Imagine a Newspaper: Post-Dispatch Kills News Analysis Section in Favor of Public-Journalism Project

Article excerpt

Imagine a war against illiteracy. Imagine a new bridge spanning the Mississippi River. Imagine a new, regional love for arts and culture.

Imagine the news in a newspaper.

St. Louis residents more and more have to imagine the news in the Sunday St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as the paper downsizes its newshole, decimates the number of local bylined stories and redefines what constitutes legitimate editorial product in a once-major metropolitan daily.

The new twist on an increasingly convoluted editorial product is the Sunday paper's "Imagine St. Louis," which was unveiled for area readers on April 11.

Change agent Cole Campbell, the editor who replaced William Woo at the end of 1996, has been coy up to now about his intentions to remake the Post in his own image of the public journalism philosophy. But the revised, "Sundays-are-different Post," makes it all too evident that Campbell is determined to use the paper as a big-city guinea pig in the movement of public journalism experimentation in America.

Campbell's "Imagine St. Louis," constituting the new Section B of the Sunday Post, is classic public journalism. It draws on a still-to-be-proven formula that has driven similar experiments in a host of midsize and small dailies across the United States. Among the ingredients of this public journalism formula: plenty of hype and circumstance, plenty of civic-friendly explanations using a cult-like language, the promotion of so-called "deliberative conversations" and a commitment to benign subject matter at the expense of real news.

Hype & self-promotion

Some publishers of declining dailies have been attracted to public journalism as a marketing tool. It gives newspapers a chance to trumpet a new concern for "readers as citizens" and to liken the paper's new journalism as a "civic catalyst" to reinvigorate democracy.

The Post hyped "Imagine St. Louis" no less than four times in the April 11 edition, including a front-page ode just below the paper's flag. The paper advertised "Imagine St. Louis" as a new section. But, in fact, discerning readers can see that the new section is simply a further cannibalization of what was a Pulitzer-prize-winning "News Analysis" section that once carried editorial weight nationwide.

In addition to the column inches promoting "Imagine St. Louis" in the Sunday, April 11 edition, the Post has run a number of in-house ads for the section, including a display ad that used the word "different" copiously. Sundays are different and the new section is different: "It's something we've never done before, but we think it's going to turn into something great," proclaimed the deliciously different in-house puffery.

Jettisoning news fare for civic fluff is certainly a different approach for a major daily, as Ray Hartmann observed in his weekly Riverfront Times. In his commentary after the debut of "Imagine St. Louis," Hartmann also took aim at the paper's inclusion of Monsanto's John L. Mason as a new editorial fellow on the Post section. Quite different. A compromising concept that up to now has been left untried "throughout the rest of the Western Hemisphere," noted Hartmann.

Cult language

The introduction of the "Imagine St. Louis" section has drawn deep from the well of what former Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) executive director Rosemary Armao refers to as the "cult-like language of public journalism."

Among key phrases in the public journalism lexicon are working through problems," "atmosphere of public life," "conversations about public life," "issue-driven conversations" and "continuing conversations." Such terminology was found in abundance in the section introductions penned by Cole Campbell and Robert Duffy, the new and revised cultural news editor.

Duffy's total indoctrination and surrender to the "fluffspeak" of public journalism is at once profound and pathetic. …