History Lesson: A Look Back at Some of the Low Points in the Recent History of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Article excerpt

It's difficult to say exactly when bosses at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lost confidence in traditional journalism, But it's evident they have.

On Sunday, April 11 - the day "Imagine St. Louis" was introduced - the front page of the Post contained only two news stories. The rest of the page was given over to three long teases about stories in other sections of the paper. The following Sunday was even worse. One news story made it to the front page. Everything else promoted stories in other parts of the newspaper about such things as a golf guide, a readers' poll on who was the best baseball player in Cardinal history, a pediatric oncologist who the paper called "Dr. Bob" and a sex scandal that was seven years old.

It would be easy to blame the drop in journalistic excellence on Editor Cole Campbell. He has been the newspaper's top journalist for almost three years now. Under his management, staff members at the Post have endured countless, meetings, a reorganization that seems endless, and a lot of what former Riverfront Times publisher Ray Harmann has called Campbell's "journo babble." The paper seems more feeble than ever under Campbell's leadership.

But actually the downward slide started years ago.

Many St. Louisans can remember when the Post was one of the top newspapers in the country. Its editorial position was respected. It broke major stories. For example, along with The New York Times, the Post first published the Pentagon Papers. It was a newspaper that was quoted, consulted and feared.

Today, according to industry sources, it doesn't even rank among the top regional papers like the Rocky Mountain News or the Kansas City Star or the Chicago Tribune. The Post hasn't won a Pulitzer Prize for news reporting in more than 40 years. And since 1991, it has lost approximately 20 percent of its daily circulation. Sunday circulation is down even more.

Here is a chronology of events at the Post during the last 13 years that may help explain the decline of the Post.

As you read it, keep one thing in mind: Every year since the early 1980s, the Pulitzer company has given the Newhouse company half of the profits from the Post. That was the deal for Newhouse's role in shutting down the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Over the years, the Pulitzer company has given the Newhouse company more than $70 million. The impact on staff morale, reinvestment in the newspaper and journalistic credibility has been enormous.

March 1986: Joseph Pulitzer Jr. steps down as editor/publisher of the Post. He hands over the editorship to personal friend William F. Woo, the first editor who is not a member of the Pulitzer family. Nicholas G. Penniman IV becomes the publisher. The staff greets the change with enthusiasm. They hope Woo will be an advocate for better journalism. Pulitzer's involvement with the daily operations of the newspaper has been minimal, leaving Managing Editor David Lipman to run things. Lipman is not liked. Both editors and reporters say Lipman runs the newsroom through intimidation and fear. This could be tolerated, staffers say, if the Post only reflected Lipman's bulldog persona. But it doesn't. Instead, the paper seems to grow more elitist and more dedicated to boosterism with each passing year. Many hope Woo will fire Lipman.

June 1986: Almost immediately after taking over as editor, Woo infuriates his staff by allowing Mayor Vince Schoemehl to write a page-one, unedited rebuttal to a major piece of investigative reporting by the Post. For nearly a year, reporters Bob Koenig, Louis Rose and Michael Sorkin have tracked the mayor's fundraising apparatus. In an outstanding series headlined "The Mayor's Money Machine," the Post publishes some of its finest pieces of journalism of the decade. The mayor and his people have been given ample opportunity to respond and are quoted thoroughly. But bowing to pressure from the mayor's office, Woo decides to allow Schoemehl's rebuttal to be published. …