Ellen Back Again: Arnie Robbins steps down as editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and RFT checks in with his predecessor

Ellen Back Again: Arnie Robbins steps down as editor of the <i>St. Louis Post-Dispatch</i>, and <i>RFT</i> checks in with his predecessor
Candace West
Former Post editor Ellen Soeteber enjoys spending quiet time in her garden since retiring from the newspaper business.

On Friday, May 4, hours after St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Arnie Robbins gave his employer, Lee Enterprises, two weeks' notice, Ellen Soeteber, who'd preceded Robbins at the helm of the Post, lofted a brief e-mail to RFT from her home in south Florida, saying she wanted to talk.

We didn't have to think twice about taking her up on the offer.

Aside from a few journalism-review postmortems after her abrupt departure in late 2005, Soeteber hasn't spoken publicly about the Post. And not for lack of caring — she grew up in the Metro East, worshiping the St. Louis daily. At some level, then-Post publisher Terrance C.Z. Egger's offer of the paper's editorship was a cosmic alignment (though as things worked out, a black hole might be a better analogy).

What's more, Soeteber had plenty of detractors during her tenure, and she was never shy about sharing her thoughts.

Put it this way: If Arnie Robbins' resignation remarks were a cocktail, they'd be a Shirley Temple. Soeteber's? Think rusty nail.

When Soeteber stepped down from the Post in late 2005 in the turbulent wake of parent Pulitzer Inc.'s acquisition earlier that year by Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, she readily acknowledged that she'd butted heads with management over newsroom resources (including her own salary). She didn't cite the paper's recently announced plan to cut its newsroom staff by 12 percent through voluntary buyouts, but she didn't have to. Instead she said, "I don't want to dwell on those aspects, as they were not the only factors in this decision. It's just time to go. Sometimes, things are as simple as that and as complicated as that."

And off she went, back to Fort Lauderdale, the town she'd left in 2001 when Egger enticed her away from the Sun-Sentinel, where she was managing editor, to take over St. Louis' storied daily. (Egger had already parted ways with Cole Campbell, whose three-year endeavor to reinvent the Post's newsroom as a bastion of "civic journalism" had been unanimously branded a flop.)

We spoke with Soeteber by phone and exchanged questions and answers over e-mail. Having only recently fully recovered from two hip replacements necessitated by an uncommonly pernicious form of arthritis, she exercised admirable forbearance.

Riverfront Times: The Post made its debut in 1878. You came aboard 123 years later — the paper's sixth editor-in-chief in all that time (and first woman editor-in-chief). Now, over the course of barely a decade, the Post has cycled through three top editors. Um, climate change?

Ellen Soeteber: Editors in general turn over more quickly these days. My five-year tenure and Arnie's of six and a half years are pretty good as things go today. The Post's first three editors were all named Joseph Pulitzer. It was privately owned for most of that time. The P-D's historic reputation is due entirely to the second Joseph Pulitzer, who I think is the most underrated editor-publisher in U.S. journalism.

Don't short the founding J.P. He was no slouch. A rogue and a blowhard, maybe, but he also gave the Post its hallowed "Platform": Down with demagogues and public plunderers, and all that. At any rate, it's tactful of you to take the high road, but the elephant in the room is Joseph Pulitzer III. He of the Monets, the Picassos, the Matisses and Cezannes.

The founding J.P. abandoned St. Louis for fame and fortune in New York City, where he eventually bestowed his guilt money to Columbia University and the Pulitzer Prizes. He left in St. Louis what he thought was his least talented son to run the P-D. The other two sons ran his NYC operation into the ground.

The third J.P., known as Joseph Pulitzer Jr., apparently felt a great obligation to uphold the family legacy in the Post-Dispatch. He took the company public in a move he thought would save the newspaper. But no question, his first love seems to have been art, and he had a great eye for it.

When Terry Egger was recruiting me to come to the P-D from Florida, he told me that [J.P. Jr.'s widow] Emily Pulitzer wanted to make the Post-Dispatch a great newspaper again before she died. At the time she was only in her 60s and had long family bloodlines. So this goal was a seductive proposition. I think we were well on the way toward achieving that goal, but it all got cut down midway.

As in, she sold out the family's majority share of Pulitzer Inc. [which had gone public in the mid-1980s] at the very top of the market. Lee Enterprises, a Lilliputian newspaper company by comparison, swooped in from Davenport, Iowa (if one can be said to "swoop" anywhere from Davenport, Iowa), and bought Pulitzer for $1.46 billion — every cent of which (and more) it had to borrow.

Things could have been different. I hoped that Emily Pulitzer would buy out the rest of her family — she already had bought much of her brother-in-law Michael Pulitzer's holdings — and take it private under the ownership of her foundation, or a new foundation. Like the Poynter Institute's ownership of the St. Petersburg Times [recently rechristened the Tampa Bay Times] in Florida. Around the time Pulitzer Inc. was being sold, a family newspaper company in one of the southern states did just that.

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