Reporters gathered at a bar to drink beer and gripe about their editor hardly qualifies as news. It's not even dog-bites-man -- it's more like dog-scratches-himself-and-lies-down.
But when a group of experienced high-profile St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters get together at the Missouri Grill, across Tucker Boulevard from the newspaper's office, and they're griping about their editor, Cole Campbell, directly to the paper's publisher, Terry Egger, and then within two weeks the editor abruptly resigns -- well, that's man-bites-dog material.
Egger periodically met with the troops, but this Friday-night session was different. "It was more emotional," says Harry Levins, a senior writer at the paper who was at the bar that day. "It was the first time we pissed and moaned out loud about Campbell instead of sly innuendo and a joke here and a minor bitch about this or that in the newsroom. We just let it hang out. Shit, I left after two hours, and it was still going strong."
Among others at the gathering were columnist Bill McClellan, investigative reporter Carolyn Tuft, feature writer John McGuire and political reporter and local Newspaper Guild president Tim O'Neil. At the meeting, a list of the 19 reporters and other staffers who had left in the previous 18 months was handed to Egger. After three-and-a-half years with Campbell as the Post-Dispatch's editor, it had become clear that many talented staff members were voting with their feet. Considering it has one of the highest pay scales among the nation's unionized daily newspapers, the Post-Dispatch was unaccustomed to such turnover.
No threats were made, but the message at the March 24 gathering was clear: If the status quo continued, more reporters and editors would probably leave, and a bad situation would get worse. On April 5, Campbell, with Egger standing by his side in the newsroom, announced his resignation.
Levins and other reporters don't believe they ran Campbell out of town; they think the continuing decline in circulation, budget over-runs in the editorial department and general grousing from readers had more to do with it than any employee gripe session.
"I would hope that the paper isn't going to be managed over what a few unhappy reporters say over a beer. Give Terry more credit than that," says Levins of Egger. That said, the powwow couldn't have helped Campbell's employment security. "When the word came down a week-and-a-half later," Levins adds, "I wasn't surprised."
Tuft also is unsure of the role the meeting played. "I don't know if that was the straw that broke the camel's back or if it was just Egger's ability to understand where we were coming from," says Tuft. "I don't know. He didn't tell us that."
McGuire, who has been on the staff for 34 years, didn't expect that the meeting would lead to Campbell's being jettisoned. "I figured that Campbell was here forever, so live with it. I thought there was nothing that could be done," he says.
O'Neil doesn't discount the fact that Egger listened and that low staff morale may have contributed to Campbell's ouster, but he believes other factors loomed larger.
"People were more candid at that session because Tom Borgman had just quit a few days before. Borgman was the graphics chief, a very well-liked guy," says O'Neil. "A lot of us were angry because we were wondering, just how much more hemorrhaging is this staff going to have to endure?"
From management's perspective, at least, there was no attempted beer-hall putsch at the Missouri Grill. If anything, the intent was to soothe troubled waters, to tell folks to chill and not do anything rash. For the record, Egger says, the meeting wasn't all that special, that he routinely huddles with different folks from different departments.
"There was no one meeting," says Egger. "That said, in general you pick up comments in the hallways, in the elevators, and just try to be very open in conversation with all of our employees to get an idea of what's right and what isn't working. So there was no one meeting where people came to me and suddenly there was a change."
By April 5, Cole Campbell's 43-month reign of error apparently had reached the guillotine stage. The casualty rate of the staff had risen steadily during Campbell's time as editor. Some staffers bolted for other papers; older hands retired or took leaves of absence. Reporters, routinely a neurotic bunch to start with, took their bitching and moaning to new levels -- morale sank to H.M.S. Bounty levels, premutiny.
Campbell had become the Mike Keenan of St. Louis journalism in that, like the former Blues coach, he had encouraged his underlings to "embrace change" and most of them wanted no part of it, at least not the brand he was selling. Some conspiracy theorists surmised that the only explanation for all of Campbell's management machinations was that he was compiling notes on how to reshape and rejuvenate a newspaper staff for a textbook. If so, he'd have to settle for one without a happy ending.
In the midst of Campbell's resignation, it was widely rumored that Pulitzer Inc. was negotiating to buy the Suburban Journals. Then the company bought out the Newhouse family's interest in the paper, thereby escaping the arrangement in which Pulitzer Inc. had to share half the profits of the Post with the former owners of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. That move spurred new rumors, denied by company chairman Michael E. Pulitzer, that the Post-Dispatch might be positioning itself to be sold. Whatever the intent of these developments, the last few months have been busy for St. Louis' daily paper of record. Things have changed since Campbell was hired, and they're about to change some more.
What Campbell walked into on Friday, Aug. 23, 1996, wasn't exactly a happy camp, but few could have predicted how much deeper into discontent and dysfunction the paper would drift. Campbell was only the second editor of the paper whose last name was not Pulitzer, the other being William Woo, whom Campbell replaced. Michael Pulitzer introduced Campbell to the newspaper's staff by calling him the "clear choice" because of his "journalistic skills, business acumen, leadership and vision." This Pulitzer was said to be enamored of Campbell and believed he would help "engage" the community -- a favorite Campbell term and a particularly attractive goal for the Post-Dispatch because even when the paper was highly regarded, decades ago, it still seemed distant from most local citizens. So Campbell at least entered the newsroom with high hopes and high expectations.
But that was many charrettes ago, before Campbell abolished the concept of a general-assignment reporter to cover breaking news; did away with the city editor's position; made everyone "reapply" for their jobs; hired more of what he called "visual journalists," otherwise known as graphic designers; and put reporters on "teams" headed by "team leaders" instead of editors. Campbell was a devotee of "public journalism," a trend in journalism that emphasizes "reconnecting" with and "engaging" the community. Although Campbell contends he was never able to truly pursue public journalism as editor, his revamping the "News Analysis" section into "Imagine St. Louis," in which issues or causes are explored with the intent of beginning an ongoing dialogue, was often pointed to as an example of public journalism. In an interview with the St. Louis Journalism Review, Campbell described readers as being "shrouded in fog" and that the paper was sending out "searchlights through the fog" to reach them. If so, the searchlights didn't seem to work. Before Campbell took over in 1996, weekday circulation was about 316,000. Now it hovers around the 300,000 mark.
As discontent increased in the newsroom, Egger picked up on it. "At times they'd express, here's what's right with the paper, here's what's wrong with the paper," recalls Egger. "Any journalist or employee worth their salt, I would hope they would feel free to express that."
Egger says he wanted to stem the growing exodus of employees from the paper.
"What I was trying to convey to those folks was that you don't want to see good people walk out the door. You just don't," says Egger. "So, knowing that these issues were being addressed and that Cole and I were having conversations about them, I was trying to encourage people: 'Don't do something rash -- things are going to get better,' because, again, they were on the table. They just needed to get better. One way or another, they were."
Tuft says the stated message to experienced reporters looking elsewhere was to wait. "Egger just asked us not to leave the paper, to hold tight," says Tuft, who also says others were talking to Egger about the state of the newsroom. "We weren't the only people. There was an endless stream of people who went into Terry Egger's office in the months prior to Campbell's departure from the paper. People would just go in his office."
But that McClellan, McGuire, Levins, O'Neil and Tuft were the ones making the pitch had to mean something. Tuft is in the midst of a series of stories that has helped get convicted murderer Rodney Woidtke's case reviewed. That they would bother to tell the publisher things had gotten so bad something had to be done -- well, it wasn't irrational to begin to believe something had to be done.
For McClellan, morale at the paper had sunk to new depths because of Campbell, and the stream of reporters and editors running out the door was proof that the editor's obsession with "public journalism" and its drastic restructuring of the newsroom into teams of reporters was a disaster.
"There absolutely was bad morale," says McClellan. "One of the things that was really troublesome was, we were losing so many good people and people you wouldn't expect to lose. When we lost Peter Hernon, that was a big blow because he was such a mentor to the young writers. When he headed the South County bureau, we used to call it the 'South County writers' club.' All the young reporters wanted to go out there and work for him because he was a terrific editor. Plus, he had written several novels. He was an elegant writer."
Not only did Hernon leave for the Chicago Tribune, Charles Bosworth dropped his Illinois-bureau berth for the public-relations world of Fleishman-Hillard. Associate city editor Jim Mosley took a leave of absence. Bill Smith did the same. Philip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his Post-Dispatch editorial writing on the concealed-weapons ballot issue, took a job as a classical-music critic at the Washington Post. Dan Mihalopoulos, a rising star covering urban-sprawl issues, also went to the Chicago Tribune, as did business reporter Robert Manor. Chris Carey left for the Indianapolis Star, Samuel Autman went to the San Diego Tribune, Kevin Robbins to the Austin American-Statesman.
"The most striking thing in his tenure was the steady stream of people leaving," says McGuire, who came to the Post in 1967. "It was almost like one a week for a while. In all the years I had been here, there had never been that many departures, except for my first couple years here."
Speaking from his temporary position, which expires in October, at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., Campbell has a different take on the turnover, saying that by newspaper industry standards it wasn't high. What's more, he says, people leaving isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"It was different from the Post-Dispatch's historic experience," says Campbell. "But it was low compared to industry standards. You can debate whether turnover at what level hurts or helps a newsroom. If a newsroom is not used to turnover, it can interpret turnover as a negative."
One ex-reporter noticed the difference: "People used to just not leave the Post-Dispatch. They came from all over the place. It was a destination newspaper, and once you got there, no matter how frequently you griped about the place, you didn't leave. That's changed. They've lost some major talent in the last year or two."
For McClellan, the paper's future seemed to be evaporating: "One of the guys who's been here a long time said, 'Wow, it's like we're eating our seed corn now.' That was a big part of part of the disenchantment with Mr. Campbell .... We were losing a lot of good people. That, more than anything, I think, drove people to feel that something had to be done."
Once Campbell's departure was announced, the glee in the newsroom was hard to hide.
"The day Campbell left, everybody was, like, walking on air," says one staff member. "The antipathy for him was that great. Even his henchmen were almost relieved. The shit flowed downhill, and they knew they were giving orders they didn't really believe in. A lot of what he was doing, people just weren't on board." The paper started to change in small ways. Gone were Sunday's Page One "footprints," which described an article in a few paragraphs, teasing the reader to turn to an inside page to find the story. As one staffer says, "The guy who was in charge of that edition was laughing about getting rid of them."
But putting Captain Bligh overboard in a dinghy solved just one of the Bounty's problems. As Egger looks for a new editor to right the ship, it doesn't take much examination of the Post to show that its problems didn't begin with Campbell, who was brought in to rejuvenate a listless staff left behind by William Woo and his managing editor, Foster Davis. "We didn't think it could get any worse; then it got a lot worse," recalls Tuft of the expectations before Campbell arrived. "You're freaking out when you hear people long for the days of Bill Woo and Foster Davis."
In many ways, Cole Campbell, intentionally or inadvertently, became the most visible, best-known Post-Dispatch editor in decades. McGuire says he has never seen such a phenomenon in his three decades at the paper. "The thing that was fascinating about Campbell was how much people on the outside were curious about him," says McGuire. "I'd have to say I didn't know that much about him. But he somehow got a very prominent position on the public stage. Even now, in the aftermath, I'm getting messages. There's a curiosity out in the general public I've never experienced about an editor."
The nightmare on wheels that Cole Campbell would become as editor became obvious shortly after he arrived from Norfolk, Va.
It didn't take long for Campbell to exude some strange vibes.
"One of the early meetings we had, with all the flip charts and all that bullshit, they had us break up into groups and make suggestions on how things could get better," one veteran staffer says. "One suggestion was that Cole could go around and meet the people who work for him. They put that on the board, and when he got to that point he said, 'Oh no, we can't have the editor going around and doing that. Because otherwise people's expectations would only reach the level of the editor instead of going beyond that.' I'm thinking, 'What the fuck is this bullshit? He should get to know me -- I don't give a rat's ass about what he thinks about my work.' Then he was giving seminars on writing cutlines. That's embarrassing, to have worked as long as I have in the business to have this dumbshit giving me a seminar on how to write a cutline, saying stuff like 'If there's a little girl in a red dress, you don't mention she has red dress on.'"
In another flip-chart episode, Kennicott recalls, Campbell met with opponents of the controversial Page Avenue extension. By that time Kennicott was no longer a classical-music critic, having moved to writing editorials.
"Campbell got out a flip chart and said they would have to frame their argument in his terms," says Kennicott. "He asked, at one point, 'Can you articulate the most positive part of your opponents' position?' (State Rep.) Joan Bray just sort of looked at him and said, 'No, we don't think they should build the highway. We don't agree.' It was the worst meeting. He didn't want to hear from them. He had a structure on how he could receive knowledge. He wanted it packaged in his terms, and they were there just to tell him 'Here's our issues.'"
The editor didn't treat both sides in the same manner, says Kennicott.
"Unlike powerful business types, to whom he would sit and listen and let them frame the argument the way they wanted to frame it, when he was actually listening to just regular folks on an environmental subject, he had to make them put it into his jumble-ese," says Kennicott. "If you were president of Monsanto or the head of Civic Progress, you could make your case however you wanted to make it. But regular folks had to make their case with flip charts and position reversals and stuff like that. He didn't want to offend Civic Progress. It would be articulated, 'Well, I'm perfectly willing to offend Civic Progress; I just think we need to work from a paradigm that's not an us-vs.-them paradigm because that's an old-fashioned paradigm we need to get beyond.' And I'd listen, listen, listen -- and then think, 'You know, it sounds like you don't want to offend Civic Progress.'"
McGuire describes one "movement" Campbell wanted: for staffers to write with "cultural authority." The concept was fuzzy for the veteran feature writer: "I'm thinking, 'What in the world is cultural authority?' He'd have these flip-chart sessions. He stopped me once after a cultural-authority session. He called me in an office -- it was like being called in by the mother superior -- and he asked me, what did I think? I told him, 'To be honest with you, I was just terribly confused.'"
The main hangover from Campbell may be his reorganization of the news staff into teams, or what Tuft calls "a complete disorganization of the newsroom, of the hierarchical standards." By eliminating such traditional newsroom positions as city editor and not making clear who is in charge at the street level, Campbell left the staff unclear as to who was in charge when decisions had to be made and priorities set on a real-world basis. "Reporters feel like they're swimming through mud," Tuft says. "The whole system of getting projects, in-depth projects, into the paper is unclear and completely ridiculous. You just don't know who you have to turn to for the ability to get the space and graphics and all that stuff coordinated. The newspaper is in disarray at this point, and reporters have a hard time figuring out how to get a good story in the paper."
Tuft's criticism is baffling to Campbell.
"There's a great irony in Carolyn Tuft being one of my critics, because under my tenure she became a full-time investigative reporter," says Campbell. "Then we added two more full-time investigative reporters, and we gave her complete leeway to pursue the stories she was interested in pursuing. So it's interesting to me that she sees herself in some way as an aggrieved party. Go figure."
Another organizational rap against Campbell is his virtual elimination of general-assignment reporters. Aside from one or two nightside reporters, almost no general-assignment reporters were available to be dispatched to cover breaking stories. Because everyone was on the "public safety" or "social justice" or "public affairs" or "education" or some other team, events or issues slipped through the cracks. "Things just didn't get covered," says one staffer. "Everybody's team pointed at the other, and there was nobody in charge. There was a huge power vacuum. It was one team leader vs. another. These teams defined their own turf and what they were or weren't going to cover. And there was no one to say what they should or shouldn't be doing."
Campbell doesn't see it that way. He didn't see the team approach and the lack of GA reporters as a problem.
"It was an anxiety," says Campbell. "If your model is, you need general assignment reporters to chase breaking news, then your model is, you're waiting for news to break and then you go chase it. I don't like that model." By putting more people on "teams," Campbell's intent was to have more beat reporters. "It's a fundamentally different conception of when does news begin? Does it begin when the fax machine starts to whir or an announcement is made or a press conference is scheduled, or does it begin three or four weeks before that? If you're a beat reporter out on a beat, you're plugged into that. I wanted to put more reporters back on the street, not sitting in their seats waiting for news to break."
The reorganization will pay off, the former editor says: "The reader in St. Louis is going to see a whole lot of change in the next two or three months. These teams are going to start coming to a level of maturity as a team and start producing some really interesting copy."
One change that many reporters and readers seem to want is an end to the Sunday paper's "Imagine St. Louis," section, which replaced the Sunday "News Analysis" section. With this change, one topic was selected per week for treatment under the headline "Imagine St. Louis -- Exploring possibilities for progress and reform across the metropolitan area." Under "Keeping Up with Imagine's Conversations," readers were encouraged to write, call or e-mail their reactions to the issue and also watch Sunday morning's 30-minute Imagine St. Louis discussion on KMOV-TV.
Critics of the section see it as a shallow cursory treatment of a current issue that diverts resources from more fundamental news-gathering efforts. To them, it is a symbol of Campbell's public-journalism fixation. But even though Campbell is gone, president and chief executive Robert Woodworth says it is "too early to tell" what will happen to the paper's various attempts at public journalism. "The most visible example of that is the 'Imagine St. Louis' section, and that's only a year old," says Woodworth. "As new products go into market and readers develop a familiarity with them, it takes time. I think it's too early."
But at least one reporter is vehement about getting rid of "Imagine St. Louis," saying it's almost a symbol of what's gone wrong in the last three years. "Readers are right when they say public journalism is ruining the paper," the reporter says. "I don't think there's any place in a daily paper for things like 'Imagine St. Louis.' That goes across the board. There was quite a debate after Cole left -- reporters were all begging for an end to the 'Imagine' section."
When it comes to looking back to the past fondly, few newspapers can match the Post-Dispatch's 20th-century performance. From the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s through the Pentagon Papers of the 1960s, the paper not only did good work, it received good press. For proof of how good the good old days were, reporters back in the '60s had to look no further than the lunchroom. A survey had rated the world's 10 best papers, and the Post had made the cut, keeping company with the Times of India and the Asahi Shimbun of Japan.
"The Post ran house ads, preening itself, fluffing its feathers about all of that. They were so proud of it, and who wouldn't be? They had facsimiles or actual reprints of the front pages of all of those papers framed and hung in the lunchroom," recalls Eliot F. Porter Jr., a 31-year veteran of the newsroom who retired in 1998. Eventually, that status faded. "Sometime in the '70s -- nobody can remember exactly when it was -- it became patently absurd, and very quietly, one night, those were taken down."
Even on the national scene, the paper's reputation was shrinking. In 1964, Time's "Ten Best American Dailies" included the Post. By 1974, the Post had been dropped from the list, along with other fading papers such as the Baltimore Sun, the Cleveland Press, the Minneapolis Tribune and the New York Daily News. Taking those papers' places were the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, Newsday and the Wall Street Journal. Those in the know point out that several higher-ups at Time when the Post made the Top 10 had St. Louis connections, but whatever the cause, the paper's reputation was nationwide. But by the '70s, the image had faded from the golden age of Joseph Pulitzer II's editorship, which ran from 1911-55. He was followed by Joseph Pulitzer III.
The Pulitzer name denotes excellence in journalism, or at least the perception of excellence in journalism. It's been a banner and burden for the Post-Dispatch through the years. Most of that stems from Joseph Pulitzer II, the son of founder Joseph Pulitzer. He was given the St. Louis paper mainly because his father valued the New York World more than the Post and he thought his sons Ralph and Herbert would do better with the World. Old man Pulitzer even stiffed Joseph II in his will, dividing up his newspapers' dividends so that Herbert got 60 percent, Ralph got 20 percent and Joseph got 10 percent, the same amount that was divvied up among top editors and managers of the papers. But Joseph II's loss was St. Louis' gain. Though a bit of a slacker in his father's eyes, he took his mission seriously and produced a high-quality, widely respected newspaper that legitimately attracted nationwide attention. His father was responsible for instituting what amounts to journalism's version of the Oscar, the Pulitzer Prize, but 12 of the 19 Pulitzers won by the Post were won during Joseph II's editorship. The last time work published in the Post was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize was in 1989, when St. Louis freelancer Ron Olshwanger won the spot-news-photography category.
The standards set by Joseph II lasted until well after his death, though eventually the momentum faded. Porter recalls being hired at the paper in 1964 and working the night shift. When there was nothing to do, conversation would start with the cleanup crew. One night, Porter was taken on a tour of Pulitzer's office.
"It was very elegant in there -- paintings on the wall, carpets on the floor, an enormous globe of the world, showing the world largely as Lord Kitchener left it," Porter says. "So the guy tells me sometimes he would come in and it would be hard to clean because Mr. Pulitzer would be there and he had very weak eyes and he'd be there with newspapers from all over the world, in several different languages, spread out on the floor, and he'd be on his hands and knees going over them with a magnifying glass, with his male secretary standing there taking notes: 'King, the situation in Uganda ... take a note, send a man there.' That sort of thing. So I said, 'Where is he now? Aren't you afraid he's going to walk in now, with a big bundle of newspapers under his arm?' and he said 'Oh no, Mr. Porter. That was the old Mr. Pulitzer. I ain't never seen the young Mr. Pulitzer.' That was 10 years after his pa had died," Porter says. "That tells you, I submit, everything: 'I ain't never seen the young Mr. Pulitzer.'"
Even with a less driven, or less adept, Pulitzer at the wheel, the paper kept up much of its quality. One local academic researcher marvels at the microfilm files of the Post from its bygone era. "What's a frightening experience is to go back and look on microfilm at the Post, which I have done, in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. They used to do so much coverage. There was just a lot more in it. There were tons of coverage of all sorts of things," says Lana Stein, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "It was amazing to me how much there was, how long the articles were, how thorough."
Few papers look as they did 30 or 40 years ago; the trouble with the Post is that it suffers greatly in the comparison. Part of that difference stems from the two-tiered nature of newspapers in St. Louis. The Globe-Democrat stressed local news, indulging in campaigns to push for things like medians on Lindbergh Boulevard. The Post often seemed preoccupied with national and international issues, and though it covered local news, its priority was politics and classic municipal malfeasance, steering clear of sentimentality and smaller issues.
Along with an identity crisis of sorts created by its past and the name of its owners, the Post has all of the usual symptoms of a modern daily newspaper: Its circulation is declining, the age of its average reader is increasing and it faces real, though hard-to-quantify, competition from the Internet.
One problem the Post-Dispatch doesn't have is red ink. Pulitzer Inc. is making money. As part of the annual 50-50 profit-sharing that was part of Newhouse's sale of the Globe-Democrat in 1984, last year Pulitzer Inc. paid Newhouse $25 million. With the recent buyout, that is the last time Pulitzer Inc. will be in that situation. There was also a $26.7 million payout of stock options and bonuses in 1999, leaving a net operating income of $19 million.
Those at the top are doing just fine. Michael Pulitzer gets an annual salary of $980,000. Bonuses and other income pushed his total compensation from the company to $3.5 million last year. Robert Woodworth, president and chief executive, received a salary of $575,000 and an incentive bonus equal to his salary, though $386,016 of that amount was deferred.
By borrowing $306 million to buy out 95 percent of the Newhouse interest in Pulitzer, the Post will have to share only 5 percent of its profits with the former owners of the Globe, as opposed to 50 percent.
Getting out from under the hangover of the joint operating agreement and the 50-50 profit split has spurred speculation that Pulitzer Inc., like so many family-owned newspaper companies, may just sell all -- papers or, at least, the flagship, the Post. Asked about that possibility after a recent stockholder meeting, Michael Pulitzer seem surprised to hear about the concept. "All I can tell you is that there are no plans for sale, and that's the first I've heard of it," Pulitzer says. "These moves are made to strengthen our position in the St. Louis market."
Egger concurs, explaining that sale talk always circulates at newspapers. "There's no validity to that," says Egger. "We made a decision to divest in broadcast to increase our presence in newspaper and new media, and I think every step we have taken since we made that announcement has been consistent with that.
"We're thrilled with being able to have greater control here in St. Louis of our own destiny and reap our own rewards. No matter what you do, people can say, 'That's a sign.' But I never worked at a newspaper in my career, nor do I know of anyone who ever worked at a newspaper, where there wasn't always a rumor that 'Aha, they're going to be sold.' It just comes with the territory. But in this case, there is absolutely no plan, nothing on the horizon for that."
A daily newspaper isn't supposed to make everybody happy. In this, the Post-Dispatch is a typical daily paper, only more so.
One professor at a local school of medicine calls the paper "a joke." He selects insightful or worthwhile articles about science and medicine to put up on his office bulletin board. He hasn't put a piece up from the Post-Dispatch in years. He skims the paper in five minutes, then turns to the sports section, giving the comics to his daughter. A local state representative says the paper "has nothing to read in it." A rancher in Iron County used to drive several miles to pick up a Sunday Post but says he's decided it's not worth the trip because he feels the articles are predictable and superficial. He relies on Internet sites for his information.
"A lot of the criticism of the Post, especially recently, has been on the mark," admits McClellan. "The sort of criticisms I'm talking about is 'Jeez, you guys don't seem to have much news,' or 'You miss a lot of stories,' or 'You have a lot of graphics.' We have been, for a while, driven by graphics. Hopefully we're trying to get away from that. Under Mr. Campbell, you had three international stories (on page 3) that would be the same size with equal pictures every day. News doesn't really operate that way."
McClellan says readers routinely gripe about a daily paper. "We're almost like institutional food in college at the dormitory," he says. "Everybody complains about the local paper." And the past mystique of the Pulitzer-owned Post haunts the present.
"There was a time, 40 or 50 years ago, when the Post-Dispatch was supposed to be one of the best newspapers in the world, and then it was one of the best papers in country, and y'know, now it's, y'know, it's a paper," the Post columnist says. "But when I travel around and look at other papers, I see that some of them are better, but not that many. It isn't like we're disgraceful."
For Michael Pulitzer, there's one criticism that he hears most often. "The knock that I hear on the Post-Dispatch most frequently is that we're aloof from the community," says Pulitzer. "I think we've come a long way. Our commitment is to be the No. 1 news source in the St. Louis area.... As for coverage of news, that means to be more tied in with the community. We've increased zone coverage."
For Post alum Porter, that criticism is long irrelevant, a memory of a more storied past rather than an accurate description of the current product.
"Saying the Post is aloof is like saying the Post is great. That's about 20 years out of date, 30 years. It was aloof. I don't think it's aloof now," says Porter. "You can draw the distinction between being aloof and today's slovenliness and superciliousness. It's not so much that the Post is aloof; it's just not with it."
Part of the internal problem with the paper may be a form of journalistic sclerosis. When pay is good but the product is under par, people who have a drive to do good work may become dissatisfied and head elsewhere despite the financial rewards of staying put. Sometimes those more concerned about a paycheck and less stressed about poor work are more apt to stay.
After eight years, an experienced reporter has a "top minimum" pay of at least $1,054 per week, or $54,808 per year. Among Guild papers, the Post's pay scale is beaten only by the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Boston Globe, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
One staffer says he came from what was considered a better paper but had to work harder and was paid less. "And the managing editor was right down everybody's throats. He had his eye on the ball all the time. But at the same time, there was a level of professionalism. Everybody expected more of themselves and everybody else as a result. That's missing at the Post-Dispatch."
So part of the blame, according to this Post employee, is with the man or woman in the mirror. And, of course, Cole Campbell wasn't the only editor in the building.
"It's bad editors, bad editors," the reporter says. "There's no question about it. People who want to change things feel like there's no place they can go. There's no place you can go where you can take your concerns. That's bad. That's not just Cole Campbell -- that runs throughout. At a good paper, there are a lot of places you can go. There's checks and balances all through the system, because everybody has high expectations for themselves and others. I don't think that exists at the Post-Dispatch, for the most part."
Kennicott says the paper could use some more energy: "I thought the paper was sleepy when I got there. When they brought in Campbell, I had hopes it would be less sleepy, but instead it just got dumb."
Now that Campbell is gone, the wait for a new editor has left the newsroom without a clear hierarchy of command. Many are hoping for an old-school traditional editor. "They should do everything they can to find a brilliant workaholic city-desk-type editor who would come in and run the place with an iron grip and just report stories," one ex-reporter says. "I hope they don't get any more philosophers."
One observer says the staff needs to get busy and dispense with the organizational angst, summing it up this way: "Fewer meetings, more stories."
Carolyn Tuft is hoping for an "editor-in-chief who's a dyed-in-the-wool newspaper person, who knows what news is and doesn't use the latest journalism fad to try and fix the paper."
"People like Carolyn are the heroes of that place," says Kennicott. "They have had their own work tangibly lessened in importance and curtailed, and yet they've stuck with it. They're the people who will save the paper if anybody can, if they get an editor who knows that you don't mess around with reporters of that caliber. You give them all the pens and notebooks they can carry and just send them out."
Either way, close to 300,000 copies of the Post will head out into the abyss 365 times a year. That's the thing about a daily newspaper -- every day it disappoints, but every day there's a chance for redemption.