In St. Louis, Missouri, Dick Weiss has spent more than a year establishing and raising money for Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson, a nonprofit, grant-funded organization that supplements longform reporting at local outlets like the St. Louis American, St. Louis Public Radio, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When the pandemic hit, the project found itself in a unique position—at the intersection of journalists who needed work, publications that needed content, and stories that needed telling. Out of this crisis, the 63106 Project was born, telling the stories of the families who live in the lowest-ranked St. Louis zip code for social determinants of health.
In separate interviews, I spoke to Weiss, the project’s founder, in addition to an editor at the local alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times, and two of the reporters who work for the project. The conversations have been edited and combined for clarity.
CJR: What was the news landscape like in St. Louis, leading up to the pandemic?
Dick Weiss, Founder of the 63106 Project: I left the Post-Dispatch in 2005. I took a buyout. Our company had been sold to Lee Enterprises. I could see the handwriting on the wall; the business model was broken. I went into business for myself as a writing coach. I was also the founder of what came to be called the St. Louis Beacon, which was a nonprofit online news source. Last year, I started Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson with support from places like the Pulitzer Center.
Sylvester Brown Jr., Deaconess Fellow at the St. Louis American: Before the covid pandemic, there was a technological pandemic, caused by all the other new forms of communication that started siphoning money from mainstream major newspapers. Between 2000 and 2010, newspapers tried to play the game of what I call “vanity media,” which focuses on creating news based on the audience. In the early 2000s, I was a columnist at the Post-Dispatch, then I was a consultant researcher, then I went to the nonprofit arena.
Doyle Murphy, Editor at St. Louis alt-weekly, The Riverfront Times: We had a pretty lean model to start with. Before the pandemic, we had six newsroom staffers. We put up a weekly paper. We had a website. Our model for the weekly is that we built it around a longform narrative. That’s a tough thing to pull off, with a small staff, even in good times.
CJR: What happened when the pandemic hit?
Aisha Sultan, Columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Reporting was just sort of all hands on deck in March. I was supposed to go on vacation. I didn’t. I just worked. Everybody was working all the time—driving like crazy, trying to find different angles. Not only were people working really hard, they were hearing terrible, difficult stories. There was also a lot of fear about how the business would economically sustain itself.
Weiss, 63106 Project: We decided that we needed to turn out a whole lot more stories. The pandemic had laid racial inequities bare. I had this tie to this one particular neighborhood, in the 63106 zip code, and it made sense to me to say, Okay, let’s do stories about the people who live here in the time of the pandemic. I needed writers, and I found many in St. Louis—some of them had been furloughed or laid off.
Sultan, Post-Dispatch: Dick was a former editor of mine from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He told me he was working on this project, and asked whether I’d like to be a writer on it. It was a natural partnership. We did take two weeks unpaid furloughs at the Post-Dispatch. I worked on my 63106 project during that furlough. I was able to get paid for that—it was sort of a financial offset.
Brown, St. Louis American: I worked with the 63106 project first, writing three or four stories for The St. Louis American. Then I got a one-year fellowship to keep writing for The American. My focus is on covid’s impact on the Black community.
Murphy, Riverfront Times: A lot of what the 63106 Project is doing fits us very well. They’re in-depth stories. They’re usually a length that a lot of daily newspapers aren’t going to publish, but are exactly what we’re looking for. Here’s a well-reported, well-told story about an issue that’s that’s of interest to your readers. It was a huge help for us at that time.
We had layoffs at the beginning of the pandemic, with advertising getting chopped up. Our biggest form of funding had been advertising—largely bars and restaurants. And we also put on events. But a pandemic keeps you from having events and also knocks out restaurants and bars. We’ve scrambled to find different advertisers, though we have done some virtual events that have gone really well. I have tried to work on partnerships, write grants and things—a $5,000, Facebook grant, a $5,000, Google grant. It’s not a ton of money, but I could do a lot with $5,000. A lot of it has been trying to stretch out and last long enough.
Weiss, 63106 Project: Various publications in our community were stressed. Having raised money on our own, but we could offer them the stories for free to run.
CJR: How did you match reporters with outlets and subjects for the stories?
Weiss, 63106 Project: First, we needed to find families to write about, and not in a drive-by kind of way. This pandemic is ongoing. Instead of simply doing a one-and-done, we wanted to keep track of these families, write about them continuously over the course of the pandemic.
Murphy, Riverfront Times: The topics really fit our paper, with the project focusing on the inequality in St. Louis. The storytelling, human level, makes people get it more than numbers, and more than reports.
Brown, St. Louis American: The facts and statistics don’t tell the story. How does this really impact a family? How does this really impact a teacher? How does this impact the guy who worked on HVAC systems all his life, and he’s now trying to figure out how he can play a role in making buildings safe?
Sultan, Post-Dispatch: I connected with a woman named Tyra Johnson, who was a single mom, and living in a housing area with high crime, in an economically depressed zip code. She’s got three little kids: a first grader, pre K, and a newborn. When I met her, she was pregnant. She’s a very, very devoted, dedicated mom. I wrote a column about how she was trying to manage being pregnant, homeschooling, in a home situation that was not safe.
Weiss, 63106 Project: With each of the families that we bring on board for this project, I call them first and I do a fairly long interview so I can explain the project. I also tell them that down the road we want to create opportunities for them not only to be in a story, but also to bear witness to their experience. We’re planning some Zoom sessions where the reporter and a family member or two will be in a forum, where people are invited to come hear their story.
CJR: The pandemic is ongoing. How are things in your newsroom now?
Murphy, Riverfront Times: We’re back to four staffers. But it’s not six. And even at a full staff, you always think, If I had one more writer… But I feel much better about it than I did a couple months ago. We’re not in extreme survival mode. And I’m thinking more about what we’re gonna do longer term, rather than just getting to the next day.
Sultan, Post-Dispatch: As a journalist, you’re processing people’s trauma. You’re dealing with your own situation. And you’re worried about your economic situation. It’s been challenging. My husband’s a healthcare worker, and he got a severe case of covid. He was sick at home for eight days, and then he was in the hospital for almost a week. And I have two kids who are also doing virtual schooling at home.
Weiss, 63106 Project: Overall, we’ve got about twenty people—not just reporters, but editors and visualization people––working on this. All of them are part time. It’s the tiniest stimulus program that you can imagine, but it’s a stimulus nonetheless. I’ve been a contractor, so I like to pay people within a couple of weeks of when their story is published. I feel strongly about that, and I feel strongly about paying them well. We paid a dollar per word to the writers. I want to send a strong signal that this work is valuable, and we value their work.
Brown, St. Louis American: In the mid-2000s, it seemed to me that the news industry—the fourth estate—was doomed, because everybody was following the money. I am encouraged and inspired by the fact that we have found ways to remain relevant, and even become more relevant: true, honest investigative journalism, fact-checking, finding creative ways to fight back, and also to draw on a new audience. It gives me hope. It gives me hope.
The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).
EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past six months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.
CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)
Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the world:
- ZIMBABWEAN MEDIA ORG IS WELL-CONNECTED AND RESILIENT: Zimbabwean media organization 263Chat has remained strong amid the pandemic, the JAMLAB newsletter reported. Nigel Mugamu, the organization’s founder and chief executive, attributes the publication’s strength, in part, to its founding, which grew out of Mugamu’s desire to connect local Zimbabwe with the Zimbabwean diaspora. He established a strong social media community, which grew into a news website in 2014. Today, in addition to its online presence, 263Chat distributes a free e-paper via WhatsApp to 70,000 subscribers, many in remote, information-starved communities.
- BUILDING COMMUNITY OFFERS A BETTER WAY FORWARD: For Nieman Reports, Cierra Hinton, Lewis Raven Wallace and Manolia Charlotin wrote about the importance of community-building in addressing racism within news systems. “An awakening, as a sudden prioritization of diversity, equity, and inclusion without foundational work and structural change, risks minimizing the historical harm that has been done and producing solutions that are shortsighted,” the authors write. Cultivating relationships with community members is key to this foundational work, they argue, and creating a better model will require deep-rooted change, enabled by radical imagination. (ICYMI, I wrote in July that we need to reimagine a free press for the twenty-first century). And elsewhere, Wisconsin Public Radio released a report that highlighted the lack of diversity in their own sourcing.
- NONPROFIT NEWSROOM LAUNCHES IN WEST VIRGINIA: Three former reporters from the Charleston Gazette-Mail have launched a new nonprofit newsroom dedicated to accountability journalism in West Virginia, Nieman Lab reported. One of the co-founders, Ken Ward Jr., will continue his current role at ProPublica while serving as Editor-at-Large for the new publication, Mountain State Spotlight. At present, the publication’s funding comes from Report for America, ProPublica, and the American Journalism Project, in addition to support from individual donors. With nine people comprising the current staff, Sarah Scire writes, “Mountain State Spotlight is already one of the largest newsrooms in the state — a fact that you could let inspire or depress you.” For her Poynter newsletter, Kristen Hare has more. (Elsewhere, the Chicago Reader has been approved in its move to non-profit status.)
- NEW NEWS INITIATIVE LAUNCHES IN EAST LONDON: The founder of the Ethical Journalism Network in the UK is launching a new monthly community newspaper in East London, The Press Gazette reported. Thus far, most contributors to the publication are volunteers, with only a few paid staffers managing the work for continuity and quality. Grants, donations, and advertising will fund the publication, which also plans to implement a program to train citizen journalists from the neighborhood.
- NBC STATION USES STREAMING TO PROMOTE LOCAL NEWS: Local TV news station NBC Bay Area has published its second season of Derailed, its streamable episodic investigation into problems with the Bay Area’s public transit system, the Knight-Cronkite News Lab reported. The episodes are available on YouTube, Apple TV, and the NBC station website—about 350,000 viewers have streamed the first season. NBC Bay Area news director Stephanie Adrouny told Knight research associate Laura Kraegel, “We wanted to offer a project that was meaningful and that people could watch on their own time at their own pace.”
- EVOLVING THE CONVERSATION: For the Medialyte newsletter on Substack, Mark Stenberg spoke with Gabe Schneider, MinnPost reporter and cofounder of The Objective, a media newsletter that was recently syndicated by NiemanLab. The two discussed localized political reporting, nonprofit journalism models, monetizing The Objective, and how to effect change in the industry. “I’m not trying to convince the people that are already in positions of power. I’m trying to convince their successors,” Schneider told Stenberg.
- LA TIMES RELEASES A ZINE: After producing a series of stories about the Chicano Moratorium, The Los Angeles Times has released them in a downloadable zine. “Readers who weren’t subscribers inevitably hit our paywall and couldn’t read the whole thing,” Gustavo Arellano, Martina Ibánez-Baldor, and Alex Tatusian write. “Great journalism costs money, of course. But we also heard from high school teachers and college professors who asked whether we could make some articles available for their students.” They hope that the zine’s thirty-six-page booklet, which is also available for purchase in its printed form, will make the reporting more accessible to a wider range of readers.
- REPORT PROJECTS BIG REVENUE DROP FOR NEWSPAPERS: Last week, a report projected that newspaper revenues would fall by more than twenty-five percent over the coming five years, The Press Gazette reported. “Fewer people are buying newspapers, many preferring instead to access packaged news online with free news aggregator websites like Google News, Apple News and Facebook, and turning to social media for the latest gossip, headlines, weather or classifieds,” the report says. The pandemic has only exacerbated the industry’s difficulties.
- CONNECTICUT CITY COUNCIL APPEALS TO PAPER’S OWNERS: Last week, the Hartford City Council passed a resolution urging hedge-fund Alden Global Capital to halt layoffs at the Hartford Courant and “to consider in good faith any offers that would return the Courant and other Tribune papers to civic-minded owners,” the Courant reported.
- INSIDER INC. EXPANDS INTERNATIONALLY: The publisher of Business Insider has launched a new news bureau in Singapore, Digiday reported. “While the U.S. makes up the vast majority of revenue for Insider, international ad revenue is growing double digits,” Lucinda Southern writes.
- MORE LAYOFFS, CUTBACKS: Los Angeles NPR member station KCRW eliminated twenty-eight positions, with a combination of buyouts and layoffs, The Wrap reported. The BBC asked its national radio reporters to reapply for different positions, The Guardian reported. The Guardian itself announced plans to cut 180 jobs, The Press Gazette reported, later reporting that Guardian journalists had passed a motion calling the plan a “panicked reaction” to economic losses suffered as a result of covid-19. Publisher Meredith Corp laid off 180 staffers, WWD reported. News Corp has announced its intention to close its Bronx printing plant, which currently employs 500, the Wall Street Journal reported. Elsewhere, a California paper has closed its printing plant, and the Tulsa World has laid off ten reporters, Kristen Hare reported for Poynter.
JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers (at no cost) and job providers. The Ida B. Wells Society announced that its micro-loan program for journalists would no longer require recipients to repay their loans—you can apply here and donate here. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. And the International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education. The Lenfest Institute has begun the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network, which offers training and support for news publishers of many sizes and business models.
NOTE: This article has been updated to clarify that while Aisha Sultan was concerned about the layoffs happening in newsrooms across the country, there were no layoffs at the Post-Dispatch.
Lauren Harris is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.