Ten years after Pulitzer: Staff cuts, declining circulation, low morale

St. LOUIS – One afternoon just before Thanksgiving, a group of reporters and editors clustered around a table in the 5th floor newsroom of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as part of a farewell ceremony for business reporter Tim Barker.

There was a sheet cake to cut and pieces to distribute. Beyond that, there wasn’t much to the event. Barker said he didn’t like making speeches.

The editors who announced his departure said Barker was returning to Orlando, Fla., where his wife had accepted a job. Since joining the Post-Dispatch in 2007, Barker covered economic development, higher education and the biotech industry. His editors said he did outstanding work on complex subjects.

The sheet cake scene was a familiar one. In the decade since Lee Enterprises acquired Pulitzer, Inc., and the Post-Dispatch, more people have left the newspaper than joined it. The staff cuts — roughly a two-thirds reduction in newsroom employment — are only one component of the upheaval that has taken place at the newspaper’s headquarters at 900 North Tucker Blvd, a building now up for sale.

The newspaper is smaller. Circulation is falling, down a quarter from 2013. The staff has suffered job furloughs, wage reductions and higher health insurance premiums. The company-paid pension was frozen in 2010.

At the same time, more is expected. In addition to writing daily stories, the staff must post breaking news to the Internet, share thoughts on social media and engage with readers in online forums. On top of that, they carry more of the burden of the routine duties. Gone are the newsroom clerks who once answered the telephones and sorted the mail.

The Post-Dispatch situation reflects the industry’s convulsions. The Pew Research Center reported a drop of newsroom employment from 55,000 in 2006 to 36,700 in 2013. Total average daily newspaper circulation fell by 3.3 percent in 2014.

But despite being squeezed by Lee’s Davenport-based accountants, the Post-Dispatch staff continues to develop news stories and commentary that are meaningful to the community. The newspaper’s website, packed with news and information, is the most popular of its kind in the St. Louis area. Lee claims it has more than 83 million page views per month.

In 2015, the newspaper’s photographers won the most prestigious prize in journalism for coverage of events in Ferguson. The Pulitzer Prize commentary said the staff’s “stunning photo journalism served the community while informing the country.” At the same time, the newspaper’s opinion writers, Tony Messenger and Kevin Horrigan, were Pulitzer finalists for their Ferguson editorials.

The Scripps Howard Foundation awarded its first place national breaking news award for 2014 to the newspaper’s reporting staff for its Ferguson coverage.

“There are a lot of very talented people there working hard,” said the departing Barker in an interview. “It’s just harder and harder for them with everything they’ve got to deal with.”

QUESTIONABLE MANAGEMENT

Lee bought Pulitzer with its 14 dailies for $1.46 billion just as the print industry entered a massive Internet-fueled contraction. To cover the purchase and pay the debt, Lee cut spending, laid off workers, and bought out senior, higher-paid employees. In the first buyout, in November, 2005, 130 employees, including 40 from the newsroom, departed.

For the next decade up until this year, the trend continued. Now there are about 115 in the newsroom compared with about 295 whose names appeared in a company telephone directory just before Lee took over. About 65 of the newspaper’s 2005 staff remain, a good percentage of them in the sports department.

The Washington Bureau that had five correspondents in 2005 is down to one. Statehouse coverage has been cut back in both Jefferson City and Springfield. Editorial writers have been cut from six to three with the cartoonist eliminated. (See sidebar on new editorial editor.)

There had just been a big buyout, Barker said, shortly after he arrived in St. Louis from a job at the Orlando Sentinel. “I remember immediately thinking I might have made a mistake in making the move,” he said.

Barker, 48, has a degree in photojournalism from Oklahoma State University. He held reporting jobs in Tulsa, Evansville, Ind., the Chicago suburbs and the Sentinel. He and his wife moved to St. Louis to be closer to family in Illinois and Oklahoma.

Now Barker is heading back to Orlando, where his wife, who is a veterinarian, will take a job as director of a clinic.

Asked why he was leaving, Barker said, “I think it would be fair to say because of a growing disillusionment with journalism and the Post-Dispatch if I were honest. I don’t think the morale in any newsroom at this point is good. And I don’t think the morale at the Post-Dispatch is good.

“If I had had a happier experience there, I wouldn’t have left,” he added. “My wife knew I was unhappy, and her old boss had been trying every year to try to get her to come back. It just reached the point where I felt stupid to say ‘no.’ Why am I holding her back when I’m not getting that much enjoyment out of what I’m doing?”

Gilbert Bailon, the newspaper’s editor, said he sometimes asks people in the newsroom how things are going, but that he doesn’t use the “morale” word. “I think for the most part morale is pretty good,” Bailon said in an interview. “I think there is always some level of concern in our business because it’s changing and we’ve had things like buyouts and layoffs and cutbacks and jobs that didn’t get filled.

“For the most part, I think there is a resounding feeling that we are valuable,” Bailon added. “I think Ferguson helped with that. What we do individually matters and because of that that helps puts the focus on the right things.”

Journalists have always dealt with stress and long and irregular hours. The competitive nature of the work, the creativity involved and the meaning behind it made up for all the pressure. But there’s no fun when you can’t do the job you were hired to do.

Three former reporters interviewed for this story criticized recent newsroom management decisions. Beyond the cutbacks and the shrinking budgets, former reporters questioned the wisdom behind how journalists are deployed.

They said Post-Dispatch managers were under pressure to enforce Lee’s cost-cutting demands without clearly communicating to the staff what was happening. They considered Mary Junck, Lee’s CEO, as a nonentity who never appeared in the newsroom. Junck’s financial bonuses during the newspaper’s contractions also have been controversial.

“There are a lot of high quality reporters at the paper who really care about what they are doing and that’s what makes the paper as good as it is,” said Lilly Fowler, who was the newspaper’s religion reporter for a year and a half before she was abruptly moved to night general assignment in September.

“There could be more communication between management and the staff,” Fowler said. “The management there is under pressure from Lee Enterprises. It’s hard for the staff to be supportive when no one is explaining what’s going on behind the scenes. It can create a bad environment.”

Barker said he began considering leaving the newspaper about two years ago during the turmoil surrounding the departure of St. Louis University President Lawrence Biondi. At the time, some faculty had accused Father Biondi of cutting the salaries of teachers who had criticized him.

At the time Barker was covering higher education, and the Biondi controversy was the biggest story on his beat. But because of staff cutbacks, Barker was assigned to fill in a vacant slot on the copy desk.

“If you’re a reporter it’s sobering to watch other people having to step in and cover your beat when it’s such a major story and you’re sitting over there on the copy desk and you’re thinking ‘why am I here when this big thing is going on?'” Barker said. “They were just randomly assigning the story to whomever happened to be in the newsroom that day. It got frustrating because sources I was developing were not sure who they were supposed to talk to.”

Fowler came to the Post-Dispatch from California in January, 2014 to be the religion writer. She has a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Notre Dame, as well as a master’s in journalism.

While at the newspaper she won a Wilbur Award from the Religion Communications Council and recognition from the Religion News Writers Association. But then Fowler was told she was told she was going to work nights.

“It was a complete change in what they had hired me to do,” Fowler said. “I wasn’t happy. If they had given me some kind of reassurance that I would eventually be put back on my beat, I would have stuck around. But it was presented to me as a take it or leave it situation. That’s what really drove me away.”

Fowler now works in Washington, D.C. for a PBS newsweekly program on religion and ethics.

THE CIRCULATION FIGURES

Bailon, 56, joined the Post-Dispatch in 2007 as the editor of the editorial page. Four years later he moved up to become the newspaper’s overall editor. Before coming to St. Louis, Bailon spent 21 years at the Dallas Morning News, working his way from reporter up to executive editor.

People who occupied Bailon’s place in the distant past focused exclusively on the print product. When the Post-Dispatch switched from afternoon to morning publication in 1984, the editor focused on press runs for hundreds of thousands of papers printed in various editions and sections at both downtown and at the newspaper’s northwest plant.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the average daily circulation of the Post-Dispatch as of Sept. 30, 2015 was 124,712 and the Sunday circulation was 191,297. These numbers represent a 25 percent drop in daily circulation and a 33 percent drop in Sunday circulation from a similar Alliance for Audited Media report released March 31, 2013.

Although circulation is declining, the print product still pays most of the bills. Newspaper owners are trying to wring more revenue out of their web presence, like stltoday.com, to make up for what’s being lost on the print side.

Lee Enterprises released a preliminary report Nov. 12 covering fourth quarter operations ending Sept. 27. It said digital revenue had increased 24 percent during the quarter, but that overall revenue had dropped 4.4 percent. Total advertising and marketing services revenue decreased 9 percent during the quarter while subscription revenue increased 6 percent. For the year, Lee’s debt has been reduced $79 million, bringing the overall debt to $726 million.

Bailon remains upbeat about the situation, saying he knows the Post-Dispatch, through its various platforms, still provides a product St. Louis readers want and need: clear, concise, accurate, timely, authoritative, unbiased information.

“One thing that’s significant is that different people are using us,” Bailon said. “Before we were digital, people who consumed us were only in the St. Louis region. Now you take a story like Ferguson or the St. Louis Cardinals or a big political story that goes national, anything like that, our audience is far beyond St. Louis. So I think we have a value that extends beyond what is our core readership.”

Bailon acknowledged all the problems facing the newspaper — diminished in size, a smaller page count, a smaller news hole, and a smaller staff. “But that’s true everywhere,” he said. “But quality journalism still has value and if we focus and prioritize ourselves right we’ll be doing that for a long time. Print is still significant. Print still has the majority of the revenue attached to it. And I think there is some permanence and there is value to print.”

The Post-Dispatch does not charge for access to the news on its website, although there is a fee for a small amount of premium information. The newspaper’s strategy now is to boost readership traffic through news alerts, Twitter or other social media. The more traffic there is to the site, the more that can be charged for ads there.

“The whole issue for all newspapers, certainly not just the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is that the revenue of digital is not at the level that it is for print,” Bailon said. “What we get from 100,000 page views versus what we might get from a large print ad may not necessarily be dime for dime. And because of that, it doesn’t mean that people are not reading it or valuing it. It means the financial model is different. Yes, it’s important that we get our website and all digital platforms to have traffic.”

Michael M. Jenner, who focuses on journalism innovation at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said newspapers are still trying to figure out how to best tap the revenue generated by web traffic.

“I think print is still a more lucrative platform than digital for many newspapers, despite what you see going on like at Advance Publications in Cleveland, New Orleans and Portland, where they are cutting the frequency of publication. They still need to keep printing in order to pay their bills. I’d like to believe at some point we’re going to figure out how to make enough money through digital publishing to pay the bills, but that’s still a challenge for the vast majority of American newspapers.”

Bailon does not see any time in the future where there will be no print editions of the Post-Dispatch. “And I think that many of us believe the Post-Dispatch and many other daily newspapers are going to be around for a long time. We will have to continue to evolve. There is no doubt about that. I can’t imagine being in St. Louis or any other metro area without a vibrant daily newspaper. It’s just part of a community.”

But for the newspapers remaining in business, they may have to do without reporters like Barker.

“I never thought the day would come that I would leave journalism,” he said. “I’m going to try freelancing. I don’t know if I want to go back to a newspaper.”

 

Author’s note:  Terry Ganey, long-time Jefferson City correspondent for the Post-Dispatch, left the paper as part of the 2005 buyout.