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20 for 20, Part 1: The evolution of Missouri journalism and how you can benefit

Would I read a list of 20 curmudgeonly crankings, gleaned from 20 years of publishing a Missouri political news website? Nope.

Would I read a list of 10, plus 10 ways to benefit? Yup.

First up, Missouri political journalism.

1. Political journalism in Missouri is not dead — in fact, it’s evolving and following global business journalism trends. Fortune 500 corporations partner with journalism brands like The Economist, Forbes, et al. to produce high-quality long-form multimedia content and events. (To wit: in the annual shareholder report for Gannett, owner of the Springfield News-Leader, the #1 example of “opportunities for growth” was the company’s sponsored content/event division. See page 2.) In Missouri, look at the successful Missouri Gun Violence Project advocacy journalism collaboration between the Missouri Foundation for Health (MFFH) and the Kansas City Star. The Star, in turn, partners with the Springfield News-Leader and St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspapers and the progressive content creator Missouri Independent for a best-in-class example of a paid sponsorship. (Bias alert: MFFH was a PR client in my agency days (2006-08) and I am biased toward the foundation.) MFFH pays for quality content and events it can promote and repurpose on its channels, and the association with the corporate newspapers earns credibility with donors in the progressive advocacy ecosystem. Hosting events — even virtual-only events during the pandemic — builds a sense of community, and young journalists get marketable experience hosting panels in front of their ideological allies.

John Combest

2. Actionable item: If you’re a lobbyist or communications professional, inquire with the corporate offices of Lee Enterprises, McClatchy, and Gannett on the going rate for a sponsorship. You may be surprised how affordable it can be to lock in a 24- or 36-month lease on young reporters to generate content for your company or industry’s cause. Underscore a social justice angle (e.g., for cannabis sponsored content, maybe the unassailable goal of “helping dismantle the systematic inequality in pain management options”) and the value to historically disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

3. The Missouri Capitol press corps brain drain will continue. The 2001-2002 Missouri State Manual (“Blue Book”) listed 24 Capitol correspondents. Of that group, only Kermit Miller and Phill Brooks remain, if you choose to count them as full-time correspondents. The vanishing of institutional knowledge has been mentioned by others over the years, including Jason Rosenbaum in his 2021 Reddit AMA. Once Rudi Keller hangs it up, Rosenbaum (age 37 as of this writing) will be the functional dean of the #moleg press corps.

Many of us are less than empathetic to corporate newspapers. Liberals find them, well, too corporate and not diverse enough (see #5 tomorrow.) Conservatives lump them in with “the media.” So take a look at this September 2021 News-Leader video featuring four new hires. You can view with the sound muted and still get the gist, but I recommend opening another browser tab and playing Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” while watching the cub reporters. Watch as long as you can before turning away. Acknowledge your discomfort and capture a mental snapshot of the visuals. Allow yourself to recall this memory the next time you’re tempted to dunk on rookie reporters or the people attempting to run a Gen Z newsroom.

Unlike 2001, journalists today have a delightfully easy method to obtain a GOP perspective on most any story: simply lift quotes from Twitter. This eliminates the need for young reporters to build a network of reputable Republican sources across the state. Why cultivate relationships, and be forced to exercise real-world social skills like conversation and eye contact, when you can simply insert a consultant’s tweet into your story to fill the obligatory “other side” slot?

4. Actionable item:  Here’s a fun, and possibly illegal, workaround for conservatives to get their message to the masses: the talk radio grift. Up front, let me be clear:  What I know about the radio industry can fit into a thimble, and most of that knowledge has been gleaned from the Twitter musings and morning show of St. Louis radio icon Brad Hildebrand. What I do know: the medium has been written off and left for dead, which makes purchasing a station (or access to a signal) more affordable than any other period in our lifetimes. Imagine this purely hypothetical playbook: ideological groups, lobbyists, and “money marks” could prop up talk radio stations with advertising dollars (at inflated rates), which could then serve as effective subsidies for political consultants and elected officials. These new stations are not subject to the old paradigm of “ratings = ad dollars,” since lobbyist and donor money creates an artificial floor. Winners abound; political movements get a 24-hour propaganda vehicle (plus podcasts on demand), and everyone from elected officials to lobbyists to consultants could wet their beaks in the pool of sweet sugar daddy donor water.

I’m not suggesting any conservative or liberal groups should take this route — it certainly sounds illegal, especially lobbyists indirectly paying elected officials’ talk radio salaries that may or may not show up on the officials’ personal financial disclosure forms. But stranger things have happened.

In part 2, we’ll identify opportunities to cash in on Missouri media’s prevalent ideology (hint: it’s not liberalism!), as well has how to profit from quixotic Twitter-obsessed candidates.