Did He Jump, or Was He Pushed?

Getting to the bottom of Post-Dispatch editor Cole Campbell's abrupt departure

Apr 12, 2000 at 4:00 am
When the history of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is written -- and let's face it, who'd be desperate enough to kill time reading that? -- recently departed editor Cole Campbell should be cast as a character like "Professor" Henry Hill from The Music Man, coming into town as he did with a song and dance, telling folks "there's trouble right here in River City" as he dished out a snappy patter telling us he knew just how to fix that trouble. Get 76 trombones, pass them out to reporters and the community, and get everybody to play a tune together at the next charette. Campbell's sales pitch for public journalism, or civic journalism, or whatever you want to call it, had a three-and-a-half-year run on Tucker Boulevard, but the show closed last Wednesday with the announcement that Campbell had resigned to become a "fellow" at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

For all the bitching and moaning the staff at the P-D did during Campbell's regime, with his reorganization of reporters away from beats and into "teams," his scrapping of the usual news analysis to concoct the "Imagine St. Louis" section and his constant cloying efforts to get in touch with the "community," his exit was seemly and quiet. At 3:41 p.m., Campbell sent a newsroom-wide message: "Please join Terry Egger and me in the newsroom for an important announcement at 3:45 p.m. Thanks." Rumors of Campbell's editorial demise had circulated before, so the staff had begun to tune them out.

Egger, the P-D's publisher, stood up front, thanked everyone for coming and said, "Cole has something to say to you." Campbell announced that he was resigning and going to Florida, where "they're going to pay me money to think and write and ask questions and to teach journalists from across the country." Then Egger said something about showing a "measure of appreciation," and people applauded. "It was polite; it was respectable," said one staffer. "It was not embarrassingly small, and it was not enthusiastic." Then Egger asked whether anyone had any questions, and nobody had any questions. And everybody walked away. In all of about six minutes, Cole Campbell was a goner. Sic transit civic journalism.

The article in the next day's Post noted in the lede that Campbell had "made change a constant" during his time at the P-D. In his memo to the staff, sent out after his announcement, Campbell tried to deflect credit by writing that they, the staff, had made "nine sweeping product changes" during his time at the paper. He listed the "Saturday tab, Get Out relaunch, editorial/ op-ed pages, redesign, new zones, Sunday improvements, weekend business sections, daily Everyday sections and postnet redesign" as the nine changes.

The memo was reminiscent of a statement Campbell made when he left his previous job as editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. On Sept. 29, 1996, he was quoted in a Q&A in that paper as saying, "Lao-tzu, the Chinese philosopher who founded Taoism, said of the best leaders: 'When their task is accomplished, their work done, the people will remark, "We have done it ourselves."'" Maybe that's true of Taoists, but at the P-D, it's unlikely many would make that remark.

Still, in his comments to the assembled staff, Egger was reported to have said that Campbell "made significant contributions when we were absolutely rudderless." Indeed, if Campbell leaves behind a bit of a mess in the newsroom -- and few observers or participants would argue that point -- it isn't as if he didn't find one when he landed in River City. Anybody who remembers the names of previous editors William Woo and Foster Davis can recall stagnant news coverage, complaints of staff malaise, editorial indecision and weak-kneed management. Campbell's remedy for these problems was something called civic journalism, which he thought was the latest rage, though most folks at the P-D who encountered it didn't agree.

"He showed up here with a series of whiz-bang ideas," says one reporter, who, like others interviewed for this space, prefers to speak under the cloak of anonymity. One idea was civic journalism, with its effort to determine what the community wanted by holding a bunch of "charettes," a hoity-toity name for a planning session. The other idea, according to one not-so-happy camper, was to put reporters and editors into the team-management model and "finally make a newsroom hum like a Saturn plant."

Adjectives attached to Campbell include "cerebral" and "charming." Reporters say he reminds them of a journalism professor, a comparison not always meant kindly. Good in front of large groups, he's not so good one-on-one. Good on abstract concepts, he's not so hot at trying to figure out how best to describe urban reality on a day-to-day basis. When you're the editor of the only daily in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million, this can be a problem.

Campbell just rubbed some folks the wrong way. One staffer says, "He's not very personable, he can be very petty, and it's all his baby. He talks collaboration, he talks power-sharing and he talks democracy, and he runs it himself. And if he doesn't like what you've done, he belittles you. People said, 'Screw you.' It didn't take too long to happen, and it ossified into a great gap. And it stayed that way until Wednesday."

Folks in the trenches didn't buy the idea put forth in the Thursday article on the resignation that Campbell's "reorganization of the newsroom placed a high degree of emphasis on collaboration and cooperation, rather than on orders sent down from the top."

"Campbell and most of the public-journalism crowd are manipulative when it comes to readers, but I also found they were manipulative when it comes to their own staff," former business reporter Fred Faust says, disputing Campbell's goal of less "top down" management and his belief that ideas would "bubble up" from reporters. "Just the opposite was true. By the time I left, there was more day-to-day input -- interference, I would call it -- from the top than I ever saw there in 11 years."

If Campbell's trendy ideas, vacuous catchphrases and demolition-derby reorganization of the newsroom weren't enough to dash his chances of rejuvenating the Post, there were his personal peccadilloes. Foremost was the letter he sent the St. Louis Journalism Review in January 1998. Christine Bertelson, a P-D columnist, had been named editorial-page editor by Campbell. In the letter sent to SJR editor Ed Bishop, marked "personal and confidential," Campbell objected to questions asked him in preparation for a profile of Bertelson. He didn't like queries about whether Bertelson's appointment was "based on a personal rather than a professional basis." The P-D's fearless leader wrote, "If you publish any statements alleging that her appointment was made for personal reasons, that will be libelous on its face -- to her and to me." He then added that he had consulted the P-D's legal counsel.

The total paid circulation of the SJR at that time was about 1,350. Bishop went ahead with the story and printed Campbell's letter. Whatever the timing and nature of the Campbell-Bertelson "social relationship," which Bertelson confirmed in the SJR article, the specter of the formerly esteemed, Pulitzer-owned Post-Dispatch's having its editor threaten a local journalism review, well, it just wasn't cool. At all. Asked whether she wanted to comment on Campbell's departure, Bertelson replied, "No comment." And Campbell did not reply to a telephone message.

Bishop, for one, will be missing Campbell like the Fourth Estate missed Richard Nixon. "We won't have Cole Campbell to kick around anymore," says Bishop. "The reason why the Journalism Review is identified as so anti-Campbell is because we were at loggerheads with this guy over public journalism." And what now? "Public journalism is dead in St. Louis as Cole Campbell saw it," says Bishop.

Overall, print journalism is suffering an intense identity crisis as circulation plummets and criticism mounts. At the Post, circulation is down but profits are up. Grabbing Campbell may have been a case of Michael Pulitzer grasping at straws, something to make the community feel better about the daily paper it's been stuck with since the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was sold and then closed. Maybe that's the real problem -- the fun, goofball paper, the Globe, died and the stuffy, self-important, not-much-fun paper survived. For now, word is that publisher Egger and Robert Woodworth, the paper's president and CEO, will make the selection of a new editor quickly, getting someone from outside the paper.

It may be that Campbell was nudged out not so much for fomenting bad staff morale and negative reader reaction as for going way over budget last year, sinking money into Macintosh computers and "visual journalists." Whatever the reason for his sudden departure, the next editor to head into the breach needs to be armed with more than the latest buzzword or journalistic fad.

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