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Beacon blog: The birth of the Beacon

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Four years ago my partner, Marty Kaplan, and I took off on a road trip from the banks of the Mississippi to the beaches of California. Vacation and visits with relatives were very much on our minds, but along with such pleasures we packed some serious business into the journey. Today, he and I are in the middle of a similar trans-American journey across the country. This blog comes to you from Palm Springs, and I hope you'll find my very first ever blog not too swollen with a lot of hot air.

The serious business had to do with journalism, with my belief that American journalism was in crisis, with the awareness that something radical should be done to help to repair the situation. I wanted to work to create a publication for the St. Louis region that would concentrate on serious news -- news reporting that understood that, while discreet, single events are interesting (or titillating) perhaps, they had to be considered in terms of context. Further, the news of such events should be reported to you to reveal both history and consequences. Events that did not rise to a certain level of consequence would be left to other publications to consider. Our standards, for a new publication to make sense and to be worthwhile, had to be rigorous and serious.

Before leaving for California in the summer of 2006, Margaret and Bill Freivogel and I had a meeting at the Olympia restaurant on McCausland, where we began to sketch out what a publication that reflected our philosophy of journalism would resemble.

Our friend and former colleague, Martha Shirk, who now lives up the coast in Palo Alto, Calif., knew what we were up to and was cheering us on. She encouraged us to look at a publication called the Voice of San Diego. It was serious; it considered events in historic perspective; it was wonky and proud of it; it operated on a not-for-profit model. Importantly, it was exclusively on line.

Pretty soon after that meeting at the Olympia, Marty and I drove to Los Angeles, and took off one morning from his parents' house in Palos Verdes and drove to San Diego, where we had an appointment with Andrew Donohue and Scott Lewis. They run the Voice of San Diego -- voiceofsandiego.org -- founded in 2005 by philanthropist Buzz Woolley and the longtime San Diego newsman Neil Morgan.

The operating principal was the same as ours. Woolley, Morgan, Donohue and Lewis believed the traditional commercial news model, both intellectually and philosophically, was permanently stuck in a inescapable rut. Something had to be done, fast. Strong communities are weakened, they recognized, without regular access to news that portrays issues not in single-event isolation but on a big-picture screen. Robust democracies flourish where information is readily and accurately reported -- honestly and without bias.

Donohue and Lewis received us in the Voice of San Diego's offices, and after a quick tour we set out for lunch. I filled several legal pad pages with information and turned that into a long memo to the Freivogels about the San Diego operation. It included nuts and bolts stuff about staffing and basic equipment needs and the need for a good business team, but the most important information wasn't specific at all. It was the assurance and the confidence We Could Do This, Too.

Back in St. Louis, with our certificates of assurance and confidence from the folks at the Voice of San Diego and with our News That Matters philosophy foundation poured and set, we began to work out the specifics of our publication and to raise the money to operate it. Among ourselves and with the financial and practical assistance of friends and family, we gathered seed money to permit us to proceed.

Richard K. Weil, a veteran and judicious journalist with more than three decades of experience, was recruited early on. Dick would become our board chair. We recruited other like-minded colleagues and friends and business men and women to help us to set policy. We decided, for example, we would organize ourselves as a not-for-profit, which in addition to being practical in terms of raising money also distinguished us from the commercial news media. We copied the San Diego model of settling on six or seven areas of coverage that met the criteria of seriousness and urgency we'd established early on.

We had no office in 2007, so we camped out in the Freivogels' big, good-karma house in Kirkwood, and met in coffee houses and restaurants all over town as well. We hit the road and consulted with folks of the J-schools at the University of Missouri in Columbia and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Of extraordinary importance was an introduction made by our colleague Jon Sawyer, who runs the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington. Sawyer organized a dinner with Jack Galmiche, president and CEO of KETC-TV Channel 9. That introduction led to a strong and dynamic partnership that provided not only a permanent office but also an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with public television. This felicitous and stimulating arrangement continues today.

There's lots more I want to tell you, and as our new staff blogs continue, the history of the Beacon will be set forth in great detail. It is a good story and, as far as I am concerned, meets the standards we have set for relevance.

That is because, gentle reader, the news revolution in which we are participating has aspects of revolution. Those of us in the online, not-for-profit news business believe that rather than reinvent the wheel we'll design and operate an all-new vehicle. Paradoxically, this roadster travels on the dynamic new avenues put on the map by the World Wide Web, but it is fueled and driven by traditional values of journalism, such as those set down for us in the first Joseph Pulitzer's Platform.

Together, innovation and a fundamental faith in tradition fuel our steady forward progress and fulfill our ambition to travel together with you, the reader, toward a richer understanding of the world we share, and a more complete recognition of our mutual obligations to take responsibility for its sustenance and for its improvement.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.