Veteran, popular columnist Bill McClellan joins the latest Post-Dispatch Exodus

Since Lee Enterprises acquired Pulitzer, Inc. and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2005, there’s been a steady departure of well-paid, veteran professionals who over the years had made the newspaper one of the most valuable journalistic assets in the country.

With hundreds of millions of dollars in debt from the acquisition, the burden of paying off the loans fell on the shoulders of employees at Lee’s 46 newspapers who faced layoffs, furloughs, frozen wages and the elimination of benefits.

A quick way of cutting costs was to buyout senior journalists at the Post-Dispatch. From the beginning of Lee’s acquisition, buyouts of veterans who had risen to the top of the wage scales became an easy way of reducing costs, despite the fact that it seriously eroded the quality of the newspaper.

The latest round taking effect today includes Bill McClellan, who for more than 30 years has been the newspaper’s popular, hardworking, four-day-a-week columnist. Since 1983, McClellan has been the St. Louis town crier, historian, humorist, soothsayer and seeker of justice. His work has been compared with Mark Twain’s.

By itself, McClellan’s departure would be enough to shake the foundations at 900 North Tucker, the headquarters building Lee Enterprises wants to sell. But McClellan is not alone. Also taking advantage of a severance package/retirement offer are:

–Virginia Young, the Missouri state capital’s premier investigative reporter, who has consistently made politicians accountable since she joined the newspaper in 1988. Her reports on abuses of a state tax credit program led to indictments, prosecutions and guilty pleas by five men involved in the scheme.

–Michael Sorkin, who most recently has written news obituaries of notables, and who in 1993 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for disclosing prosecutor George Peach’s use of a city checking account to pay prostitutes.

–Susan Weich, who joined the newspaper in 1987 and who disclosed in a “Burning Through Tax Dollars” series how fire protection districts in the St. Louis area were wasting money while board members received gifts from firefighters.

–Bob Kelly and Margaret Gillerman, two veteran reporters who handled multiple assignments at the newspaper over the years.

Kelly announced his departure Thursday night on Facebook, saying, “Tomorrow will be my last day at the Post-Dispatch after 43 years of working there. It’s been a great run, but I’m ready for retirement from a full-time job.”

In another Facebook post, Gillerman said, “We hung on for a very long time…I admire all we have done together!! I love all our years together! I love our Joseph Pulitzer tradition now and ever more.”

In addition to McClellan and the five reporters, two editors and a paginator also accepted buyout packages.

Jeff Gordon, a Post-Dispatch sports columnist and the president of the local United Media Guild Unit, released a statement saying that the nine veteran employees leaving the Post would mean that four reporters and a copy editor, who had been targeted for a reduction in force on June 26, would be allowed to keep their jobs.

Under the agreement, McClellan would continue to write a once-a-week column on Sundays.

Influencing the departing journalists’ decisions was the fact that the newspaper’s contract with the Guild expires in September. Gordon’s statement said the company had indicated a desire to review the existing severance language that allows long-time employees, depending on their date and years of service, to collect up to 66 weeks of pay.

As news of the latest departures swamped the Internet Thursday night, reactions were sad for St. Louis and critical of Lee Enterprises. One posting on Twitter said: “As a reader, I’m saddened by the loss of deep local knowledge in this wave on Post-Dispatch departures.”

Publisher’s Note: Terry Ganey, the St. Louis editor of GJR, was the Jefferson City Bureau Chief for the Post-Dispatch before taking the first wave of buyouts in 2005.