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.

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.

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