Margaret Freivogel, a founder and Editor of the St. Louis Beacon, spent 34 years as a reporter, editor and Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She supervised everything from sports and features to nation/world coverage and was instrumental in creating ethics standards.
Her groundbreaking coverage of women in politics and other issues won numerous awards, including the National Press Club Washington Correspondent’s Award and the American Bar Association’s Gavel Award. She was president of Journalism and Women’s Symposium, a national organization.
—from St. Louis Beacon
My name is Margaret Wolf-Freivogel, I’m the editor of the St. Louis Beacon, which is now almost four years old. It’s a non-profit regional news organization serving people in St. Louis. Before founding the Beacon I worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post Dispatch as a reporter, editor and Washington correspondent.
Tell me about importance of FOIA…
Well they’re absolutely important to everybody because understanding how our government functions is not only our right but also our responsibility and keeping it functioning well relies on that flow of information. Furthermore, the way the world is now, the digital work in particular, information flows. The question is, is it quality information, is it accurate information, or is it going to be rumors and allegations. So the freedom of information act helps to ensure the information that we’re relying on is accurate and real.
And if they’re accessing information about that public governmental body, I think it has a therapeutic effect because the body knows it’s being watched, and there’s something really powerful about that, as a preventative to corruption, frankly. And I think sometimes we talk about open government in all of these euphemistic terms about people’s business and the people’s right to know, and all that stuff. I try to get down to a little more practical: it’s about watching them, it’s about keeping an eye on our budgets and our pocketbooks, and it’s about people who are elected to government doing the public’s work, and without public participation that doesn’t happen.
We do a lot of reporting on government, we’ve used the freedom of information act a little bit. I think the fact that it’s there helps get information anyway. One particular instance where we did use it was a project we did jointly with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting on how homeland security money has been spent in the state of Missouri. That was recent, within the last couple months. The last segment of that project ran around September 11.
Tips for journalists?
I think there are a number of tips that I’ve picked up from people over the years ranging from ‘chat up the officials that you’re talking to’ because sometimes they can actually be very helpful… file your requests very specifically. There’s often a stage where people have to negotiate over the time and money involved to get these out, and that’s pretty crucial in terms of practicalities. We ran into a lot of road blocks getting information about homeland security money and how it was spent. It was a long process of negotiation to figure out what we were going to get and how much we were going to pay for it. I guess the overall most important tip is that you have to stick with it over a long period of time because it can be a long process.