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The Exorcist

A new editor reorganizes and sends the ghost of Cole Campbell packing


Circulation at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has been dwindling for years as a result of a wide range of causes, but seldom has it been said that the decline in readership was caused by the paper's having too few assistant managing editors.

A memo sent by new P-D editor Ellen Soeteber last week to staffers noted that seven new AMEs would be designated by the end of April and that those positions probably would be filled by current managers, though outsiders could apply. With the shakeup, only Soeteber and managing editor Arnie Robbins hold onto their current titles. Most other editorial managers will have to reapply for one of the seven slots or for one of the many positions under the AME constellation.

A sampling of Posties reveals support for the revamping of the newspaper's hierarchy, which had been formed in the image and likeness of former editor Cole Campbell, who left under duress last April. Soeteber started her gig on Jan. 8. In recent meetings with the staff, the new editor told reporters the changes were a direct response to reporter dissatisfaction with the way things were.

"Whatever you wanted to call Campbell's reorganization, it made it more difficult to find a reporter and for a reporter to find an editor," says one veteran reporter.

Soeteber says complaints from the staff about how reporters were divided into teams without designated editors to coordinate those teams led to "things falling through the cracks."

"I don't want people to think I'm obsessive about organizational structure, because I'm not," says the 50-year-old East St. Louis native, who, before taking the Post job, was managing editor of the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "But from before I even started here, all I was hearing from people throughout the staff was 'We've got some problems here, a real serious structural problem that is imperative to address.' It quickly became very clear that we couldn't move ahead on the things that really matter to our readers, such as the quality of our journalism and the quality of our sections every day, until we got this management-structure issue behind us."

Come May, Soeteber expects to have her magnificent seven AMEs in place. The newly ordained editors will give the P-D a more conventional newsroom, a drifting-away from the civic journalism pushed by Campbell. Senior writer Harry Levins calls it a more "traditional" approach to organizing a newsroom and is pleased about the return of what amounts to a city editor, a post abolished by the trendy Campbell. Abolished, too, during the civic-journalism pogrom were general-assignment reporters. Under the new plan, several reporters will be given GA duties.

One AME each will be put over sports, business, features, editing and presentation, metro, news and projects. Dick Weil, who was the executive editor before these changes, has accepted the projects post, which will oversee investigative and enterprise reporting. "He's happy to be getting back into real hands-on journalism," says Soeteber of Weil's move.

Little of the managerial shuffle will be apparent anytime soon to the loyal reader. Two things that may be noticed are the upcoming disappearance of the "Readers' Advocate" column by Carolyn Kingcade and the revision of the "Imagine St. Louis" section. The Sunday paper will continue to contain a section for editorials and news analysis, but the name "Imagine St. Louis" will be dropped and, it appears, the section's approach will be changed.

Whoever is named Sunday editor working under the news AME will work "very closely" with Soeteber, she says, to redo "Imagine St. Louis." There will be visible changes, Soeteber says, "but we want to make sure we do it carefully and not rashly, to make sure we're improving the section and not just moving so hastily that we make a new set of mistakes."

The new editor is careful not to diss Campbell, but Levins doesn't hesitate to go where the new editor won't. "She didn't come out and criticize Campbell, but it's clear by what she's done what she thought of the way things were," says Levins. "In the problems we had, the ghost of Cole Campbell lives on."

One concern expressed by staffers is that some inept managers might just be shuffled to other positions. "That's the rub right now, if you take a job and give it to someone people have no confidence in. That's what's everybody is worried about," says one reporter. "If there's stress over this, that's where the stress is. They don't think certain people have the ability to do their job."

Some of that concern is focused on the leftovers from Campbell, including the section editors who determined what went on section fronts. "They called them the real-estate brokers," says one reporter. "They were the gatekeepers who screwed the paper up."

As for the disappearance of the "Readers' Advocate" column, Soeteber says, Kingcade only wanted to do the job for two years, a term that would end in June. Soeteber says she believes "all our top editors are readers' advocates." Some form of the column Kingcade wrote may resurface, Soeteber says, but not necessarily written by the same person all the time and only on an as-needed basis. Levins regrets the loss of the "Readers' Advocate" and says that if the editors and AMEs are truly the new advocates for readers, "they should put the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of editors at the end of articles."

The memo Soeteber sent to the staff makes it clear the paper has room for improvement. She writes of striving for "greater accountability" and "clearer lines of authority" to help "solve problems and make better decisions in a timely fashion." In other words, Soeteber is publicly acknowledging what Post employees and readers have long suspected: The newspapers tangled organizational scheme left reporters adrift and the news uncovered.

"If you read it backward, what she's saying is that was our problem," says one reporter. "We had a problem with accountability; we had a problem with performance; we had a problem with the quality of daily journalism. She's writing it in the positive; she's not going to write it in the negative."

The changes are intended to produce an increased sense of urgency about daily reporting and breaking news at night, as well as an emphasis on investigations. Some of the teams left behind by Campbell will remain, particularly effective ones such as the education team, but some could be redirected. For instance, the technology team was not part of the business section, but Soeteber has changed things so the tech team reports to business.

Whether it's the result of a honeymoon factor or she's still benefiting by the contrast to Campbell, the newspaper's staff seems to be upbeat about Soeteber. "She's one of those people who doesn't dither. She makes a decision and she sticks with it," says one reporter. "When she makes a decision, she comes up and tells you, tells you why, and that's it. And that's good. It's usually very reasonable."

But her popularity could also be a result of the fact that she hasn't had to really mess with anyone or motivate some of the journalistic driftwood at the paper who have grown glum and sated by high salaries and Guild protection. If Soeteber is lucky, she can rally the troops to fill the news breach without having to resort to threats.

Soeteber thinks the staff's aggressiveness is improving. She believes her troops did a good job on the "horrible story about this little boy who was mauled to death by the dogs." And although the staff "recovered very aggressively" on the TWA buyout by American Airlines, the fact remains that the Post was beaten on that story, a problem for a daily paper of record.

"We got beaten by the out-of-town press on TWA and Ralston Purina," says Soeteber of the buyouts of hometown corporations. "I did not like that, getting beaten on major local stories. We don't want that to continue."

Reinforcing the Post's efforts is the return of several prodigal reporters, including Bill Smith, a veteran reporter who had been on leave under Campbell, and Chris Carey, a business reporter who left the paper to work in Indianapolis. Soeteber says the return of Smith and Carey, and the possible return of other Post refugees, "shows a renewed confidence in the Post-Dispatch by some high-quality people."

With circulation already below 300,000 on weekdays and 500,000 on Sundays, if only those seven AMEs can renew the confidence of the readers ...

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