Monday, July 13, 2015

Why Bill McClellan Matters

Posted By on Mon, Jul 13, 2015 at 7:00 AM

Bill McClellan, a columnist from another time.
  • Bill McClellan, a columnist from another time.

This week, there will be no column by Bill McClellan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. None next week, either.

And maybe that's a good thing. We need to get used to his absence.

On Thursday, the union representing Post-Dispatch employees announced that McClellan was among nine staffers who'd volunteered to take a buyout, sparing the jobs of younger colleagues who'd been targeted for layoffs. So when McClellan's column returns on August 2, it will be just once a week -- and he'll be, officially, a freelancer.

What a heartbreaker.

McClellan was never one of those columnists people loved to hate. We, his readers, all genuinely liked him -- and believed that he spoke for us, and understood us. He was by far the biggest name in St. Louis media, but he never seemed like one of the powerful people. He was on our side.

Yet despite his instinctual alliance with the little guy, McClellan was also sympathetic to the difficulties of being in power. His willingness to try to understand even the worst behavior made him a man out of step with modern times. Today's journalists are required to have a take on everything -- the sharper, and angrier, the better. That was not McClellan's way. He was bemused, not angry; sympathetic, not self-righteous. He was frequently mischievous, but never malicious.

He also didn't tweet, or blog. He ignored Facebook. It was fitting, in some ways, that the Post-Dispatch kept him behind its paywall. They knew full well he was their biggest draw, the one thing at stltoday.com that couldn't simply be aggregated and repackaged by other media outlets. But beyond that, he never chased the next big viral thing. McClellan wrote about real people, not the hive mind's latest obsession. He was a better columnist for it.

He was also willing to go against the tide. When state auditor and gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich committed suicide, and McClellan's own editorial page was falling all over itself to join former U.S. Senator John Danforth in a condemnation of bullying in politics, McClellan offered a different take. Attack ads didn't make good men kill themselves, he wrote. Mental illness did.

It wasn't what the chattering classes wanted to hear. It didn't make for the sort of column everyone would share approvingly on social media, or rally around to bring about a new day in politics. But it was true.

In September 2011, McClellan wrote a column that people around town still talk about today. By that point, the Chicago native had been a star in St. Louis almost three decades, having been hired to cover night cops in 1980 and promoted to columnist just three years later.

But this column stuck out. Not just because, in hindsight, it foreshadowed the end of his full-time employment at the newspaper where he made his name, but because it was a column that showed he would speak the truth about his own boss the same way he did about yours.

The column was classic McClellan: He related the story of an insurance exec whose company crashed and burned -- and the executive's own safe landing. Then he turned to his own employer.

"Here at the buggy whip factory," he wrote, his corporate bosses wanted to reduce the newsroom staff. A buyout had been offered -- a tough sell. And that would likely mean layoffs.

He explained how the Post-Dispatch had gotten to this point. Lee Enterprises had taken on too much debt to buy the old Pulitzer papers, including the P-D. Then the stock had plummeted.

"Mary Junck was the CEO who engineered the deal," he wrote. "Despite the dramatic drop in the value of Lee stock, she is still the CEO. Her salary was $833,654 last year. Perhaps she is worth every penny of that, but I suspect she is simply too big to fail.

"I wish I could say the same about my colleagues."

What an ending.

After that initial column, McClellan would take on Junck again, and then a third time. He wrote about Junck taking a big bonus within days of announcing more layoffs. Then, last year, he wrote about the head carpenter at the Post-Dispatch, Scott Bujnak, who became a "folk hero" after quitting his job. The carpenter had grown disgusted by cobbling together office equipment in the face of another fat $700,000 bonus for Junck.

The column's conclusion: "'My only question is who's going to play you in the movie,' I said to Bujnak. He just grinned."

In light of those columns, we should have prepared ourselves for McClellan's own departure. But we didn't, because we didn't want to. Because we knew any day his column was running (at one point four days a week, more recently three), it was going to be good. It was going to make us think.

A friend from McClellan's college days at Arizona State remembers the young journalist as both broke, and a smoker. Yet "Bill would give his last cigarette to an old guy, with no means, living on the street, even though he didn't know where his next pack was coming from," the friend recalls.

McClellan would later tell that same story, but not the part about giving away the cigarette: "He would only mention to others that he ran into an old guy on the street who smoked, which suggested that 'dregs' like us who also smoked had a chance of making it to old age." He was a hopeful pessimist even then.

He's now made it to retirement, even though he won't be fully retired. And by giving up his full-time job, he's saved someone else's -- a decision he refused to paint in heroic terms in his sort-of farewell column Sunday. The severance package, he wrote, was generous, and by taking it, "I could do something selfish and it would appear selfless." You could just imagine the twinkle in his eye.

But you could only believe his decision was selfish if you believed he truly wanted to retire. I don't believe it for a minute.

Mary Junck, by the way, is still CEO of Lee Enterprises. Last year, SEC filings show, she earned $1.1 million. And McClellan isn't just retiring as the best columnist the paper has ever had. Now he himself is a folk hero, too.

Sarah Fenske is the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times. Reach her via email at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com or find her on Twitter @sarahfenske.

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