The Ferguson unrest taught many of us in St. Louis about the mixed blessings of sustained attention from the national media. The national media bring attention to your local problems – which was very welcome, in this instance – but they also have a penchant for covering the drama and violence that can leave local people feeling exploited when all of the cameras have been packed up and sent on to the next disaster elsewhere.
That is why we were struck by the daring shown by the experiment the HuffPost is attempting in its Listen to America bus tour of 25 smaller American cities that usually only see national media when their city is on fire or underwater. When HuffPost Editor-In-Chief Lydia Polgreen said, “We need to be having a real dialogue with what’s happening in our country right now, because we’ve got some problems,” she spoke directly to our editorial mission. The St. Louis American prides itself on being a reflection of the lives and concerns of our community and yields more of its pages to the opinions of community leaders and everyday people than any other local publication. We expect that is why the HuffPost singled us out among all of our local media peers as its local media partner for its St. Louis visit and national launch of the tour.
We were fascinated to observe significant omissions in local coverage of this unique national event in St. Louis. Local editors and producers routinely fawn over any positive national attention that our flyover city with a plurality-black population receives, and here was a major international news organization – the HuffPost site currently is ranked No. 253 worldwide for most web traffic – starting an innovative national tour in St. Louis. The Wall Street Journal sent their media reporter, Lucas Alpert, to cover the HuffPost tour launch. Yet we are only aware of local coverage on Fox 2 and KMOV. Neither of these local stations reported on the fact that the HuffPost partnered with a local (and non-competing) news outlet, The St. Louis American, in this national launch event, though B-roll on both stories clearly depicted our publisher and executive editor, who is known by sight in both newsrooms. On the Fox 2 report, Polgreen mentioned the partnership with us in a live studio interview. In our business, that’s called a “local hook,” and journalists jump on them to make national stories more relevant. This local hook was passed over in silence by news decision-makers and the co-anchors.
Ralph Ellison gave us the metaphor of the Invisible Man for blacks in America. The St. Louis American remains the “invisible” newspaper among our peers in local media, which makes all of us here feel more appreciative to have been approached, not once but twice, by this powerful news organization for our partnership (previously, we hosted the HuffPost’s Ferguson Fellow in our newsroom). We are confident that the partnership will continue. “We were so proud to have you as a partner,” we were told by Hillary Frey, director of strategy at HuffPost, the morning after the event, “and we definitely look forward to covering stories together in the future, and relying on your knowledge and expertise in your community.” To our national partner, we say: Likewise, and we can’t wait for the next collaboration.
It’s worth noting that editors and reporters for St. Louis Public Radio attended the panel discussion that we organized with HuffPost as part of the St. Louis agenda of events, and we value our continuing content-sharing partnership with them. To St. Louis Public Radio, alone among other local media, we are a visible news resource.
It was a pleasure to invite community leaders who command our respect to share with us our moment in the national spotlight. Rev. Starsky Wilson, former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission and president of the Deaconess Foundation, spoke at the morning launch event and served on the evening panel. “Listen to America beginning here is reflective of our experience,” Wilson said at the morning launch at Kiener Plaza, with the Gateway Arch stretching over his shoulders. “Any important work begins with listening to those folks who are most impacted by the issues, the challenges and the tragedies in our respective communities.” We have been listening to this community we love so dearly, and trying to share its stories, for many years, and we will keep doing so, and we are proud and grateful to the HuffPost for joining us in this work.