Newsless in St. Louis

Survey: Post-Dispatch finishes dead last in urban coverage.

Aug 16, 2006 at 4:00 am
It's been a rough two weeks for the collective psyche of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

On August 2 Mayor Francis Slay delivered the paper a sucker punch when he ridiculed the daily's editorial content and financial wherewithal in his blog (

"[T]he P-D's spotty and often inaccurate coverage of local, state, national and international news has made opening the hometown newspaper a chore fewer and fewer St. Louisans are willing to face each morning," the mayor wrote. "The paper's current struggling fiscal health and demoralized voice are drags on our own civic renaissance."

Then, three days later, Slay's blog included a link to a survey conducted by Atlanta-based Civic Strategies Inc. The survey ranked the Post-Dispatch dead last among the nation's 21 largest metro-area dailies in its regional and local coverage.

Commenting on the Post-Dispatch's regional news reporting, the survey writers noted: "It takes an almost determined lack of curiosity to produce a daily newspaper that has so little to say about its city and suburbs."

Each year the urban consulting firm ranks papers by the number of articles that, in the subjective opinion of its staff, say something "enlightening" about urban issues. The survey is underwritten solely by Civic Strategies Inc. as part of its business of advising cities and companies on investing in urban areas.

"Whether the story is well written or not well written is irrelevant to us," explains Civic Strategies president Otis White. "The real question we ask is, 'Does it tell us something important about this place?'"

The New York Times placed first this year with eighty "compelling" articles in the first quarter (January 1 to March 31); the P-D had one-tenth that many at eight. (The Washington Post [58], Los Angeles Times [52], San Francisco Chronicle [43] and San Diego Union-Tribune [40] rounded out the top five.)

"The Post-Dispatch just isn't very insightful journalism," White says. "There are some newspapers that are extremely good about telling you what makes the region tick. And there are some which just don't attempt it."

In the four years his firm has conducted the survey, White says, the regional coverage in the Post-Dispatch has by-and-large declined before bottoming out in its first year under the ownership of Iowa-based Lee Enterprises.

In his August 2 blog entry, Slay described the Lee acquisition as both a financial and journalistic burden on the paper and suggested that local investors, including entrepreneurs Steve and Michael Roberts and Charter Communications founder Jerry Kent, might better serve the city as owners of the daily.

Arnie Robbins, editor of the Post-Dispatch, says he's heard plenty of comments on the Lee acquisition but ranks the mayor's musings as some of the most outrageous to date. "I read his blog and it sort of made me laugh," Robbins says. "My first thought was that his Web site traffic must be down and he was trying to drum up hits. But if he has a legitimate concern with us, I'd like to sit down with him and hear it."

Robbins dismisses Slay's suggestions that the paper has changed its editorial stance since the Lee acquisition. Last year's redesign of the paper, Robbins says, was developed under the Pulitzer ownership and implemented after the Lee sale, but in no way affected the paper's reporting.

"I think it's an easy sound bite for someone who wants to create a little bit of controversy to suggest we've changed," Robbins says. "Our goal is still to break news, be aggressive and complete with an emphasis on local and regional news. None of that has changed."

As for the Civic Strategies survey, Robbins says he was until this year unaware of the annual report and doesn't put much stock in its findings. "I'm more concerned about what our readers get out of the paper than some consulting firm in Atlanta," he says.

Post-Dispatch reporter Jake Wagman backs his boss' conclusion that the survey is flawed and that the Lee purchase has had no sway on his reporting. Last year the Civic Strategies survey named Wagman as one of the nation's most prolific writers, with 24 "enlightening" articles about urban issues. So far this year, he ranks near the bottom with just one such article.

"I don't see any departure from our strategies this year, than in previous years," says a bemused Wagman. "I haven't done anything personally different. But then, striving to score high in the artificial matrix of this consulting company is not a part of what I do."

Slay could not be reached for comment for this article. But could it be that he's angry with the Post-Dispatch because he feels the paper is not giving him the positive press he craves? Civic Strategies' Otis White doesn't rule out the theory.

"Mayors these days are as much facilitators as they are bureaucrats," opines White. "They're working with private-public partnerships on development and economic issues, and they need a public stage to present those projects. Perhaps that's what chafes the mayor. He thinks he's doing these things and not getting the recognition he deserves."

Slay ended his August 2 blog entry on the P-D and its perceived changes with the veiled threat that he would be closely watching the developments at the paper. Robbins replies that the feeling is mutual.

"I feel that we've been very fair with [Slay] in our coverage and reporting," he says. "But as a city resident myself, I've seen some accomplishments of this renaissance of the city that he talks about. But just as we at the newspaper constantly work to improve our product, we demand the same of the mayor in making this a better city."

But is it possible that Slay — who failed even to get his own school board elected last spring — could get some of his deep-pocketed allies to purchase the paper? Not likely, maintains Robbins.

"First of all, we're owned by a publicly traded company," the editor says. "Secondly, I would hope, as the mayor, he has more important things to do than concern himself with the health of the Post-Dispatch, which is very strong despite the difficult economic climate affecting most major metro dailies."