Bittersweet Moment As The St. Louis Post-Dispatch Changes Hands

Today, the paper synonymous with Pulitzer for more than 100 years became part of Lee Enterprises  Nearly half a lifetime ago, I commenced from Washington University into a reporting gig at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They were open from the start; odds were, I wasn’t going to be able to convert the job into a permanent post. It was a different atmosphere then, with an emphasis on significant experience at smaller papers and a move to the PD as a step up.  The bulk of my professional experience was from a mix of internships and fill-in jobs at the major metro Atlanta Journal. Worse, in some eyes,  when I returned for a degree I steered away from the world-class j school  at Mizzou.   On the other hand, I had enough experience to avoid being paid at the lowest scale.

I didn’t change the right minds about staying on full time. But from June 1984 on, the P-D has been an integral part of my life. I met my partner Ed Kohn  in the newsroom, first learning from him about using open records and asking tough questions; others became valued friends and mentors. Some of the best advice I ever got was from the late Jim Millstone,  who told me in slightly different words to have a life outside the newsroom.  There was the joy of learning St. Louis City Hall from Greg Freeman, who turned out to be a great columnist and left us far too soon, and other aspects of reporting and editing  from so many other top-notch professionals.  Gossip columnist Jerry Berger shared tips, contacts and Yiddush long after I left.  The paper stood by me  when I came close to being called as a witness in a court hearing about a candidate’s lack of residency, a story I broke, and, after my gig was over, when I was sued along with the P-D by someone upset over my parting series about an urban not-for-profit spending most of its money on administrative services. (The suit , a nuisance filing, was dropped.)

A favorite pre-cell-phone moment: covering the 1984 VP Fair fireworks by the amazing Grucci family and checking before I went out on the explosive-laden barge for a place to file from if there was an accident — until I realized if there was a problem I wouldn’t be the one filing.

Later, the Post-Dispatch and parent company Pulitzer became my part of my beat as a media writer — first,  for the St. Louis Journalism Review, and then for Editor & Publisher, the New York Times and many other publications; moving from someone who had been paralyzed by chance meetings with Joseph Pulitzer Jr. on the stairs  to someone who interviewed him. I covered Pulitzer going public;  the death by a thousand cuts of the rival Globe-Democrat; the rise and flameout of the St. Louis Sun; the arrival — and departure — of editors;  Joseph Pulitzer’s will; the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize to freelance photographer Ron Olshwanger — and then broke the still-repeated story that a photo editor  had erased images, including Diet Coke cans, from the photo of the moment that ran in the paper the next day. (For some time, the Diet Coke cans showed up as screensavers in the photo department.)

People were never quite sure how much Ed and I talked about work in progress; he kept newsroom confidences much tighter than many of his colleagues. Occasionally, I astonished him by breaking news about the paper; those were good days.  But as he became more involved in the way the paper was run, it became harder for me to write about the newsroom. Eventually, I moved away from covering the corporate side, too.  It felt incredibly strange to be at Media Week last December and not be chasing the sale story.

Now, the paper’s role in my life is that of news source, dinner conversation/dinner delayer, indirect financial support. I don’t know everyone any more, can’t put a face with every byline.  My own byline appeared last year from a conference.  I’m critical of it, probably hypercritical because I see so much potential; I also can be hyperforgiving.

The Post-Dispatch and Pulitzer Publishing were tremendous supporters of SPJ for a very long time. (My guess is that Lee would be 100 percent behind reviving the St. Louis chapter.) In 2000, publisher Terry Egger arranged for the loan of  then-new conference facilities for a
regional conference still appropriately titled "Change Happens." The anniversary of the first Joseph Pulitzer’s
birthday coincidentally fell at the same time in early April; we celebrated with a sheet
cake bearing the likeness from the masthead and, I think, some words
from the platform. It was a reminder that the ideals — not always the
reality, but the ideals — mattered beyond the Post-Dispatch.

As the Post-Dispatch and the other Pulitzer newspapers become part of Lee Enterprises, we should all remember that those ideals matter far beyond the name Pulitzer. 

Coda: I thought it was a good sign when I realized that Lee’s vice president of news is the same David Stoeffler I got to know in the early ’90s when he was was at the Wisconsin  State Journal.  Today’s announcements included David’s appointment as editor and publisher of the second-largest paper in the Lee chain, the Arizona Daily Star. He will continue as news vp.  I was intrigued to find some of his views about Lee’s news initiatives online, along with a chain-wide professional development site. Take a look.

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