Old Journalists, New Plan

In Saint Louis, distinguished Post-Dispatch vets start their own Web site.

| April 24, 2008
Joseph Pulitzer I, whose platform inspired the Platform.
Joseph Pulitzer I, whose platform inspired the Platform.

Try to imagine this: A new attempt at online journalism is launched in Chicago. But its creators aren't following the usual model—setting out on a wing and a prayer, betting that notice and funding will come their way before the operation collapses.

The Beachwood Reporter and the Chi-Town Daily News are a couple of local sites that fit the standard description, and their respective maestros, Steve Rhodes and Geoff Dougherty, both put in time at the Tribune. But the site I'm suggesting would be concocted by eminent Tribune lifers, folks who took buyouts from Sam Zell but love journalism too much to stay away. What they'd be promising Chicago would be less a bold experiment in the new journalism than a return to the old—a promise that would help them raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This isn't happening here. But it is happening in Saint Louis.

I found out about the St. Louis Platform by reading a column Bill McClellan wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch making fun of its biggest benefactor. This is Emily Rauh Pulitzer, who as the widow of Joseph Pulitzer III was more than comfortable even before reaping $414.5 million when Pulitzer Inc.—the Post-Dispatch included—was sold to Lee Enterprises three years ago. She has promised the founders of the Platform $500,000 over the next two years if they can raise from other sources the balance of the $2 million they say they need to sustain them for that time.

McClellan called her "chintzy" and explained, "So I thought to myself, if she wants to help these people with their new venture—and these are people who worked years and years for her late husband and whose efforts helped build his fortune—why not give them the $2 million they need? What does $1.5 million mean when you have at least $414 million."

When I read this I tried to imagine former Tribune Company CEO Dennis FitzSimons, who came into $38.3 million (yes, I know—a trifling sum by comparison) when Sam Zell took over, giving Steve Rhodes 50 cents to help the Beachwood Reporter along. Neither Emily Rauh Pulitzer nor Margaret Wolf Freivogel, editor of the Platform, sounded amused by McClellan's argument. "If something like this or any new endeavor is supported by one person," Pulitzer explained, "it's not going to survive. It needs broad community support, and [the challenge grant] is helping to achieve this."

Another $200,000 was pledged by William Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University. According to Freivogel, total pledges, Pulitzer's included, have passed the million-dollar mark.

A liberal in Saint Louis is someone who says the Post-Dispatch isn't what it used to be. There was a time when the paper won handfuls of the prize established by Joseph III's grandfather, sent its correspondents around the world, and even kept a bureau at the UN. You could argue that the last nail was driven into its coffin in 2005, when the Pulitzers took the money and ran and the Post-Dispatch was no longer even locally owned.

But the Post-Dispatch's heyday isn't forgotten locally, and the Platform gladly identified itself with the paper's traditions. Freivogel and six other Platform founders who took buyouts at the same time have among them about 200 years of Post-Dispatch experience, and that's not counting Dick Weil, chairman of the board of their not-for-profit corporation, who's a retired Post-Dispatch managing editor. Freivogel, who for the time being is working without a salary, spent 34 years with the Post-Dispatch, 12 of them in Washington, and she was its Sunday editor when she left after the Lee sale. One of the kids on her small staff recently graduated from the journalism school at SIU Carbondale, where Freivogel's husband, Bill, another vet, is now director.

The Platform name betokens the connection with the newspaper. The famous "platform" in Saint Louis journalism circles is the one written by Joseph I in 1907 that the Post-Dispatch has carried on its editorial page for decades: "I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty."

"It's probably the best credo written about what great journalism is for," says Margaret Freivogel. She explains that after leaving the Post-Dispatch her group took stock of the newspaper business, of "the number of reporters shrinking, and editorial space shrinking, and we realized that instead of griping about it we were actually in a position to do something. When I was at the Post-Dispatch it was hard to see the big picture about what was going on in journalism, but after I left I could see there are these giant economic forces at work. The old model was the newspapers do good reporting, and that draws eyeballs, and that draws advertising. And the advertising went elsewhere and the eyeballs are leaving, which becomes a real downward spiral. We hope we can find a way to support that reporting online."

The old Post-Dispatch covered the world from Saint Louis. Freivogel's focus is a lot narrower. "We talked to people about good reporting as a fundamental resource for the Saint Louis region," she says, "and I think people get that concept very naturally." She also talks about the hyperlinks that she believes will bring "really deep information" to anyone who wants it. As a concept, online journalism can't be beat. But it's up to Freivogel to put meat on abstract bones.

She doesn't expect ad revenues to amount to much for a while. But rent's not an issue—the Platform's been given offices at the local public TV station, KETC, whose CEO, Jack Galmiche, says: "We're creating a new model between a public television station and an online daily news source." Adds Freivogel: "We'll go down the road of doing things together and seeing where it leads." Staffers will appear on camera, bringing the site to the attention of the public—at least the sliver of the public that watches public television.

When talk in mainstream journalism is of death spirals, "to be in the midst of something being born is fantastic," says Freivogel. Twenty years ago you all might have decided to start another paper, I say. "But it costs so much to do that," she replies. "Here the cost of getting in the game is pretty modest"—about $26,000 to set up shop, she estimates.

The only thing certain about the Platform's future is that it won't be spent as the Platform. With a beta version of stlplatform.org already up and running, the Post-Dispatch announced at the end of March that it was starting a new editorial-page blog it had decided to call the Platform, which, to make its proprietary interest crystal clear, the paper had trademarked. After a staff huddle, the Platform announced that it would relaunch its Web site this Friday (or soon after) as the St. Louis Beacon. "A beacon is a light to steer by," the Web site explains.

Sell It to the Readers

Here's another way to go forward in troubled times. Former Reader contributor Todd Savage moved to the Netherlands in 2004 and launched an English-language alternative newspaper, the Amsterdam Weekly. The Reader's owners came in as investors.

But even before the Reader was sold last year, that revenue stream had largely dried up, and Savage found himself looking for a way to survive. Last month the Weekly told its readers it was up for sale. The price: ¤5 per 3.75 square centimeters.

Each page was going to be divided into 204 of these blocks, and readers could go online and pick out the blocks they wished to underwrite. "Only those blocks sold will be printed," the Weekly explained, in an issue whose cover was dominated by a huge black block stamped with the headline "Unf*ck us." "Therefore, if the sale is not successful, readers will receive a paper missing individual blocks of content."

And that's what happened. Savage tells me the Weekly sold 40 to 45 percent of its blocks for the first two issues of this campaign and 18 percent the third week. "All of the articles were assigned, edited, and laid out," Savage said in an e-mail, "so there wasn't any additional expense, other than the time and perhaps the folly of covering up the work we had produced. Everything was available online."

He thinks now that ¤5 might have been a little steep. Even so, he says, "We had readers, contributors, and advertisers buying blocks. People were walking into our office with collections from friends and coworkers. More important, we were successful in generating press attention from the paper and four new investors have approached us."

That said, Savage's paper conceded in its latest issue, "Our future remains wobbly."v

For more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

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