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.

Even with a less driven, or less adept, Pulitzer at the wheel, the paper kept up much of its quality. One local academic researcher marvels at the microfilm files of the Post from its bygone era. "What's a frightening experience is to go back and look on microfilm at the Post, which I have done, in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. They used to do so much coverage. There was just a lot more in it. There were tons of coverage of all sorts of things," says Lana Stein, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "It was amazing to me how much there was, how long the articles were, how thorough."

Few papers look as they did 30 or 40 years ago; the trouble with the Post is that it suffers greatly in the comparison. Part of that difference stems from the two-tiered nature of newspapers in St. Louis. The Globe-Democrat stressed local news, indulging in campaigns to push for things like medians on Lindbergh Boulevard. The Post often seemed preoccupied with national and international issues, and though it covered local news, its priority was politics and classic municipal malfeasance, steering clear of sentimentality and smaller issues.

Along with an identity crisis of sorts created by its past and the name of its owners, the Post has all of the usual symptoms of a modern daily newspaper: Its circulation is declining, the age of its average reader is increasing and it faces real, though hard-to-quantify, competition from the Internet.

"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 problem the Post-Dispatch doesn't have is red ink. Pulitzer Inc. is making money. As part of the annual 50-50 profit-sharing that was part of Newhouse's sale of the Globe-Democrat in 1984, last year Pulitzer Inc. paid Newhouse $25 million. With the recent buyout, that is the last time Pulitzer Inc. will be in that situation. There was also a $26.7 million payout of stock options and bonuses in 1999, leaving a net operating income of $19 million.

Those at the top are doing just fine. Michael Pulitzer gets an annual salary of $980,000. Bonuses and other income pushed his total compensation from the company to $3.5 million last year. Robert Woodworth, president and chief executive, received a salary of $575,000 and an incentive bonus equal to his salary, though $386,016 of that amount was deferred.

By borrowing $306 million to buy out 95 percent of the Newhouse interest in Pulitzer, the Post will have to share only 5 percent of its profits with the former owners of the Globe, as opposed to 50 percent.

Getting out from under the hangover of the joint operating agreement and the 50-50 profit split has spurred speculation that Pulitzer Inc., like so many family-owned newspaper companies, may just sell all -- papers or, at least, the flagship, the Post. Asked about that possibility after a recent stockholder meeting, Michael Pulitzer seem surprised to hear about the concept. "All I can tell you is that there are no plans for sale, and that's the first I've heard of it," Pulitzer says. "These moves are made to strengthen our position in the St. Louis market."

Egger concurs, explaining that sale talk always circulates at newspapers. "There's no validity to that," says Egger. "We made a decision to divest in broadcast to increase our presence in newspaper and new media, and I think every step we have taken since we made that announcement has been consistent with that.

"We're thrilled with being able to have greater control here in St. Louis of our own destiny and reap our own rewards. No matter what you do, people can say, 'That's a sign.' But I never worked at a newspaper in my career, nor do I know of anyone who ever worked at a newspaper, where there wasn't always a rumor that 'Aha, they're going to be sold.' It just comes with the territory. But in this case, there is absolutely no plan, nothing on the horizon for that."

A daily newspaper isn't supposed to make everybody happy. In this, the Post-Dispatch is a typical daily paper, only more so.

One professor at a local school of medicine calls the paper "a joke." He selects insightful or worthwhile articles about science and medicine to put up on his office bulletin board. He hasn't put a piece up from the Post-Dispatch in years. He skims the paper in five minutes, then turns to the sports section, giving the comics to his daughter. A local state representative says the paper "has nothing to read in it." A rancher in Iron County used to drive several miles to pick up a Sunday Post but says he's decided it's not worth the trip because he feels the articles are predictable and superficial. He relies on Internet sites for his information.

"A lot of the criticism of the Post, especially recently, has been on the mark," admits McClellan. "The sort of criticisms I'm talking about is 'Jeez, you guys don't seem to have much news,' or 'You miss a lot of stories,' or 'You have a lot of graphics.' We have been, for a while, driven by graphics. Hopefully we're trying to get away from that. Under Mr. Campbell, you had three international stories (on page 3) that would be the same size with equal pictures every day. News doesn't really operate that way."

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