Freedom.

We experimented with ways to tell our stories

* On air

The Beacon’s political reporters were regular contributors to St. Louis Public Radio’s St. Louis on the Air and the Politically Speaking podcast

* Graphics

Presentation editor Brent Jones used graphics to bring data to life. July 31, 2013: School transfers: The numbers game.

He created an interactive timeline that explained the foreclosure crisis, September 2012: One in 4 million.

* The PIN

Staffer Linda Lockhart shepherded the Beacon’s participation in the Public Insight Network, a collaboration with American Public Media to collect and share sources willing to be interviewed for stories. In November, 4,000 sources were available to St. Louis public media through the network. Beacon reporters frequently turned to the PIN for comment on current issues, but the topics could also be lighthearted. For a piece on leap year babies, responses came from more than 20 states, two Canadian provinces, and Australia and Egypt. Feb. 29, 2012: Happy birthday, leap day babies

* Video and slide shows

A few of our favorites:

Feb. 6, 2012: 'The Road Show’ brings out-of-town improv to St. Louis

June 30, 2009: Honor Flights take area WWII vets for a whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C.

June 26, 2011: Sharing memories of Cole Porter

Aug. 14, 2009: For many rural Missourians, you just can’t get to health care from here

September 2011: This is Bill. He has diabetes

The "This is Bill" animated short, produced with Act3, was part of the Beacon’s World’s Apart series. It won a Telly award and was recognized by professionals in the public health field for its compelling explanation of a complex issue.

The wonks had fun, too

October 2008: We invited readers to play VP Debate Bingo to keep track of what vice presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Joe Biden had to say when they debated at Washington University in 2008.

November 22, 2012: From car door to office door, one reporter found beauty in the parking lot every Thursday

December 2009: Yule dogs spread holiday cheer

And, sometimes, we did stories just because …

* It was the 50th anniversary of 1963, and as Bob Joiner noted, it was an unparalleled time of both social unrest and hope. Jan. 22, 2013: For Americans who lived through it, 1963 was a year of exceptional change

* It was Memorial Day, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down. May 27, 2013: With grassroots tributes, Americans remember U.S. military killed in Iraq and Afghanistan

* This is St. Louis, the capital of Cardinal Nation. October 2011: Honk if you saw Destiny! St. Louisans celebrate a winning World Series

* Some stories are too big to be told in one day

June 14, 2012: Father’s Day just another Sunday for ‘365 Days with Dad’ artist Cbabi Bayoc

* It is good to reflect, from time to time … just because.

March 26, 2010: A tale of two mangos

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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