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.

"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."

"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

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.'"

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