Meeting Marketplace Challenges  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   April 2003

Meeting Marketplace Challenges   

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch does it right.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


In my travels around the country I try to pick up as many local newspapers as possible. This has often made for disappointing reading, especially 20 or 30 years ago.

But I think it is undeniable that a great many newspapers today are much better than in the past. They report on their communities much more completely, including coverage of minorities and other segments of society that once were mostly ignored.

International coverage remains weak at many smaller papers, but in the main even foreign news gets its due. And newspapers certainly are more attractive and better organized, thanks largely to the influence of USA Today.

What brought these thoughts to mind was a recent stay in St. Louis, where I spent several days perusing the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It is worth exploring how the Post-Dispatch has met the challenges of a changing marketplace, for in my mind the paper is a model of how to do it right.

First some history. The Post-Dispatch had long had a sterling reputation for quality journalism, along with such other Midwestern papers as the Kansas City Star, Minneapolis' Star Tribune, the former Milwaukee Journal and the Des Moines Register.

But the Post-Dispatch ran into some trouble in the 1970s and 1980s, primarily, I think, because it did not respond sufficiently to the vast changes in its market brought on by explosive suburban growth. It was still a good, serious newspaper, but another company had moved into the suburbs with a chain of free community weeklies delivered to 800,000 homes.

Part of the problem was beyond the paper's control. It then was in a joint operating agreement with Newhouse's Globe-Democrat, and while the Post-Dispatch had the Sunday edition, it was stuck with weekday afternoons. Afternoon papers have difficulty competing in the suburbs because traffic congestion just about rules out a timely newspaper.

Moreover, even though the Globe-Democrat had the preferred morning position, its circulation was fading rapidly, and its operating losses pretty much obliterated the Post-Dispatch's profits. It is hard to mount aggressive suburban competition without money.

This situation was resolved with the sale of the Globe-Democrat to an outsider (at the U.S. Justice Department's insistence--the agency had wanted to shut it down). The Globe-Democrat survived for a while, but eventually it went bankrupt and closed.

After the sale, the Post-Dispatch switched to morning publication and regained the financial strength to compete in the suburbs. The paper's position improved even more when its parent, Pulitzer Inc., bought out most of Newhouse's 50 percent share of the agency and acquired the suburban weeklies that had drained substantial advertising revenue from the market.

With all the restraints removed, what kind of newspaper has the Post-Dispatch become?

The Post-Dispatch continues to honor its tradition of excellence. I was struck by the paper's broad coverage of national and international events, including reports from its own correspondents in the Middle East and Washington, supplemented by wire stories from the Associated Press, the New York Times, Knight Ridder, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg News, Reuters and others. Clearly the Post-Dispatch has not skimped on paying for the best journalism available.

Local coverage likewise was extensive. A daily Metro St. Louis section includes reports from a state capital bureau. I was staying in the southern suburbs, where the papers contained a semiweekly section, South Post, that provided detailed coverage of that area.

Among the daily sections, sports provided as extensive coverage of local, regional and national events as I have ever seen. Business also was fulsome in its coverage, with particular attention to local companies and events elsewhere that might affect them. Features included coverage of arts and entertainment, and a weekly section, "Get Out," carried extensive listings of local events and stories about performers.

All of these efforts are expanded for the Sunday paper, which includes a section devoted to analysis of current issues and commentary often divergent from the editorial page.

A striking fact about the Post-Dispatch's content is how much of it is staff written--and well-written. It is obvious that the editors and writers care about language.

One small illustration: I usually skip newspapers' compilations of celebrity folderol, out of lack of interest and irritation at the common practice of sarcasm and even viciousness. The Post-Dispatch's treatment, though, was so wittily written that it was a pleasure to read.

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