Lost at Sea

Editor Cole Campbell has left in his dinghy, and the mutineers at the Post-Dispatch are jubilant. Now, the flagship is listing and the crew has no idea where it's headed.

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."

"I thought the paper was sleepy when I got there. When they brought in (Cole) Campbell, I had hopes it would be less sleepy, but instead it just got dumb."
—Philip Kennicott, former editorial writer
Joe Rocco
"I thought the paper was sleepy when I got there. When they brought in (Cole) Campbell, I had hopes it would be less sleepy, but instead it just got dumb." —Philip Kennicott, former editorial writer

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.

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