Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Going Post Post-Dispatch: The media vacuum in St. Louis

Since news broke of the firing of popular and outspoken columnist Sylvester Brown by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch over extremely dubious "ethical charges", I've seen a great many people online write comments along the lines of "this is the final nail in the coffin of a once-great publication." While I can't claim to have any knowledge about Post-Dispatch's prospects for remaining economically viable, I do think this is the symbolic death of the paper in another way: there can no longer be any doubt that the Post-Dispatch under Lee Enterprises is failing to provide the information progressive people need to make informed decisions about the city.

Since the rise of blogosphere, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the vital role the press plays in a well-functioning democracy. It is pretty widely agreed, at least on the left, that the mainstream media massively failed to ask tough questions and to inform Americans as the Bush administration was pushing for immediate war with Iraq. This vacuum, in my opinion, gave rise to a powerful netroots movement full of citizen journalists and citizen commentators that dramatically shifted the political landscape of the country. Not only are there Democrats in power now, but the Democrats in power today are more progressive (if only slightly so) than those of the Clinton era.

I believe the St. Louis media is largely in the same state that the national media was in pre-Iraq. As progressive participants in the democratic process, we have certain values that we want to see realized or at least protected by our local decision-makers. One of those values is the idea that every person be given a roughly equal opportunity to succeed in society and to at least have a shot at realizing her dreams. I believe, and argue below, that the local media fails at providing us with the information needed to make informed decisions based on this value. In particular, I think the Post-Dispatch has failed by for-all-practical-purposes ignoring the lives of a huge percentage of St. Louis residents. The most obvious example of this is the paper's ignoring of people struggling to make ends meet in North St. Louis.

A Little Background

The Post-Dispatch was bought by Lee Enterprises in 2005. The St. Louis Journalism Review wrote a great article in '07 that detailed how Lee brought a small-town approach to a big city newspaper. In particular, Lee brought the idea of a "community advisory board" that would guide the editorial and reporting processes. Says journalism professor Don Corrigan in the article,"It might make sense to have an advisory board at a little paper where the editorial writer is unsure of himself, or knows very little about national issues...But it makes no sense at a metropolitan newspaper like the Post-Dispatch where the editorial writers are presumably literate, well-informed and perceptive journalists." Furthermore, a quick glance at the members of the Review Board chosen for St. Louis show that it is made up in large part of people (like Mayor Slay, his chief of staff Jeff Rainford, former police chief Joseph Mokwa, and millionaire investor Paul McKee) who already call many of the political shots in the city, and already would have no trouble getting the attention of political reporters. Thus, a small town media company from Iowa bought the Post-Dispatch and immediately decided that it needed to do a better job of framing its content around the opinions of the people in power. And all of this took place after the Post was already famous (or infamous) for passing on gossip tidbits from Mayor Slay's public relations guru Richard Callow that pretty clearly served a narrow range of people's political interests.

But is there any evidence that this shift resulted in a lack of information? I can say that as an activist and someone whose participated in events around the city, there has been a huge amount of anger in the black and activist communities about certain city decisions that was pretty much completely ignored by the Post-Dispatch, despite the fact that they were regularly sent press releases. Other than a few brief mentions, the Post-Dispatch largely ignored the complaints of the black community until the dramatic booing at the MLK anniversary event last year, where the discontent was so obvious that they had to cover it to retain any credibility whatsoever.

Thus, I would say that the Post-Dispatch has largely ignored the plight of large parts of the population. Perhaps this is intentional. After all, maybe they identified a target audience and choose to ignore stories that they think are relevant only for people outside that target. It would not surprise me if this made sense as a business model. However, if this is the model, then it is a model that fails to satisfy the needs of progressive people, who as I said above value the idea of giving everyone a fair shake, and thus should care about communities that are struggling to make ends meet. In other words, regardless of whether they have identified a successful business model, the Post-Dispatch (and other media outlets) have created a media vacuum in the St. Louis region.

The problem has been getting worse in recent months, culminating in Sylvester Brown's firing yesterday and the subsequent press conference. Brown said during the press conference: "I’m here to tell you that these charges are a gross distortion of the facts, which in my view, have been purposely manipulated to provide cover for far more desperate and nefarious acts within this once proud and honorable institution." I'm not going to go over all the details here, but basically the Post-Dispatch's claims against Brown appear to be extremely flimsy and thoroughly rebutted here and here. And the really disturbing part of the story is the following:

Since I’m convinced such ridiculous logic has little to do with my termination, I’m forced to believe upper management acted on other, far more suspect motivations.

Perhaps it has something to do with the hasty meeting called after certain folks aligned with Mayor Francis Slay, a member of your community advisory board, issued threats to the newspaper after I wrote about his campaign and administration’s thug-like behavior.

Perhaps the real reason you’ve locked me out of the building is to confiscate the e-mails and letters I sent to the executive and managing editor, begging for intervention into what I described as discriminatory, inconsistent and unnecessarily punitive actions based on one editor’s personal, not professional, perceptions.

Maybe this action is a result of the Oct. 2008 letter I sent to management warning that a newsroom, already seriously lacking in diversity at the bottom and top, could ill afford to continuously mute the most visible and consistent black voice in its employ in response to his questioning of rules and policies drafted or enforced specifically for him.

In addition to Brown, other progressive columnists at the Post-Dispatch have recently been let go. Phillip Dine, the Post-Dispatch's much-respected labor reporter and author of the recent book State of the Unions, was laid off earlier in the year. And Eric Mink, a fantastic columnist and overseer of the editorial pages, was terminated on January 9. Interestingly, two months before being fired, Mink wrote a column titled, "St. Louis is not Conservative," where he ironically (for present purposes) wrote,

Here in the editorial/commentary/letters area of the newspaper, our principal mission is to analyze issues and advocate positions that are consistent with the values and principles of the platform articulated by Joseph Pulitzer in 1907. That's a wordy way of saying that the institution of the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board has a long history and unapologetic tradition of actually believing in something.

Am I noticing a pattern here?

Finally, I should mention that blame for this new lack of progressive media is not to be laid only at the feet of Lee Enterprises, though their stinky feet are clearly involved. The Riverfront Times got rid of an editor who was overly critical of the Iraq War and the paper has not been as confrontational since; Lizz Brown, a firebrand WGNU radio host was canned despite being extremely popular; great blogs like PubDef and the Arch City Chronicle have dramatically decreased their content due to occupation with other matters. In other words, a host of companies and events have contributed to the demise of news and opinions that were once crucial for informing progressive people in the St. Louis region.

Can the Post recover? Are there other contenders?

While it is not impossible for the Post-Dispatch to reverse its mistaken ways, the apparent managerial philosophies of Lee Enterprises suggests that this would be a long shot. Most likely, they will try to squeeze any last profit they can find out of the paper, and will not be worried about providing content that fills the crucial role of informing voters (especially "progressive" voters). But are there other options that currently exist that might replace the Post-Dispatch?

The Beacon is a new enterprise that basically functions as a paperless newspaper. They provide solid news and opinion columns. However, I do not detect anything fundamentally different in their reporting philosophy than that of the Post-Dispatch. In fact, the Beacon hired veteran reporter Jo Mannies from the Post-Dispatch, which suggests that they will largely be following the same model of reporting: roughly, passing on press releases and "insider information" from powerful people. In general, these powerful people are the mayor's office when it comes to local politics, and prominent politicians from the Democratic and Republican parties when it comes to state or national politics. In other words, it is merely passing down the messages that powerful people want us to hear. (I should note here that Tony Messenger of the Post-Dispatch does a great job of reporting, especially via Twitter, what goes on in Jefferson City).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the St. Louis Indy Media Center. This has been trying to recover for a while, but I have seen no real signs of consistent writing coming out on the site nor, perhaps, content that would always be appealing to a broad audience. But still, the IMC has potential and should not be discounted.

However, it's worth pointing out that we now have an amazing group of local progressive journalists who have been laid off in the recent past. I think the best possible model for creating a St. Louis-based progressive media outlet would be the formation of an organization with respected journalists such as Sylvester Brown, Eric Mink, and Lizz Brown providing the central content supported by grassroots citizen journalism and systematic promotion from large-scale progressive organization(s).

Having great journalists like Brown, Mink, & Brown would ensure the top-quality content that people demand. Having citizen journalists and a model where good stories can filter up (similar to blogs) would ensure that stories that matter to people would not be ignored. And the promotion from progressive groups would ensure that this content would be found by the people who desperately need it. I believe this vacuum has created an opportunity, and I hope someone steps up to fill it.

Update: I recieved a note from an RFT employee, who thinks I was too dismissive about their reporting. I'm posting part of the note here since I think it's a fair point:

how about a recent cover story on the founder of La Clinica, and the follow-up blogposts about its closure? (www.dailyrft.com, fyi). how about all of the stories about development on the north side? a story about the catholics doing good works on the north side? sociological/economic analysis on the whys and hows of chop suey in st. louis? our recent two-part cover story on christian ferguson? the stories about the struggles charter schools are having to find buildings in town? the stories about Cherokee Street and its residents? those are just the ones i think of off-hand, but the list goes on. we've done quite a few stories advocating for the communities neglected by the media you mention.
I think I was looking at this from the lens of seeing more aggressive political reporting from the RFT several years ago, but I agree that the above are all important stories. I do applaud the RFT for the work that it does as a weekly (and also note that the St. Louis American does some good reporting, BTW), but I think we as a community still need more.


  1. The Gateway Green Alliance has published a newsletter called the COMpost Dispatch for 15 years. In it you will find articles written by local working people about what is going on in the area.

  2. This is a great piece Adam! Although I do think that the American and the RFT (sometimes) offers good alternatives. I do think that RFT has had some good stories but I definitely think it's lost the edge it had years ago. They aren't a must read for me anymore--but their coverage of the mayoral election left much to be desired!

  3. Thanks Anonymous! As I note in the update, I think the RFT and American do good work as well. With respect to my general claim that there's a progressive media vaccum, I'd say that there are a lot of noteworthy exceptions, but not enough to disprove my central point. But another one that I'd feel really bad not mentioning is that Eddie Roth does a great job writing about public transit and a lot of other issues relevant to the city..