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In Era Of Disruption, Print Journalism Continues To Play Key Role In St. Louis

March 13, 2020 Gilbert Bailon, Antonio French, Jeannette Cooperman and Frank Absher
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

It’s been a tough decade for the media business, particularly for outlets disseminating the written word. Publications have shut down across the U.S. Many newspapers no longer offer daily editions. And many of the online news outlets vying to replace or at least supplement them have had layoffs of their own.

But despite a host of challenges to the advertising-based business model, St. Louis finds itself with a surprisingly robust print-media landscape. The metro area continues to boast not only a daily newspaper with seven-day-a-week delivery (take that, Cleveland and Pittsburgh), several general-interest weekly newspapers and a city magazine — but also two food-focused local monthlies.    

Those publications have faced numerous challenges, of which the “social distancing” mandated by the spread of the coronavirus is only the most recent example. And on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, newspaper publisher Antonio French, essayist Jeannette Cooperman and newspaper editor Gilbert Bailon discussed how they’re responding to a changing media landscape — and trying to find a way to make local news pencil out economically.

Listen to the full conversation here:

A former city alderman, Antonio French started one of the area’s newest print publications. He went weekly with the Northsider in 2018, and in 2019 began to publish a sister paper aimed at south city, the Southsider. French said he began chronicling the events in Ferguson six years ago on Twitter and Vine after seeing gaps in local coverage — and later became a source for outlets including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Now, he’s doubled down on print.

“You weren’t going to find out, I felt, what was actually happening just from the mainstream media,” he said.

Gilbert Bailon, the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, explained that Ferguson had helped his newsroom become more intentional about how it covers the community. “I think the staff does cover things differently [today],” he said. “And we’re better sourced. Now, are we as well sourced as we should be? That’s a work in progress. 

“Things change. Communities change. And there are multiple communities we cover. We’re covering 3 million people, 12 counties, two states. Can we be in every place and cover everything? No. But we are more conscious about that.”

Jeannette Cooperman, an acclaimed writer who spent more than a decade at St. Louis Magazine before becoming an essayist at the Common Reader, said she’s happy to no longer be in the for-profit journalism business. Among the major stressors no longer on her mind: the desire for web traffic.

“It’s a huge relief,” she said. “It feels like you can just focus on the ideas and what you’re writing, and not have to worry about how it will strike somebody. I know with social media it got too easy to groan over the fact that our highest clicks were for things like, ‘How to wear leggings.’ How do you take that feedback to heart? We could do a whole publication on the blow-dry bar.

"It was like, ‘Learn it, realize it and ignore it.’ And it was a hard balance.”

Cooperman also discussed her goal of giving readers the occasional break from coronavirus coverage.

“We’ll go crazy if we just worry about distancing and viruses,” she said. “We’ll lose our minds.”

To kick off the conversation, radio veteran Frank Absher also discussed the city’s rich media history — and his work as the executive director of the St. Louis Media History Foundation. The nonprofit organization runs the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. 

The conversation included thoughts from former St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Sylvester Brown and Riverfront Times Managing Editor Liz Miller.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.