Media mogul Mark Vittert shuns the media

Mark Vittert, who may be the richest, most influential journalist in St. Louis, won’t answer journalists’ questions.

As a result, he is St. Louis’ mystery media mogul.

Vittert, now 64, was part owner of the Riverfront Times. He helped start the

St. Louis Business Journal and similar publications in other cities. Vittert still owns part of the Business Journal and writes columns for it, he was an original panelist on the Donnybrook television show on Channel 9, and is on the board of directors of Lee Enterprises, owner of dozens of newspapers including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Suburban Journals.

In years past, Vittert was a sought-after speaker at local events. Martin Duggan, formerly with the Globe-Democrat and longtime moderator of the Donnybrook show, called Vittert, “The most knowledgeable person I know in the newspaper business.”

And now he doesn’t want to talk to the media? Should he?

Ray Hartmann who partnered with Vittert at the Riverfront Times and now St. Louis Magazine, said, “He’s a big name in the media but a very private guy . . . I don’t give out his phone number. You can be on TV and still be a private person.”

Some of what the public knows about Vittert goes back to 1971 when he was written up as a 22-year old in a piece titled “A Self-Made Millionaire.” After graduating from DePauw University, he sold a marketing firm he helped create to Playboy Magazine for $1.5 million. It listed students at hundreds of universities so that businesses could connect with them to sell their goods and services.

Vittert became a national personality as the news media jumped on the story, even mentioning that he wore no socks. He was quoted in Time Magazine as saying: “I wanted to be the youngest person in American history to have founded a company and sold it for more than a million dollars.” He appeared on “What’s My Line.” He liked the attention.

To back up a bit, when he was 12 his dad, the late businessman Alvin Vittert, urged him to research firms that were successful and had potential, even driving Mark to interview their officials. As a teen he spent a summer going door-to-door offering to stencil the addresses of homes on curbstones for a dollar. In a Globe-Democrat feature, he told writer Rich Koster, “At the beginning of the summer, I succeeded in about one of five houses; at the end, it was about three of five. It was tremendous for my confidence.”

That story by the late Koster, in 1977, described Vittert as an “a student of people and sales,” who knew he was good at persuading people. He enjoyed the game of selling his ideas more than of making a lot of money, which happened anyway. He enjoyed the process more than the payoff, Koster wrote. He developed a line of racquetballs that Brown Shoe Co. took over, revived the old I.B.C. Root Beer business and upgraded a dairy he bought. “I try to be real quiet” in going after business opportunities, Vittert told Koster. “Some things materialize, some don’t.”

The Globe had reported that Vittert was considering a run for Congress in 1976 as a Republican, but that never happened. He continued pursuing business possibilities but didn’t need an office, just a legal pad that he used to list what he needed to do each day. He even approached Charles Klotzer about buying his St. Louis Journalism Review. No sale.

He married Carol Holt and they had two children: a son, Leland, who is called “Lucky”, and a daughter, Liberty. Carol became active in community projects, including one to aid victims of crime. He had attended John Burroughs High School and she went to Principia. He liked sports and even boxed as a youngster. In recent years the Vitterts moved permanently to the northern Michigan town of Leland, where they had vacationed and where Carol’s parents had property.

In 1977 Vittert became a partner with Hartmann in launching the Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly newspaper. Their 60-40 partnership (Vittert with 40 percent) lasted 21 years until the RFT was sold in 1998 for several million; the actual figure was never disclosed. They then became partners in St. Louis Magazine, which had been a money-loser but has now prospered as a glitzy publication aimed at an upscale audience.

In 1994 Vittert pushed a campaign to have his friend Jackie Smith, tight end for the former St. Louis Cardinals, be inducted in the Pro-Football Hall of Fame. He said Smith set “a standard of integrity and decency that’s an example for us all.” That same year Vittert was emcee at a memorial for the respected Elliot Stein, local investment guru.

Also that year, Post-Dispatch columnist Jerry Berger wrote that Vittert and Andrew E. Newman were among the wealthiest St. Louisans, each worth more than $10 million.

In 1980 Newman, and Vittert started the St. Louis Business Journal and then similar weeklies in several other cities. This business was sold to the fast-growing American City Business Journals in 1986. Vittert’s former editor of the St. Louis Business Journal, Donald Keough, had gone to Kansas City to help start a business journal there that became part of American City Business Journals.

About that time, Vittert joined the board of directors of Lee Enterprises, a chain of smaller newspapers. Newman, an executive at Edison Brothers Stores, joined the Lee board later.

In 2005 Lee bought Pulitzer Publishing Inc., including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for $1.46 billion. Lee’s shares have lost value in recent years because of the poor economy and loss of newspaper advertising revenue. The firm refinanced its huge debt through a brief bankruptcy filing several months ago. At the Post-Dispatch, Lee has reduced the news staff by half. Even the compensation for Lee directors, which for Vittert had been about $100,000 a year, has been reduced over the last few years.

Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan is a close friend of Vittert and the two take boat trips each year. When McClellan mentions Vittert in a column, he never names him, to protect his privacy. McClellan declined to discuss Vittert, saying conversations they have are private. Ellen Sherberg, editor of the St. Louis Business Journal, would only say Vittert is an astute businessman who “can see around corners.” She did agree to give him my telephone number with a message that I was going to write about him.

And Lo, Vittert called. He said he wasn’t agreeing to an interview, he just wanted to be respectful in returning a phone call. In a brief chat, he explained with a chuckle that he wore no socks after college because he had no laundry service at an apartment as he did in college. He said his son Leland is called “Lucky” because nurses at the hospital where he was born called him that when he survived possibly being strangled by the umbilical cord. Lucky, at age 11, flew a plane from the U.S. to Paris, accompanied by an adult pilot. Now he is a correspondent for Fox News, stationed in Jerusalem.

Vittert said I should write anything I wanted, but he would not cooperate and complain. I still had questions so, I went to the Lee’s annual meeting in March in Davenport, Iowa. Afterward, I introduced myself and we chatted, though it was only about general topics. He called McClellan “the best” and said journalism was the best protection for democracy. He said his family meant “everything” to him. He offered that as a youth he once visited an aunt who worked for a newspaper in Chicago and was blown away by the hubbub of the newsroom. He was sold on newspapering, though he never became a daily journalist.

He is not gregarious but makes you feel he knows you and likes you. And it’s hard not to like him. He is warm, friendly and has an air of quiet confidence and honesty without being boastful. Though he’s made some bad investments along the way, there are some people who want to chum him up in hopes some of his investment magic might rub off, or he might tell them about a good investment.

After the meeting the board retired to approve a $500,000 bonus for Lee CEO Mary Junck and a $250,000 bonus for the chief financial officer, Carl Schmidt. They were rewarded for guiding Lee through the bankruptcy. Union employees at the Post held a protest meeting outside the paper to criticize such bonuses at a time when Lee was laying off more employees. I wondered how Vittert would explain those bonuses? Another question: Was he instrumental in getting Lee to buy Pulitzer at top dollar when now it’s not even worth selling? And what does he think the future is for newspapers?

One can’t really blame him for not wanting to do interviews.

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