Did He Jump, or Was He Pushed?

Getting to the bottom of Post-Dispatch editor Cole Campbell's abrupt departure

Folks in the trenches didn't buy the idea put forth in the Thursday article on the resignation that Campbell's "reorganization of the newsroom placed a high degree of emphasis on collaboration and cooperation, rather than on orders sent down from the top."

"Campbell and most of the public-journalism crowd are manipulative when it comes to readers, but I also found they were manipulative when it comes to their own staff," former business reporter Fred Faust says, disputing Campbell's goal of less "top down" management and his belief that ideas would "bubble up" from reporters. "Just the opposite was true. By the time I left, there was more day-to-day input -- interference, I would call it -- from the top than I ever saw there in 11 years."

If Campbell's trendy ideas, vacuous catchphrases and demolition-derby reorganization of the newsroom weren't enough to dash his chances of rejuvenating the Post, there were his personal peccadilloes. Foremost was the letter he sent the St. Louis Journalism Review in January 1998. Christine Bertelson, a P-D columnist, had been named editorial-page editor by Campbell. In the letter sent to SJR editor Ed Bishop, marked "personal and confidential," Campbell objected to questions asked him in preparation for a profile of Bertelson. He didn't like queries about whether Bertelson's appointment was "based on a personal rather than a professional basis." The P-D's fearless leader wrote, "If you publish any statements alleging that her appointment was made for personal reasons, that will be libelous on its face -- to her and to me." He then added that he had consulted the P-D's legal counsel.

The total paid circulation of the SJR at that time was about 1,350. Bishop went ahead with the story and printed Campbell's letter. Whatever the timing and nature of the Campbell-Bertelson "social relationship," which Bertelson confirmed in the SJR article, the specter of the formerly esteemed, Pulitzer-owned Post-Dispatch's having its editor threaten a local journalism review, well, it just wasn't cool. At all. Asked whether she wanted to comment on Campbell's departure, Bertelson replied, "No comment." And Campbell did not reply to a telephone message.

Bishop, for one, will be missing Campbell like the Fourth Estate missed Richard Nixon. "We won't have Cole Campbell to kick around anymore," says Bishop. "The reason why the Journalism Review is identified as so anti-Campbell is because we were at loggerheads with this guy over public journalism." And what now? "Public journalism is dead in St. Louis as Cole Campbell saw it," says Bishop.

Overall, print journalism is suffering an intense identity crisis as circulation plummets and criticism mounts. At the Post, circulation is down but profits are up. Grabbing Campbell may have been a case of Michael Pulitzer grasping at straws, something to make the community feel better about the daily paper it's been stuck with since the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was sold and then closed. Maybe that's the real problem -- the fun, goofball paper, the Globe, died and the stuffy, self-important, not-much-fun paper survived. For now, word is that publisher Egger and Robert Woodworth, the paper's president and CEO, will make the selection of a new editor quickly, getting someone from outside the paper.

It may be that Campbell was nudged out not so much for fomenting bad staff morale and negative reader reaction as for going way over budget last year, sinking money into Macintosh computers and "visual journalists." Whatever the reason for his sudden departure, the next editor to head into the breach needs to be armed with more than the latest buzzword or journalistic fad.

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