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.

Critics of the section see it as a shallow cursory treatment of a current issue that diverts resources from more fundamental news-gathering efforts. To them, it is a symbol of Campbell's public-journalism fixation. But even though Campbell is gone, president and chief executive Robert Woodworth says it is "too early to tell" what will happen to the paper's various attempts at public journalism. "The most visible example of that is the 'Imagine St. Louis' section, and that's only a year old," says Woodworth. "As new products go into market and readers develop a familiarity with them, it takes time. I think it's too early."

But at least one reporter is vehement about getting rid of "Imagine St. Louis," saying it's almost a symbol of what's gone wrong in the last three years. "Readers are right when they say public journalism is ruining the paper," the reporter says. "I don't think there's any place in a daily paper for things like 'Imagine St. Louis.' That goes across the board. There was quite a debate after Cole left -- reporters were all begging for an end to the 'Imagine' section."

When it comes to looking back to the past fondly, few newspapers can match the Post-Dispatch's 20th-century performance. From the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s through the Pentagon Papers of the 1960s, the paper not only did good work, it received good press. For proof of how good the good old days were, reporters back in the '60s had to look no further than the lunchroom. A survey had rated the world's 10 best papers, and the Post had made the cut, keeping company with the Times of India and the Asahi Shimbun of Japan.

"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 Post ran house ads, preening itself, fluffing its feathers about all of that. They were so proud of it, and who wouldn't be? They had facsimiles or actual reprints of the front pages of all of those papers framed and hung in the lunchroom," recalls Eliot F. Porter Jr., a 31-year veteran of the newsroom who retired in 1998. Eventually, that status faded. "Sometime in the '70s -- nobody can remember exactly when it was -- it became patently absurd, and very quietly, one night, those were taken down."

Even on the national scene, the paper's reputation was shrinking. In 1964, Time's "Ten Best American Dailies" included the Post. By 1974, the Post had been dropped from the list, along with other fading papers such as the Baltimore Sun, the Cleveland Press, the Minneapolis Tribune and the New York Daily News. Taking those papers' places were the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, Newsday and the Wall Street Journal. Those in the know point out that several higher-ups at Time when the Post made the Top 10 had St. Louis connections, but whatever the cause, the paper's reputation was nationwide. But by the '70s, the image had faded from the golden age of Joseph Pulitzer II's editorship, which ran from 1911-55. He was followed by Joseph Pulitzer III.

The Pulitzer name denotes excellence in journalism, or at least the perception of excellence in journalism. It's been a banner and burden for the Post-Dispatch through the years. Most of that stems from Joseph Pulitzer II, the son of founder Joseph Pulitzer. He was given the St. Louis paper mainly because his father valued the New York World more than the Post and he thought his sons Ralph and Herbert would do better with the World. Old man Pulitzer even stiffed Joseph II in his will, dividing up his newspapers' dividends so that Herbert got 60 percent, Ralph got 20 percent and Joseph got 10 percent, the same amount that was divvied up among top editors and managers of the papers. But Joseph II's loss was St. Louis' gain. Though a bit of a slacker in his father's eyes, he took his mission seriously and produced a high-quality, widely respected newspaper that legitimately attracted nationwide attention. His father was responsible for instituting what amounts to journalism's version of the Oscar, the Pulitzer Prize, but 12 of the 19 Pulitzers won by the Post were won during Joseph II's editorship. The last time work published in the Post was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize was in 1989, when St. Louis freelancer Ron Olshwanger won the spot-news-photography category.

The standards set by Joseph II lasted until well after his death, though eventually the momentum faded. Porter recalls being hired at the paper in 1964 and working the night shift. When there was nothing to do, conversation would start with the cleanup crew. One night, Porter was taken on a tour of Pulitzer's office.

"It was very elegant in there -- paintings on the wall, carpets on the floor, an enormous globe of the world, showing the world largely as Lord Kitchener left it," Porter says. "So the guy tells me sometimes he would come in and it would be hard to clean because Mr. Pulitzer would be there and he had very weak eyes and he'd be there with newspapers from all over the world, in several different languages, spread out on the floor, and he'd be on his hands and knees going over them with a magnifying glass, with his male secretary standing there taking notes: 'King, the situation in Uganda ... take a note, send a man there.' That sort of thing. So I said, 'Where is he now? Aren't you afraid he's going to walk in now, with a big bundle of newspapers under his arm?' and he said 'Oh no, Mr. Porter. That was the old Mr. Pulitzer. I ain't never seen the young Mr. Pulitzer.' That was 10 years after his pa had died," Porter says. "That tells you, I submit, everything: 'I ain't never seen the young Mr. Pulitzer.'"

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