A Farewell Reflection

A million words plus one -- goodbye

May 22, 2002 at 4:00 am
I think we've all had enough of me.

I don't want to say I've been doing this too long, but when I started the company that publishes the RFT, Mark McGwire and Al MacInnis were in junior high school. Kurt Warner was in kindergarten. Alfonso J. Cervantes was mayor of St. Louis. Laverne & Shirley was the highest-rated show in prime-time television.

Yikes. It has been a long run.

I've decided it's time to go. I don't have to leave -- the people at New Times, to whom we sold the paper, have been gracious about keeping me around as long I'd like. And it's not so much that I want to stop writing this column; it's just about being ready for something new.

After 25 years with the RFT, 21 of them writing a weekly column here, it's time for a change. Maybe it will be a book, maybe some other pursuit -- I'm not sure. But it's time.

When it was decided that this would be my last column, editor Jim Nesbitt suggested I use the occasion to reflect on the "vision" I had for the RFT way back then. Good idea, I thought. A second thought was a bit unsettling, though: What vision?

Unfortunately, I'm a bit like George Bush the First when it comes to having difficulty with the "vision thing." Mine might best be likened to that of a frog, hopping from one rock to another in the pond, hoping that it's not an alligator he's landed upon.

Indeed, it may be the lack of a vision that is important here, because the history of the Riverfront Times is a story of an evolution, not the realization of some master plan. As such, the RFT reflects the real St. Louis much more than the area's movers and shakers would care to admit.

The RFT isn't just a newspaper. It's a mirror for St. Louis.

By the time the RFT began publishing in November 1977, I had already gotten into financial trouble with a newspaper called Profile St. Louis, a mild, all-things-to-all-people weekly with mainstream aspirations.

At first the RFT was just a moneymaker, serving downtown exclusively with a circulation of 20,000. No politics. No personals. No band listings. Just nice articles about people and soft-news topics downtown. The key to the paper's early success: its ability to generate strong traffic at lunchtime for restaurants and small retailers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to survival. The newspaper interacted with its readers. Its tiny, scruffy, scrappy staff listened and learned, and the RFT grew more substantive. Then came the free personals in 1979, which would dominate the paper -- consuming as much as 35 percent of its pages at one point -- giving the RFT a wild (I mean wild), racy, raunchy, hilarious, fun-loving aura.

We never even suggested to our readers anything about what the content of the personals should be. I used to say that had downtown St. Louis been populated solely by religious zealots, the personals would have been a giant forum for evangelism. Or it could have been all about sports chat or politics. It wasn't.

It reflected St. Louis.

No, not the staid, stuffy, uptight, conservative heartland bastion of family values that many saw this Midwestern burg to be. This was a different St. Louis than the one in the visitors' brochures. The real one.

In 1980, I discovered at a national conference of weeklies that we were onto something here, having inadvertently tapped into the psyche of young baby boomers, who at the time filled the eighteen-to-34 demographic category. But it turned out we weren't very good. In other cities, papers like ours were tackling serious issues, covering nightlife and the arts far more thoroughly and doing it all far more professionally.

After being rejected for membership in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for the first of two times, I came back from the mountaintop and had us overhaul our approach. We needed to be a college newspaper for the real world.

We became a little more serious about things. But it was still all about feeding off the readers and giving them an outlet for expression. It was still about reflecting the community without pandering to its milquetoast, chamber-of-commerce-based self-imagery.

At our best, we have questioned authority and the staid assumptions on which civic policy rests. We told the stories others wouldn't tell. And, issues aside, we helped a lot of good people and good causes along the way.

Our first crusade was to rail against a destructive plan called the Gateway Mall. We lost the fight against this harbinger of decline for downtown, but we gained a different level of respect and attention from readers.

More important, we gave them a voice about something that mattered a lot more than personal ads.

Through the years, we have fought a lot of fights, told a lot of stories. We challenged the elitist, closed Father-knows-best decision-making process of Civic Progress. We challenged their siphoning of millions of dollars in tourism funds to something called the VP Fair. There were environmental issues, race issues, social issues. Most recently, there was a five-year battle against the late, great stadium scam, arguably my favorite issue ever.

Why? Because we were able to print stories, express truths, that the rest of the media -- cowering at the feet of civic power -- were absolutely unwilling to cover. Yet all we were doing was shooting straight. All we were doing was providing a voice.

All we were doing was reflecting the real St. Louis.

The RFT owes its growth, its success and, really, its content, to the people of this community, more than a quarter-million strong, every week. It isn't a civic booster, but it is a civic reality.

Ironically, this liberal, radical enterprise has been the ultimate example of free-market capitalism at work. It has supplied the demands of the community and it has done it without a dime of taxpayer money.

So I leave this post happy to have been a part of St. Louis, not simply a gadfly. I'm proof positive that you can love this town without always liking it and still survive.

I've done my best, and I hope Mom and Dad are proud of that. I owe them everything.

But it's time to go.

I've written nearly 1,000 columns in this space. That's more than a million words from me -- quite enough, I think.

I hope a few of them have made a difference.