The Change Agents
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
THE POST-DISPATCH(circulation 313,594 daily, 521,809 Sunday) stands out among papers its size because it's so steeped in a liberal tradition of crusading journalism. It is a paper with a well thought-out platform, written by founder Joseph Pulitzer in 1907, that appears every day on the editorial page. When Woo was editor, he often passed out postcards emblazoned with the Pulitzer platform.
The paper's mission is to ``fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption''; ``always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor''; ``never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.''
The approach helped the Post-Dispatch earn a reputation as one of America's finest newspapers. But since 1971 the only Pulitzer the paper has won was for a freelancer's photograph. And it's been decades since it appeared on anyone's list of the nation's best newspapers.
``The Post-Dispatch is a fascinating place,'' says Foster Davis, whose rocky four-year tenure as the paper's managing editor ended in March 1996. ``It has such a stellar history. But they've never been able to face up to the fact they went from being one of the best to a serious also-ran.''
The paper was guided for three generations by Pulitzers, a family whose name is carried by journalism's most prestigious award. In 1903, the first Joseph Pulitzer, who bought the Post-Dispatch for $2,500 in 1878, offered Columbia University $2 million to start a journalism school, $500,000 of it earmarked for prizes and scholarships.
The second Joseph Pulitzer ran the paper from 1912 until his death in 1955. During his tenure, the Post-Dispatch won 12 Pulitzers, including one in 1928 for its reporting on the Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal (the paper has won 17 Pulitzers altogether). From 1955 until his death in 1993, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the founder's grandson, led the Post-Dispatch in a very hands-on manner. He broke with tradition in 1986 when he relinquished wearing all three hats--chairman of the board and editor and publisher of the newspaper--and named his close friend and proteg editor. William Woo, who had been editorial page editor, became the first non-Pulitzer to hold the position.
``Bill was like his son,'' recalls Managing Editor Weil. ``They had a tremendous rapport. They traveled together. They were close friends. He schooled Bill on the sanctity of the Pulitzer platform. Bill was very devoted to carrying on the Pulitzer tradition. Bill's place was secure for all intents and purposes. But then Joe died.''
His successor, Michael E. Pulitzer, now chairman, president and chief executive officer of Pulitzer Publishing and Joe's half-brother, presides over a company that also owns nine television stations and five radio stations in 10 states, as well as the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson and the Scripps League newspaper chain, a group of community newspapers including 13 dailies. (The broadcast business was put up for sale in late February.)
Under Joseph Jr., Woo appeared to thrive. He didn't have the same rapport with Michael, Weil points out. But even before the change at the top Woo embarked on a bold experiment that helped precipitate his downfall.
In 1992, when Managing Editor David Lipman moved into a corporate position, Woo asked his staff to help him choose a successor.
It was no secret that Woo and Lipman, sometimes known as the poet and the pitbull, were not fond of one another. This time the mild-mannered Woo would choose a more compatible managing editor with the help of a staff committee. Their choice was Foster Davis, an assistant managing editor at the Charlotte Observer. It was not a match made in heaven.
``I guess Bill would say now it was a terrible mistake,'' says Richard Dudman, who spent 31 years with the Post-Dispatch, all but four of them in the Washington bureau. But, he adds, ``it took him three years to do anything about it. The paper floundered under Foster Davis and Bill too. The two were not speaking for a long time.''
For three years, Michael Pulitzer left Woo to edit the paper. Many say Woo was a better writer than leader, a man who avoided confrontation at all costs. This was exemplified by his inability to fire Davis. By the time Davis finally resigned, say many, newsroom morale was at an all-time low.
``Bill Woo is a personal friend,'' says Dudman, who came out of retirement in Maine last year for a three-month reporting and coaching stint in the Washington bureau. ``As an editor he was maybe too considerate of people. You have to be a son of a bitch, and he's anything but.''
Woo, who is content teaching journalism as a visiting professor at Stanford University, doesn't want to talk about past turmoil at the Post-Dispatch. ``When I left after 34 years, I'd just done one thing: Edit a newspaper,'' he says. ``I thought I knew how to do that. I've come out here to Stanford, and I've learned some things about myself that I never would have learned. I loved what I was doing, and I was sorry at the time not to be doing it anymore. But I would never be sitting here looking out at people playing volleyball in the palm trees if I'd stayed.''
BY 1996, IN PART DUE TO THE WORK OF THE consultant-led Odyssey Project, Michael Pulitzer began looking for his own editor. Woo clearly was aligned with the past, with traditional journalism; Michael wanted to move into the future. With help from an executive search firm, he settled on Campbell, offering him the job in a letter after the two had dinner in St. Louis. Campbell says he wasn't looking for a new position; he was happy in Norfolk, where he'd been editor for three years. But he liked the fact that the Post-Dispatch was in a spend-to-grow mode.
``I had a sense they were looking for someone who could lead the newsroom through a change process,'' Campbell says. ``People at the Post-Dispatch were eager to change the paper because they had a sense that the paper was not as good as it has been. There was an eagerness here to get back to restoring the glory of the Post-Dispatch.''
Campbell said at the outset that he was determined to make the paper one of the nation's five best in five years. He arrived in October 1996 to a staff largely welcoming him with open arms.
They'd done their research before he came. Many knew Campbell as a champion of public journalism, as someone who had used consultants to help fine-tune the Norfolk newsroom. And they all knew the story of the coffin. At a two-day Virginian-Pilot retreat, 80 journalists gathered at a nearby college to talk about the paper's future. They were asked to voice their regrets about the past year. A casket was wheeled in as the leaders sang ``Amazing Grace,'' and some of the regrets were read out loud and then tossed into the casket. The coffin, Campbell said, symbolized letting go of the past.
Whatever people thought about the coffin episode and Campbell's trendy views, it was clear that the new editor represented change to a newsroom in St. Louis that was longing for it.
``When Bill and Foster were here, people were dragged into camps,'' says Metro Editor Jim Mosley. ``When Cole came it was like we didn't want to get into it again. I like Bill Woo as a person, fundamentally. But we were really treading water with him. There are some things that Cole does that are brilliant and others that make me want to pull out my hair. But there's always a feeling of doing something. I don't know if the rank and file feel it, but we as managers do. If you drive at 90 miles an hour, after awhile it's a whole lot more fun than driving at 30 miles per hour. But if you do go 90, like we are, you are going to hit the guardrail sometimes. We scrape it every once in awhile.''
Not long after he got there, Campbell did scrape one of those guardrails. The new editor brought in Chuck Stone, a longtime Philadelphia Daily News columnist now teaching at the University of North Carolina, as a temporary ombudsman. His assignment was to help the paper cover a contentious mayoral race between the incumbent and the police chief, both African Americans. He commuted between North Carolina and St. Louis from December 1996 to May 1997, spending long weekends in St. Louis and writing a column.
``I think it was a great idea to bring in an outside person,'' says Stone, one of the founding members of the National Association of Black Journalists. ``I teach journalism. I knew how to learn the community. I knew how to analyze the paper. I could show when insensitive things were being done.''
But since only 14 percent of the paper's readership lives in the city, Stone quickly learned that most of the readers didn't care all that much about the race. ``I don't think Chuck worked well,'' Mosley says. ``It was a noble experiment. But he didn't live here. He never developed a rhythm. It wasn't a disaster. It just chipped the paint a bit, and we kept going.''
Then Campbell launched a long-planned redesign, which resulted in a more contemporary look and allows more stories on the front page. Bob Rose, who headed the project, says the project positioned the new editor as someone who took command.
Another Campbell innovation was an education team consisting of seven reporters working in the same bureau under one editor. Previously, education reporters were scattered among various fiefdoms, making coordination difficult. The team, says Campbell, typifies what he wants to do throughout the paper.
``A good example of something we probably wouldn't have done without the team is the six-page report card we published December 14 on Missouri public schools,'' wrote team editor Marcia Koenig in an e-mail to AJR. ``Having a team of reporters to cover for each other made it possible this past fall for one education reporter to take the time to try out the narrative form in telling the story of a high school marching band that was on the field before dawn each morning for practice, but nevertheless came in dead last at the annual band festival. Similarly, another team member has been following the progress of local actors teaching city children to write plays.''
These are the kinds of stories Campbell believes readers will find more compelling and will help foster civic involvement. For example, Koenig explains that one school district with an unimpressive report card has announced plans to operate four elementary schools 11 months a year in an effort to improve student performances.
Campbell also zeroed in on the Washington bureau and the editorial page, two key bastions in the paper's peak years. ``Before, the bureau covered the hot story of the day,'' Campbell says. ``I asked the Washington bureau to meet a simple test: Whatever came out of Washington would have to be superior to the alternatives. That led to a beat structure.''
Campbell didn't want his five-reporter bureau trying to replicate or outdo what he could get from the New York Times News Service. Now the beat structure revolves around St. Louis interests. For example, Dine focuses on labor and the aerospace industry (McDonnell Douglas Corp. is headquartered in St. Louis). Terry Samuel is covering a beat centering on race, poverty and urban affairs. Bureau chief Jon Sawyer spends much of his time bird-dogging Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), both of whom have their eyes on the White House. ``I asked Jon to do what amounts to intellectual biographies of each of them,'' says Campbell. ``What are their philosophies, and what led them to these ideas?''
BUT NOTHING CAMPBELL HAS DONE HAS BEEN quite as controversial as his efforts to enliven the editorial page. After Editorial Page Editor Edward Higgins retired, Campbell chose Christine A. Bertelson, who took over on April 1, 1997, as the paper's first female editorial page editor. It was a controversial move on many fronts.
Bertelson, a Post-Dispatch columnist, had never written editorials and had no experience managing people. Yet she's considered a bright, original thinker who by all accounts has vastly improved a once-stagnant page by making it more hard-hitting, sophisticated and innovative.
When it came time to select a new editorial cartoonist, Bertelson flew in three Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists to assess the dozen finalists.
But since her promotion didn't fit the typical newsroom trajectory, some questioned why she had been chosen over, say, Dale Singer, the assistant editorial page editor who had applied for the job. Soon the rumors started to fly: Campbell, who had come to St. Louis married to his second wife, and Bertelson, 48, who was going through a third divorce, were dating.
When they began dating is a subject that has consumed many inside the newsroom and out. The couple, who now acknowledge they are seeing one another, says Bertelson got the job five months before they began dating in September. Campbell is getting a divorce.
``It just doesn't look good even though Christie is a very good candidate,'' says former staffer Barnes. ``There's a shadow over the appointment that just doesn't have to be there.''
In the midst of the talk, freelance journalist Ellen Harris began work on a profile of Bertelson for the St. Louis Journalism Review. Not long after her first interview with Bertelson, in which she brought up gossip about a romance with Campbell, the editor sent a letter to the journalism review marked ``personal and confidential.''
``If you publish any statements alleging that her appointment was made for personal reasons, that will be libelous on its face--to her and to me,'' wrote Campbell. ``No matter to whom you might attribute such an allegation, or how you might frame it (such as a rumor), the journalism review is liable for the truth or falsity of the statements it publishes. I know this as a seasoned journalist and have confirmed it in connection with this inquiry with counsel for the Post-Dispatch. A journalism review that knowingly publishes libelous falsehoods risks more than its assets--it also forfeits its claim to speak for journalistic principles.''
Although Campbell specifically said the letter was not for publication, Ed Bishop, the review's editor, ran it anyway. He points out that the letter could be easily accessed in the Post-Dispatch's computer system and says that Post-Dispatch staffers had urged him to publish it. ``Since it had been widely circulated in and out of the newsroom,'' says Bishop, ``there'd been no confidentiality left, and the letter was newsworthy.''
Sending the letter turned out to be a tactical disaster. Without it, says Harris, ``I wouldn't have gotten all the telephone calls about how Cole aided and abetted her getting the job. After Cole sent the letter, the phone was ringing from eight in the morning until 11 at night.''
Her piece gave Bertelson high marks as editorial page editor, and while it touched on the relationship, it would have attracted far less attention if Campbell hadn't weighed in. ``After we ran the Bertelson story, all hell broke loose over the letter,'' Bishop says. ``It was publishing the letter that caused the uproar, not Bertelson.''
Campbell says the letter was ``largely misinterpreted. The point was not to threaten. It was to make sure he got somebody competent to look at this story.''
But Campbell concedes that the romance has become an easy target for those who don't like what he's doing with the paper. ``It's all sort of a side issue to changing the paper,'' says Campbell. ``I wouldn't say it's uncomfortable. It's unfortunate. It's a distraction.''
THERE ARE 10 MINUTES LEFT TO THE SECOND Rich Harwood retreat with top editors. Each editor is asked to describe what they are excited about and what concerns them. ``I'm excited about what we are doing,'' says Managing Editor Weil. ``I buy into it. I'm ready to go.'' Another editor says, ``I'm excited that we are asking fundamentally better and revolutionary questions about the role of journalists in society and how journalism is practiced.'' Then the talk turns to what people are worried about. Before anyone has a chance to speak, Campbell jumps in. ###
``One of the disciplines we are trying to teach is how to address our concerns in a positive way,'' he says. Instead of an editor saying, ``I'm concerned about...,'' Campbell suggests they use this language: ``How can we...?''
One editor begins: ``How can we make the leap between theory and execution?'' Weil adds, ``How do we find a role for all the people in the newsroom? The newsroom is in a big change mode. There's a lot of interest in the Harwood Initiative. But the working group [of frontline editors and reporters] is only 16. A lot of people are left out. How do we draw them in?''
Carolyn Kingcaide adds: ``I'm concerned that areas of the newsroom not directly involved like photo and the copy editors aren't part of the plan.''
Campbell interjects, ``So, how do we make them part of the process?'' Top editors may be willing to join Campbell's revolution, but what about the rest of the staff? The attitude is mixed. More than one reporter has told me, always anonymously, that they fear Campbell cares more about change than about what actually goes in the paper. Campbell knows this and occasionally feels misunderstood.
Without the support of the journalists who put out the daily paper, there may be no revolution. But the Harwood Initiative will continue at least until next March; the jury is still out.
``I'm still open and supportive of this,'' says the Washington bureau's Dine. ``I do hope all this eventually translates into the journalism we want to do. In the end, that's the bottom line.''