This spring in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom, staffers tried to figure out what their soon-to-be-owner Lee Enterprises was all about. One writer asked if I knew that "Lee" spelled backward was "eel."
It was a joke. Maybe. The Post-Dispatch folks have really overanalyzed this one.
Who is this Lee Enterprises? When Lee emerged as the victorious bidder in the sale of Pulitzer Inc., owner of the Post-Dispatch and 13 other dailies, they didn't have a clue in St. Louis. Some Lee staffers, for that matter, couldn't say much about their own company, which, thanks largely to the Post-Dispatch, will become the seventh-largest newspaper publisher in the country, up from 12th.
Lee doesn't have a bad reputation in the newspaper industry; Lee has virtually no reputation. And in a business in which stories abound of new owners slashing and burning a paper, it should consider itself lucky.
In 1999, Lee Enterprises bought another Pulitzer property: the Ravalli Republic in Hamilton, Montana, circulation 5,200. The 23 full-timers and 23 part-timers at the daily had to reapply for their jobs. Only eight got them. Yet no one recalls this incident as a great newspaper atrocity. Other industry names, meanwhile, are forever linked to stories of dismantling newsrooms. Staffers at Escondido, California's North County Times contrast Lee's purchase of their paper--little changed, they say--with the upheaval they've witnessed as chains took over their hometown papers, or the personal strife they suffered amid mass firings. The Times' J. Stryker Meyer is still angry, 24 years later, about William Dean Singleton's rough handling of New Jersey's Trenton Times, where in 1981 Singleton quickly laid off 60 of his fellow Times employees. Such legends die hard. "Compared to Singleton," Meyer says of Lee, "these people are saints."
Most conversations about Lee, in fact, begin with what Lee is not . For St. Louis, Lee has the advantage of not being Gannett, the industry giant that little ol' Lee, based in Davenport, Iowa, outbid in the Pulitzer deal. Journalist after journalist at the Post-Dispatch said they breathed a sigh of relief that the winner wasn't Gannett, a company seen as formulaic and like a whale that would have swallowed St. Louis.
Lee is also not about editorial interference. Current and former employees cite no major edicts, dictums or mandates for covering the news. Both business and newsroom staffers, refreshingly, are not bemoaning the fate of newspapers: There's a surprising optimism about what a growth industry this is. Lee isn't about shuffling its editors and publishers from paper to paper; the top management in St. Louis will stay in place. At the same time, the company is not about rewriting the news budget if a major story breaks. Papers are expected to make their numbers, finding creative ways to fund ambitious work. This it's-up-to-the-editors attitude can sometimes seem like a lack of interest in the journalism. But Lee executives are not seen as mean; they're not seen as very corporate, even. They're nice --that Midwestern-apple-pie nice. (When Mark Henschen, circulation director at the Escondido paper, had to have his finger reattached after an accident, Mary E. Junck, chairman, president and CEO, and Vice President-Publishing Greg R. Veon sent him cookies.)
Founded in 1890 with A.W. Lee's purchase of Iowa's Ottumwa Courier, Lee has remained below the journalism industry's radar, mostly because the vast majority of Lee's 44 dailies (pre-Pulitzer) are under 30,000-circulation. The company puts out pretty good newspapers at pretty healthy, consistent profit margins (20.3 percent in fiscal 2004). It focuses heavily on building revenue and often outperforms other companies in advertising growth. Its papers have gotten very little national recognition for journalism. But the Pulitzer deal, a $1.46 billion cash purchase announced January 30, changes that. The deal is set to close by the end of June. The acquisition of the Post-Dispatch--at 284,000 daily circulation, a paper three times the size of the biggest Lee publication--is a decided departure from the company's small-paper history and the most attention-getting move of Junck's six years as a Lee executive. In the past three years, Lee has more than doubled its revenue.
But in addition to focusing on acquisitions, Junck says she wants to put more emphasis on the product. With the Pulitzer properties, Lee has an increased opportunity to turn no reputation into a strong one. What will Lee do with St. Louis, that paper with a storied history, albeit long ago, of Pulitzer after Pulitzer?
The early indication is, simply, nothing. Lee's hands-off, just-make-the-budget approach puts the onus more on St. Louis. The Post-Dispatch, it seems, may be whatever its leaders and staff can make it.
At the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Bill Wineke, the books editor and a columnist, recalls a time in the early 1970s--he's been there since '63--when he wrote a column that was distributed to about 15 Lee papers.
After a number of weeks, the State Journal decided to syndicate the column and asked the papers to pay 50 cents each, for postage. Every one of them dropped it.
No one's lamenting the loss of fat-and-happy, overly ambitious glory days at the Lee papers I visited. But, then again, none have had the size or influence of a Post-Dispatch.
"We always used to say that Lee would rather make the months than win a Pulitzer," says Dave Kraemer, meaning "make the numbers." Kraemer spent most of his career with Lee until the company sold its Ottumwa Courier to Liberty Group Publishing in 1999. Kraemer, the editor in Ottumwa, left a year later for the top editor job at the Ames, Iowa, Tribune.
"The bottom line is important for the company," Kraemer says, agreeing that Lee sets high financial expectations without much wiggle room. But after working for other newspaper companies, he says the experience at Lee "gave me a great understanding of the newsroom's place in the budget picture. And I think I've become pretty good at squeezing dollars out of my budget."
Editors "got creative about handling things," he says, and Lee wasn't micromanaging; newspapers had control over how they spent their money.
Editors, publishers and rank-and-file journalists at the State Journal, the North County Times and Davenport's Quad-City Times have been resourceful, spending the money on stories they believe need to be done and finding a way to work the numbers elsewhere.
The North County Times, daily circulation 93,000, has sent a reporter and photographer to Iraq three times since just before the war started in 2003. Publisher Dick High estimates each trip cost about $50,000, no small expense for a paper like the Times, and nearly all of the staffers I talked to mentioned how proud they were of the paper and the quality of the work their colleagues had done. The Times, a paper Lee acquired when it bought Howard Publications in 2002, boasts some of the most intensely local coverage in the country--it publishes nine zoned editions. But this was not just any foreign story for the Times, because the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton is in its coverage area.
Editor Kent R. Davy says Lee was "tremendously supportive of doing this kind of work." But there was never any "Iraq money" added to the budget. High recalls that Lee said, "Great. Go for it... Just make your plan."
And the paper did. Davy says making up the cost simply involved shifting the deck chairs. The paper recouped some costs by selling photos from the trips to other news outlets.
The Times also controls costs by managing newshole. The paper might use a lot of newsprint for a big project, like the Iraq stories. Then, later, the newshole shrinks to make up for it. "Sometimes it gets real draconian," says Teresa Hineline, assistant managing editor for news.
These are not Lee-dictated maneuvers; they're local decisions.
The Times and the Madison paper rely on "churn" to keep expenses down--keeping vacancies open when finances don't look too rosy. (The Post-Dispatch's Jeff Gordon, president of the local Newspaper Guild, says his paper, too, has "a long and proud tradition of hiring freezes.")
Ron Seely, science and environment reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal, said in late April that his paper was leaving two key jobs unfilled: a regional reporter position and an assistant city editor job. "That makes it harder on our already small staff," he said. "That's frustrating."
But despite cost controls, staffers engage in little griping, at least not to me--complaints were incredibly mild. "I don't think anybody here thinks of Lee as bad people," says John Van Doorn, who had a whole career in New York journalism--managing editor of the New York Post, executive editor of New York Magazine, stints at the Times and Newsday--then moved to California, tried to retire, but just couldn't go through with it. Now a columnist and senior editor at the North County Times, Van Doorn says Mary Junck is direct and not complicated. Her message is, "'We're going to make nice newspapers and make money,'" he says. "You really must admire directness."
Part of the lack of newsroom angst is due to the fact that jobs are secure. Editors and publishers tend to cut "things," not "people."
Says Wineke: If the State Journal management sees some possibility of an economic problem down the road, the paper will hold back now. This "keeps us a little understaffed," he says. "But you don't wake up in the morning wondering if you will have a job."
This year, Seely says, employees completed a survey, and afterward, Editor Ellen Foley told him she was unhappy with what some had said about morale. Seely pointed out that reporters felt they weren't given enough support. The boardroom had been remodeled, while reporters were still typing on plywood desks, he says. Plus the training budget had been cut. He recalls that Foley responded: "I had to choose between cutting positions and cutting training budgets."
"Can you argue with that?" he asks. "I guess not really."
A 27-year veteran of the paper, Seely wanted to travel to Nicaragua for a story so much that he agreed to pay half of the expenses himself. (That was after he tried to get the paper to pay for the whole thing.) His lengthy series in 1998 focused on work by the Nature Conservancy's Wisconsin office to monitor birds that nest in the state and fly south to Nicaragua for the winter, and efforts in assisting indigenous groups who face issues similar to those encountered by Wisconsin's Chippewa tribe.
He's stayed at the paper because of the journalism--not the job security. "I don't think anybody here has ever felt that they wouldn't be able to do something," he says, even if they are at times frustrated by a lack of resources.
Andy Hall and his wife, Dee, came to the Wisconsin State Journal from the Arizona Republic 14 years ago. They both say the paper has become significantly better during that time. But "we wish we were paid more, we wish we provided more training to more employees, and we wish we were more consistently excellent," says Andy Hall, an investigative reporter whose work includes major civic journalism projects, something former Editor Frank Denton espoused.
While newspaper after newspaper has faced layoffs and buyouts in recent years, the three Lee papers I visited have experienced no substantial staff reductions. (With such lean operations, though, as reporter Dee Hall says, "I'm not sure who they would lay off.")
But there have been times when publishers could have severely cut their staffs. James W. Hopson, publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal and a Lee vice president of publishing, says when he came to the paper five years ago, there were a few niche publications that he knew he would shut down because they weren't financially viable. The paper kept positions open elsewhere in the organization so it could transfer people to new jobs instead of laying them off. Similarly, Hopson says, when the paper began using new plate-making technology that made some jobs obsolete, it offered to retrain the affected staffers for other positions. That's an individual publisher's decision but part of the Lee niceness people often mention.
Mark Henschen, circulation director at the North County Times, says Lee has earned his loyalty because it cares about people. (He's the one who got the cookies.) And this, in turn, benefits the company. "When [employees] know that they're cared for, they will give you what other people don't," he says.
The niceness hasn't won over everybody. One former Lee publisher calls the company "a kinder, gentler Gannett." (This source requested anonymity because of a fear the comments could jeopardize future employment.) While it wasn't a bad company to work for, the person says, tight budgets were "sucking the oxygen out of the room," leaving readers with not much.
Others still at Lee are happy to work for a company that does quite well financially. Editor John M. Humenik at the Quad-City Times says he understands monetary responsibility is part of his job. "Once you set your financial plan, you set your financial and strategic plan for the year. That's your promise, OK? And I take that to be very serious, as well as [Times Publisher] Michael Phelps does... I'll put forth what I think I need to get done with that coming year, and I'll hit it. I'll hit it. I haven't missed a budget yet, and I won't."
Lee may actually have gotten a few journalists to have sympathy for the business side. "I'd love to have five more photographers, more space, but there's a reality," says Greg Swanson, assistant managing editor of presentation at the Quad-City paper. "We're no different than the guy who sells water heaters. If we don't make money, we won't have a newspaper."
Lee concentrates its energies on increasing revenue, something newsrooms appreciate. A corporate-run sales development team travels to various Lee papers to launch "blitzes," training-and-selling endeavors that last a week or two, with the aim of boosting advertising. The Quad-City Times, the State Journal and other Lee papers also print a number of niche publications--business journals, weekly entertainment guides, parenting publications, apartment renting guides and more. (See "Find Your Niche") The Times, daily circulation 53,000, has launched five niche ventures in just three years, including a publication about life on the Mississippi River and a teen Web site and newspaper called "Your Mom."
Quad-City Times Publisher Phelps, who is also a Lee vice president-publishing and the company's former VP of sales and marketing, says Lee encourages publishers and ad directors to find ways to better serve advertisers. And the niche publications are one way of doing that. "I think our goal is to try to reach everybody in the community," he says, "but to particularly reach the ones that the advertisers are trying to reach that we're not doing so well on."
The Times staff, as well as some freelancers, provides the copy for the publications, but Humenik says that has not cut back on what the staff is able to do for the main paper. "I would say no because we're still succeeding on a lot of our editorial goals for the Quad-City Times," he says. "I can't tell you that everybody has embraced it, no. But the people who are generally not embracing it are the people that aren't working on them."
For advertisers, niche publications provide numerous outlets in which they can spend money. In Madison, Hopson says the Capital Region Business Journal, launched in April, was profitable with its first issue. He hired an editor, a reporter and a designer for the monthly. Business reporters and freelance contributors write for it as well. Since it's profitable, the publication pays for the new hires. "It's a tall order to add a position in the newsroom unless [it's for] revenue-generating content," says Tim Kelley, managing editor at the State Journal.
Humenik says the size of his newsroom staff, 60 full-time equivalents, has remained about the same in his seven years there. "Maybe there was a vacancy in the newsroom and we just moved it to the niches to better align with our strategies," he says. Hopson, too, says the State Journal's FTE count, at about 100, has been "really steady" over the last few years.
When I asked Mary Junck how she would put more emphasis on quality journalism without spending more money and possibly eating into the profit margins, she talked about revenue growth. (She also mentioned that Lee doesn't have the highest profit margins in the business, though she's happy with what they are. Indeed, Gannett and E.W. Scripps--at the top the list--boast operating profit margins in the past few years that have outpaced Lee's by more than 5 percentage points.)
"Our focus has been over the last couple of years, our mantra and our performance actually has been to drive revenue," Junck says. "That if you can be creative and aggressive and do everything you can on the revenue side..then many of the sort of economics of the business are going to take care of themselves, if you kind of keep your eye on the cost side."
Vice President-News David Stoeffler, a 26-year Lee veteran whose corporate job was created by Junck in October 2001, says his boss brought in a greater emphasis on revenue than Lee had before. "Overall I think that we see margins as a byproduct of doing other things right... That we're not going to try to cut our way to prosperity."
Talk of growth inspires much more optimism than cost-cutting does, and a number of Lee employees are enthusiastic (or at least not direly pessimistic) about the future of newspapers. They say Lee encourages them to take risks and experiment. North County Times Publisher Dick High could easily be mistaken for a newspaper industry motivational speaker. He talks excitedly, virtually nonstop, reiterating that newspapers are defined as a declining industry, but they're not. Not at all. At his paper, he maintains a growth strategy in a growth industry and a growth culture inside of that. "We have a gold mine," he says of newspapers, "not a silver mine."
Such a positive outlook can be infectious, and Wall Street has noticed. "They have a great attitude," says Lauren Rich Fine, an analyst at Merrill Lynch. You would never know, she says, that Lee was in an industry beset by long-term woes. "They are much less about cost containment, headcount reduction..much more about driving the top line, much more aggressive than any other company."
When Lee acquired the North County Times, the paper went from private-company ownership to public, which involved a whole new set of paperwork and accounting issues. It was a big adjustment and came about seven years after the merger of four publications that resulted in the creation of the North County Times. High says under Howard there wasn't a financial plan the way there is under Lee. The budget-setting process now is much more complex. But there were few changes in the newsroom. While the paper's cash flow was low under Howard, he estimates that, with an adjustment for the economic situation after 9/11, it has doubled since Lee took over.
High wouldn't reveal the paper's margins and was reluctant to say the financial targets are higher under Lee (though he emphasizes that targets kept going up under Howard year after year as well). If Lee really wanted to make more money in the short term, he says, all it would have to do is tell him to get rid of the intricate zoning, which is expensive. But High says Lee understands that such a move would jeopardize the paper's future.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, has lots of good things to say about Lee--about its lack of editorial meddling, its interest in community journalism, its success with locally run (read: not corporate-run) niche publications. What he'd like to see Lee do differently is something you rarely see anywhere in journalism. "I think that there's a shortcoming in every major media company and that is, they have got to reinvest in their newsrooms," Bugeja says. "While I believe we still have healthy levels in Lee Enterprises..I would like to see Lee Enterprises take the lead and hire more reporters."
Mary Junck and David Stoeffler talk a lot about local autonomy and leaving decisions up to local editors. By all accounts, they mean it.
In March, Lee held a meeting of its editors in Chicago, the first such get-together in three years. The State Journal's Tim Kelley says Junck spoke at the event about innovation and increasing readership. Some editors asked her questions that suggested they wanted direction from corporate, he recalls. "She resisted that," saying, in effect, you are the editors, you make the decisions.
State Journal Editor Ellen Foley, who left her job as managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News a year ago to come to Madison, says local control is "really an affirmation of my judgment as an editor about what my own local market is telling me... And it's an interesting trend that's happening in our business..that the larger the newspaper companies get, the more formulaic their journalism gets." At Lee, she says, that's not the case.
But corporate does have influence. Local coverage is heavily emphasized--that's the third bulleted item on "Mary's Prayer Card," a tri-fold business card-size explanation of Lee's five top priorities. (The first item, of course, is "grow revenue creatively and rapidly.") When you open up the card, you see "key action steps" for those priorities. For the "emphasize strong local news" category, they include credibility, watchdog journalism and storytelling. The latter is something Stoeffler has pushed at the North County Times. There's some resistance to too many anecdotal leads at the paper, which has considered itself a hard-news paper in a fight with the San Diego Union-Tribune, and particularly with a new freebie launched by the U-T's parent, Copley, and distributed throughout North County.
Many staffers are thankful for Stoeffler and his role as VP of news. Hineline, the Times' AME for news, calls him "absolutely grand." The Times had been "consistently criticized, legitimately so, for being a dull newspaper," she says, and Stoeffler's emphasis on storytelling has helped. But she says the paper hasn't done as much of it as he would probably like.
Stoeffler says his suggestions are just that. About once a month, he visits a paper and critiques it. "I come in and I discuss with them my views of the paper, and then they decide whether they want to do anything with that," he says. "We have a good discussion, and obviously journalism is a subjective business in a lot of respects. So I have my opinions about things. And usually the local editors and staff have their own opinions about things, and it's up to them to decide what to do."
As any company gets bigger, there's bound to be some collaboration between (or a reliance on) other papers. George Hesselberg, a general assignment reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal who has worked at the paper nearly 30 years, says that "since Lee acquired more newspapers in Wisconsin, we've seen sort of a drawing in of the geographic [coverage] of the paper..and a little bit of indecision there on territorial things."
There is a Lee wire, but papers choose what to put up and there's no requirement to use Lee stories. Most sharing occurs regionally, with Green Bay Packers coverage, for instance, in Wisconsin.
Stoeffler has sparked some collaboration: A few years ago, he asked the State Journal's Seely and another reporter to go to Montana to help the Missoula paper cover major forest fires. Lee papers are currently cooperating on coverage of military base closings.
Other projects are initiated by the papers themselves. Lee's four daily Iowa papers, and the capital bureau they share in Des Moines, are producing a series of stories about everyday people working to make ends meet. The Des Moines bureau writes a piece on a statewide issue, and individual papers localize it. Quad-City Times reporter Tory Brecht wrote a three-part series, "Gettting By, Getting Lost," that ran in late March, and in early April he was working on a second series.
Sometimes, though, it takes corporate leadership to make investments in more ambitious coverage. Lee's five dailies in Montana control more than half of the daily newspaper circulation in the state. Until a few years ago, the papers didn't have a reporter in Washington, D.C., to cover the state's delegation. "It wasn't as high a priority as some of the other spending decisions being made," says Billings Gazette Editor Steve Prosinski.
What prompted the change? Lee's acquisition of Wyoming's Casper Star-Tribune, circulation 31,000, a former Howard publication, which had a reporting position in Washington. The job had been vacant, but Lee didn't kill it--it broadened the position to cover both Wyoming and Montana matters in D.C. "We decided that the Montana papers could contribute to sharing the cost of that position," says Stoeffler, "and we actually attempted to upgrade the position to get a more experienced reporter into the position."
The Wyoming/Montana bureau was filled for about two years until the first of the year, says Prosinski, when the reporter left. "I think everybody agreed that coverage of our delegations was important to our readers here, and we just had to find a way to fund it and provide coverage out of D.C... It's just very difficult to cover those delegations well from this far away."
It's also apparently difficult to cover them under current financial constraints. Because of monetary issues, the Lee papers are not actively looking to fill the position. Prosinski, who will lead the search for a D.C. reporter, says as the papers head into fiscal planning for 2006, "this will be a front-burner opening to fill." He hopes to have a reporter in place this fall.
Before buying the Post-Dispatch, no other Lee paper had had a Washington presence, and Stoeffler reiterates that adding any more is a local decision. "The Iowa papers talk about it. The Wisconsin papers talk about it," he says. "So there's this sort of regular conversation about it, but I don't think it's gotten to the point of being serious."
On Sunday morning, January 30, Ellen Soeteber, editor of the Post-Dispatch, got a call from her publisher, Terry Egger, telling her that Pulitzer had agreed to sell to Lee Enterprises. Happy and fraught with nervous energy, Soeteber went shopping at Saks, scoring a cashmere jacket at a quarter of its original price, now termed her "Lee celebration jacket."
Pulitzer Inc.'s approximately 4,000 employees had been sweating over who their new bosses would be since November 19, when Reuters reported that the Pulitzer family might sell. Post-Dispatch business reporter Christopher Carey had written a January 29 story that said Lee was likely to be the buyer, and on the evening of the 30th, he was sequestered in Egger's office, typing up an embargoed story for the paper on the publisher's computer.
The night staff later got the word, but most of the Post-Dispatch employees found out by reading the next day's paper. When senior writer Harry Levins, who joined the paper 34 years ago, picked up his Post-Dispatch in the driveway, he says, "my gut just sank." He was devastated. Not because it was Lee. Because it was anyone.
It was the end of a proud, 126-year tradition of being a Pulitzer paper that was once a journalism powerhouse, often cited as one of three papers President John F. Kennedy had to read every morning, once listed among the top 10 papers in the world.
Joseph Pulitzer bought the Post-Dispatch in 1878. Twenty-six years later, he founded the Pulitzer Prizes, and it was under the direction of his son, the second Joseph Pulitzer, that St. Louis would win 12 of them--five for public service. In 1986, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the founder's grandson, filled the editor's job with the first non-Pulitzer, William Woo. The paper had piled up five more Pulitzers, the last in 1972 for music criticism. That's when the drought began. Three years into Woo's tenure, a freelance photographer won one of the coveted prizes for a photo published in the Post-Dispatch. The paper was a winner by association.
Despite what many employees say has been a lengthy, slow decline since the glory days of the '40s, '50s and '60s, that tradition of watchdog, crusading journalism was the reason they had come to the paper, and the reason they had stayed. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Joseph Pulitzer Jr.'s widow, and Michael E. Pulitzer, his half-brother and chairman of the company, remain two of the three largest shareholders. Every day, on the editorial page, the paper continues to run the Post-Dispatch Platform, a passionate defense of journalism penned by the first Joseph Pulitzer in 1907. His words also grace the wall of the Post-Dispatch lobby:
I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.
"The best summary of journalistic values..that exists," says Deputy Editorial Page Editor William Freivogel. A 33-year-veteran of the paper, Freivogel, his wife, Margaret Wolf Freivogel, who is the Sunday editor, and a handful of other longtime staffers made an unsuccessful, last-ditch effort to buy the Post-Dispatch through an ESOP, an employee stock ownership plan.
Lee won't be a Joseph Pulitzer. But who would? There's a feeling among journalists that the days of crusading, best-in-the-world aspirations are long gone for newspapers, particularly for one in St. Louis, Missouri. And the sale to Lee finally marked the symbolic close to that fairy tale chapter.
Senior writer Levins talks about the great family-run, journalism-ahead-of-profits newspapers he's worked for. In a few years, he'll be able to retire. As for young journalists at the beginning of their careers, he says, "I just don't think they're going to have the chance to work for newspapers like I did, and I feel sorry for them."
Despite such brief moments of melancholy nostalgia, Post-Dispatch staffers remained optimistic in early April and reassured by what they had heard from Junck. She visited the paper February 2 and simply said there would be no major changes, keep up the good work. Everyone was in wait-and-see mode, and many were hoping this change of ownership would have a silver lining. Bill Freivogel says there's still "a desire at the Post-Dispatch to some way recapture some of the paper's past greatness." If Lee provided a way to do that, he'd only be too happy. Even when he came to the paper in 1971, he says, people questioned whether the paper's best days were behind it. Since then, there's been "a largely futile attempt" to recapture the glory over the last three decades.
Journalists here talk of how the paper has changed over the years in much the same way journalists everywhere comment on the business. Gone are the days when national and international, not local, dominated the front page. With the rise of television and online news, front pages at any regional daily aren't what they used to be. And like a number of metro newspapers, the Post-Dispatch is redefining its identity.
"We're a pretty good paper," says Bill McClellan, a columnist and 25-year staffer. Losing the Pulitzer title is sad, he says, but it "isn't like the Pulitzer name gave us any leg up on anyone else." At the Post-Dispatch and in the industry in general, he says, there's a tendency to pander to a wider readership, "to water things down" and a feeling of, "hey, let's not offend the right so much... I think that's happening in a lot of places," he says. "I don't think Lee will accelerate that... I don't expect [Lee] to decelerate that."
Staffers point to two areas to watch under their new owner: the editorial page and the Washington bureau. But Junck has expressed no desire to fiddle with editorial matters, and it's doubtful Lee would be responsible for any changes.
The editorial page, long a champion of liberal causes and the target of much ire from conservatives in the community, has been creeping toward, if not the right, then the center, say many staffers--a shift that Emily Pulitzer is thought to have slowed, as her liberal preferences were well known.
Soeteber, however, disagrees with those beliefs. The page, she says, may have lost sight of the parts of the Post-Dispatch Platform that demand the paper be "drastically independent" and not belong to one party--something she has stressed with the editorial board--but it has not strayed from its traditional principles. While Emily Pulitzer has commented on editorial work she really liked, Soeteber says, she has never interfered in any way. The Pulitzer sale agreement requires that the new owner continue to run the platform for at least five years. That stipulation, the editor says, "shows how important it is to her, and it's important to us... But it's the influence of the Pulitzer Platform and the legacy more than any one Pulitzer family member" that guides the page.
When asked about a potential move to the right in the future, President and Publisher Terry Egger says he'd like the page to be more surprising. "[I]f it is so predictable and so same to any ideology or to any political party or to any group, then it loses its value in my opinion," he says.
The editorial page showed no signs of losing value in March and April, when it was doing some of its best work, say many of those interviewed for this story. After the Missouri Senate approved a measure to cut Medicaid, the page ran an editorial titled "The Shameless 20" and included a graphic featuring the smiling faces of the 20 senators who voted for cuts and the exact number of their constituents who would no longer receive health coverage. It was one of many such critiques of the Legislature. A year earlier, the page ran an editorial, titled "House of Hypocrites," that pictured 66 state House Republicans who had both voted for bills to cut health insurance to the working poor and received taxpayer-subsided health insurance themselves.
Even critic Ed Bishop, editor of the St. Louis Journalism Review, has lavish praise for the Medicaid editorials. "Sensational, absolutely sensational," he says. But the page has been "schizophrenic... They don't know what they are anymore."
As for Washington, Junck says the bureau will serve the paper, not the chain. "If there would be any changes to the Washington bureau, it would be Ellen [Soeteber] and Terry [Egger] who would be thinking about it," she says. "I do think it'd be great if we could figure out some ways to periodically work together, but I don't think we're very far on our thinking on that, are we?" she asks Stoeffler, whom I interviewed with Junck.
"No," he replies, adding that there may be stories from the Post-Dispatch bureau that other papers will want to run, and the future Wyoming/Montana reporter might share the Post-Dispatch office space in D.C.
Washington Bureau Chief Jon Sawyer says his bureau's future will be determined by how it's viewed in St. Louis, not in Davenport.
Soeteber expresses no inclination to lessen the firepower of the bureau, and she mentions a number of locally focused stories that have recently been published. One reporter concentrates on aerospace and procurement issues (Boeing's headquarters for integrated defense systems is in St. Louis); another concentrates on biotechnology (Monsanto is based there, too). In the absence of foreign bureaus, the Washington office sends reporters overseas as well, to Iraq, Afghanistan, Brazil and Germany, among other locales.
Sawyer hopes some of the Lee enthusiasm for newspapers will rub off. "It's very encouraging to see a company that is going with newspapers only and acquiring more of them and making them successful in all different kinds of communities," he says. "If we can get some of that magic and keep the quality of the journalism, we'll be very happy."
Soeteber arrived in 2001 from the Tribune Co.'s South Florida Sun-Sentinel with the goal of strengthening the paper. She replaced Cole Campbell, who, with a thing for consultants and thematic coverage, began what many staffers unabashedly refer to as the dark period. (See "The End of the Line," July/August 2000.)
"I didn't think that it was living up to its potential," Soeteber says of the paper she took over, and leaves it at that.
Many say the editor had to put the newsroom back together. The paper is "markedly better" since Soeteber arrived, Margaret Freivogel says. But the staff wants it to be better still, she adds.
Can the paper recapture those glory years? "I think we can and will be a great paper again," Soeteber says. But the media landscape has changed, and the paper can't go back to what it was in the '50s. "I think our goal is to be a great regional paper."
Soeteber and Egger say they plan to stay. The sale agreement stipulates that if the new owners change editors at the Post-Dispatch within five years, they must first consult with someone chosen by the Pulitzer board.
As for Lee's ability to handle its first major metro, Soeteber says she has no worries, because of Junck. The CEO's background includes publisher stints at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Baltimore Sun, where she worked with John S. Carroll, now editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Where Pulitzer lags behind Lee is in its ability to increase advertising revenue and in its margins. While Lee has maintained operating margins around 20 percent since 2001, Pulitzer posted a paltry 6.3 in 2001, raising its margin to 17 last year.
"We've said all along that our goal--and again, I'm talking prior to any conversation with Lee or any other potential acquisition party--our focus was on being a top-tier performer," says Egger. "And so we had always said that we wanted to be in the high 20s and if we got really lucky, maybe the low 30s [in terms of profit margin]. And some people can, in my opinion, be naÔve in their interpretation of that and think, 'Oh, you're just going to do that on the cost side.'" Instead, Egger espouses a focus on increasing revenue, a Lee hallmark.
The worry is not that Lee will demand a scaling back of editorial desires per se, but that it will call for stringent cost controls to pay for its hefty purchase. Junck says the revenue targets and margin targets Pulitzer had prepared pre-sale make sense to her. "So we think they're on the right track, and we look forward to being on the same track with them."
Carl G. Schmidt, Lee vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer, explains budget time as "a fairly interactive process." Lee comes up with targets for revenue growth and operating cash flow based on the economic situations and assessments of individual markets. Then the budgets are developed by the papers and reviewed with corporate. Says Schmidt: "Sometimes they are able to achieve the targets that have been discussed. Sometimes they have good reasons they can't be achieved; sometimes they do better than the targets."
But the St. Louis Journalism Review's Bishop says a preoccupation with budgets isn't what has held back the Post-Dispatch. It very well could be the New York Times of the Midwest, Bishop says, "but the owner would have to be the second Joseph Pulitzer... It's not business circumstances that have caused" the paper to slip. "It's a lack of leadership in ownership."
What kind of leader will Lee be? What are executives' aspirations for the paper? Junck answers by first explaining why St. Louis was an attractive market. It's a regional hub, a place where people go for shopping, entertainment, health care, as other Lee markets are. And the paper has created "a really powerful media platform," by also owning the area Suburban Journals and operating a Web site and direct mail program, she says.
Specifically on aspirations, Junck says, "We are going to be relying as we do everywhere else on the publisher and the editor on the scene to tell us..'What's our vision for this newspaper?'"
Stoeffler adds that as with all Lee papers, the company wants the Post-Dispatch "to be the strongest source of local information in the market." And he expects the paper to build on its great journalistic tradition.
Like Bill Freivogel, hoping Lee might provide some way to rediscover the paper's former greatness, numerous staffers in April wondered whether the new owner might take an interest in beefing up its new flagship. Will we be Lee's crown jewel? they asked. Or is this just another paper?
When I asked that question of Junck, she said: "Well, I don't know. I don't quite know... I think we want every newspaper that's a Lee newspaper to be as good as it possibly can... I mean, Ellen [Soeteber] has thought about this obviously, deeply, but I can't really be more specific than that. But I know it can improve because they've told us that, and we're completely in favor of being as good as we can be."
Crown jewel? Well, that responsibility rests squarely on a newsroom in St. Louis.
Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.