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 editor didn't treat both sides in the same manner, says Kennicott.

"Unlike powerful business types, to whom he would sit and listen and let them frame the argument the way they wanted to frame it, when he was actually listening to just regular folks on an environmental subject, he had to make them put it into his jumble-ese," says Kennicott. "If you were president of Monsanto or the head of Civic Progress, you could make your case however you wanted to make it. But regular folks had to make their case with flip charts and position reversals and stuff like that. He didn't want to offend Civic Progress. It would be articulated, 'Well, I'm perfectly willing to offend Civic Progress; I just think we need to work from a paradigm that's not an us-vs.-them paradigm because that's an old-fashioned paradigm we need to get beyond.' And I'd listen, listen, listen -- and then think, 'You know, it sounds like you don't want to offend Civic Progress.'"

McGuire describes one "movement" Campbell wanted: for staffers to write with "cultural authority." The concept was fuzzy for the veteran feature writer: "I'm thinking, 'What in the world is cultural authority?' He'd have these flip-chart sessions. He stopped me once after a cultural-authority session. He called me in an office -- it was like being called in by the mother superior -- and he asked me, what did I think? I told him, 'To be honest with you, I was just terribly confused.'"

"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

The main hangover from Campbell may be his reorganization of the news staff into teams, or what Tuft calls "a complete disorganization of the newsroom, of the hierarchical standards." By eliminating such traditional newsroom positions as city editor and not making clear who is in charge at the street level, Campbell left the staff unclear as to who was in charge when decisions had to be made and priorities set on a real-world basis. "Reporters feel like they're swimming through mud," Tuft says. "The whole system of getting projects, in-depth projects, into the paper is unclear and completely ridiculous. You just don't know who you have to turn to for the ability to get the space and graphics and all that stuff coordinated. The newspaper is in disarray at this point, and reporters have a hard time figuring out how to get a good story in the paper."

Tuft's criticism is baffling to Campbell.

"There's a great irony in Carolyn Tuft being one of my critics, because under my tenure she became a full-time investigative reporter," says Campbell. "Then we added two more full-time investigative reporters, and we gave her complete leeway to pursue the stories she was interested in pursuing. So it's interesting to me that she sees herself in some way as an aggrieved party. Go figure."

Another organizational rap against Campbell is his virtual elimination of general-assignment reporters. Aside from one or two nightside reporters, almost no general-assignment reporters were available to be dispatched to cover breaking stories. Because everyone was on the "public safety" or "social justice" or "public affairs" or "education" or some other team, events or issues slipped through the cracks. "Things just didn't get covered," says one staffer. "Everybody's team pointed at the other, and there was nobody in charge. There was a huge power vacuum. It was one team leader vs. another. These teams defined their own turf and what they were or weren't going to cover. And there was no one to say what they should or shouldn't be doing."

Campbell doesn't see it that way. He didn't see the team approach and the lack of GA reporters as a problem.

"It was an anxiety," says Campbell. "If your model is, you need general assignment reporters to chase breaking news, then your model is, you're waiting for news to break and then you go chase it. I don't like that model." By putting more people on "teams," Campbell's intent was to have more beat reporters. "It's a fundamentally different conception of when does news begin? Does it begin when the fax machine starts to whir or an announcement is made or a press conference is scheduled, or does it begin three or four weeks before that? If you're a beat reporter out on a beat, you're plugged into that. I wanted to put more reporters back on the street, not sitting in their seats waiting for news to break."

The reorganization will pay off, the former editor says: "The reader in St. Louis is going to see a whole lot of change in the next two or three months. These teams are going to start coming to a level of maturity as a team and start producing some really interesting copy."

One change that many reporters and readers seem to want is an end to the Sunday paper's "Imagine St. Louis," section, which replaced the Sunday "News Analysis" section. With this change, one topic was selected per week for treatment under the headline "Imagine St. Louis -- Exploring possibilities for progress and reform across the metropolitan area." Under "Keeping Up with Imagine's Conversations," readers were encouraged to write, call or e-mail their reactions to the issue and also watch Sunday morning's 30-minute Imagine St. Louis discussion on KMOV-TV.

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