In 2012, University of Missouri journalism professor Mike Jenner was making a presentation to students in a “Journalism and Democracy” seminar about how the tough economy had affected newspapers and what challenges reporters would face in the future.
At one point a woman said, “Mike, we’ve been here four years, and this has been going on since we got here and we’re still here,” Jenner recalled. “And I just thought wow, their careers are about to start, and they’re looking forward to their careers and engaging with the world and making a mark and doing good journalism.”
With all the troubles facing the news business, Jenner was encouraged by the fact there were students with a passion and a belief that they could make a difference.
Can that passion last? Can it survive what happened recently at Missouri’s two biggest newspapers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star?
On March 5, the Post-Dispatch agreed to buy out 14 employees who work in news, advertising, online publication and production. These departures come on top of the loss of nine people who will be let go in early May when Lee Enterprises moves the Post-Dispatch’s copy-editing functions to a plant in Munster, Indiana, where Lee’s 50 other daily newspapers are designed.
Across Missouri at the McClatchy-owned Star, two dozen employees recently accepted buyouts, including veteran reporters and photographers. More than 200 years’ worth of experience walked out the door, including Steve Kraske, the newspaper’s seasoned political reporter and editorial writer.
Both papers have lost print subscriptions. And while both report boosts in the number of digital subscribers, Internet advertising income and online subscription revenue have not kept the parent companies from cutting staffs to save money.
“Of course it’s not easy to go,” said Doug Moore, a 19-year veteran Post-Dispatch reporter who accepted a buyout offer. “My plan was to sort of ride this out and finish my career here, but that’s harder and harder to do these days.”
Lee offered what a spokeswoman called “voluntary separation packages” to employees 50 and older with at least ten years of experience. Those eligible included United Media Guild members as well as employees who were not represented. Union members were offered a severance payment of up to six months’ salary.
Three editors accepted: Jean Buchanan, projects editor; Christopher Ave, political and national editor, and Lisa Eisenhauer, night metro editor.
Moore, 55, had an enterprise beat covering diversity and demographics. Since 2005, when Lee bought the Pulitzer-owned Post-Dispatch and 13 other papers for $1.46 billion, he has witnessed the steady departure of staff through buyouts and layoffs.
He said the early buyouts were understandable but the first layoffs were “really jolting.” The staff suffered through job furloughs, wage reductions and higher health insurance premiums. The company-paid pension was frozen in 2010.
“Then, there was no more fat and they went for the bone and the limbs and the non-essential organs,” Moore said. “Now we’re at the point where we wonder if we’re going to have people in the newsroom to produce a quality product.”
It’s hard to see how a newspaper can increase the demand for its editions if they’ve diminished in size, quality and illumination. How can subscription prices be increased for a shrinking amount of information?
Lee has sold the newspaper’s headquarters building at 900 N. Tucker Blvd. for $3.5 million, and there are plans to move operations to a smaller, rented space nearby. But there’s no sign that money from the building sale is going into newspaper improvements. Staffers wonder if it’s being applied to Lee’s debt from the Pulitzer purchase or to award executives with more bonuses.
And according to Moore, there is no sign from management that the departing editors will be replaced. He said he had asked Gilbert Bailon, editor in chief, about the future because “people need to feel there is hope.
“I don’t have a lot of faith that the product can be sustained,” Moore said. “I don’t care how talented my colleagues are. They can only juggle so many balls before they start dropping.”
Bailon declined a reporter’s request to be interviewed for this story.
Jeff Gordon, a Post-Dispatch sports writer and Guild president, said the newspaper industry had evolved under chain ownership to the point where printing, design and distribution functions are centralized, and the news-collection operations operate like bureaus.
“This is the world they’ve created,” he said.
But there may be more to the story of the deep cuts at the Post-Dispatch.
While the newspaper remains profitable, the dramatic staff reductions may be designed to fend off a hostile takeover by the bottom feeders of the industry.
A dissident Lee shareholder, Carlo Cannell of Wyoming-based Cannell Capital, has urged shareholders to oppose incumbent board members, including chairman Mary Junck. Among his complaints is that Junck has earned more than $40 million in compensation since 2002 despite Lee’s troubles.
“It’s conceivable one of the vulture companies could see this guy as a wedge to come in an make a play for Lee,” said Gordon, who in February attended a Lee’s stockholder meeting in Davenport, Iowa. “They (Lee’s managers) are trying to protect themselves from a hostile takeover.”
As difficult as things have been, there are far worse companies than Lee when it comes to bleeding newspapers dry. Digital First and GateHouse are notorious for stripping assets and firing people from newspaper properties.
“I believe Lee is earnest when it says it wants to stay in the business,” Gordon said. “I will give them credit; they are trying. The Union would rather see Lee own the paper, if it has to be a chain.”
According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the average Sunday circulation of the Post-Dispatch as of the last quarter of 2018 was 130,405 in print and about 20,000 in digital subscribers–151,341 combined. The average daily circulation, digital and print subscribers combined, was 103,773. These numbers are subject to an audit. In 2015, the average daily print circulation was 124,712 and the Sunday circulation was 191,297.
Across the state, the situation at the Kansas City Star was much the same. The unaudited figures shared by the Alliance for Audited Media show the Star’s average Sunday circulation–print and digital media combined–was 136,055. The average daily combined circulation was 103,406, about 37 percent lower than five years ago.
Kraske, who has spent 40 years in newspapers, has worked part time for the Star since 2013, dividing his other time between hosting a talk show on a public radio station and teaching journalism at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“There’s no question that a lot of colleagues and good friends have been looking over their shoulder for the grim reaper,” said Kraske, 61. “It’s draining and demoralizing, a constant worry.”
Among those mourning the departure of Kraske and others is David Adkins, a Republican from Leawood, Kansas and a member of the Kansas Legislature from 1993 to 2005.
“The fate of the daily newspaper is gut wrenching for those of us who love the way only a newspaper can connect you to your community,” Adkins said. “When there aren’t reporters in the room, rest assured the better angels are often ignored. Civic life and our government institutions work best with a vibrant, inquisitive and smart, free press.”
Newspapers continue to produce good work, covering developments in the state capital of Jefferson City and in the halls of government in the state’s two big metropolitan areas.
The Post-Dispatch, for example, has been all over a plan to merge St. Louis with St. Louis County. It has disclosed how Missouri courts funneled defendants into debtors’ prisons. And the bizarre tale of how a “Russian roulette” event led to the shooting death of an off-duty St. Louis police officer allegedly by an on-duty colleague has been detailed.
But we don’t know what we’re missing. For example, the newspaper has no reporters now dedicated to the coverage of education.
Jenner, the Houston Harte endowed chair at the MU journalism school, said many newspapers remain profitable at the local operating level. But because they have to prove themselves to their shareholders and because chain ownership may have incurred a lot of debt everyone is feeling the pain of cuts.
“The important thing for readers to understand is there is a cost to this,” Jenner said. “People may not like the mainstream media, or they are angry at newspapers, or may claim fake news and may be celebrating their demise, but there is a cost to our democracy in the reduction of news coverage.
“Studies show when newspapers go away political participation drops in terms of voting and people running for office,” Jenner said. “People are less willing to engage in the political process and less willing to run against incumbents. And government corruption increases. We will pay a penalty for this and it’s not a pretty thought to me.”
Terry Ganey formerly covered Missouri state government and politics for the Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Editor’s Note: The story was the cover article of the Spring 2019 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review’s magazine.