nt-size: medium;”>never “do more with less” as he had once hoped.
So after more than six years as editor (and before that nearly seven as managing editor), he announced he was leaving the paper on May 18. As he approached age 60, he said he wanted “to embark on the next chapter of my life.”
Rumors flew that he was being pushed out, just as nearly half of the paper’s editorial staff has been terminated since Lee bought Pulitzer Inc. and the Post-Dispatch in 2005. But Robbins said no: “This was entirely my decision.”
His replacement as editor is Gilbert Bailon, who has been editor of the editorial page since 2007. Bailon worked at a number of newspapers and had been executive editor of the Dallas Morning News. Bailon’s replacement was not announced.
For several years staffers at the Post-Dispatch have been living in fear of getting the ax. And it was Robbins who had to wield the ax when the Lee bosses at the Davenport, Iowa headquarters dictated staff reductions to save money. Nobody was safe, neither the Guild-represented employees nor the union-exempt supervisors and sub-editors. There were constant rumors of more layoffs, including one shortly before Robbins gave his two-week notice.
A few days before his resignation was announced, Robbins talked briefly in the Weatherbird Cafe, the lunchroom at the Post, with a visitor there, Shannon Duffy, business manager of the United Newspaper Guild (formerly the St. Louis Guild). Duffy said as he started to move through the food line, Robbins followed him, being unusually friendly and relaxed. He wanted to tell Duffy something after Duffy asked him how things were going. It was: “I’m doing fine. You know how it is…. you know, Shannon, you can’t do more with less.” Then, pointing to Duffy: “The only thing you can ever do with less, is less. ”
“I think he was already feeling free” of the burden of having to toss more people over the side of the ship, Duffy said. Staffers said Robbins obviously felt bad about the many terminations and not being able to look subordinates in the eye in the elevator, thinking he might have to dump them next.
Robbins declined to answer any questions about his experiences as editor other than an announcement he put out extolling his accomplishments. His last act before resigning was to fire the sports editor, Reid Laymance, who had been suspended for making crude sexual remarks to other employees but was found to have done it again. Steve Parker, the front page editor, got the additional job of temporary sports editor.
Robbins said in his remarks to the staff that “… the past few years have also been a difficult and challenging time to lead a newsroom as you all know so very well.” He got kudos from staffers for protecting reporters and giving them time to do investigations, cover big events, and increase the Post’s digital growth to about 4.5 million unique visitors to its website each month – twice what it was in 2007.
Robbins’ leaving is seen as an escape of sorts from the problems he faced. He’s given good marks by staffers who say he did about as well as any editor could have under the financial circumstances. Still, he was criticized for ending a longtime Pulitzer tradition of writing news stories about staffers who retired and obits for retirees who died. And blacks faulted him on decreasing the number of blacks on staff to just a handful.
Bailon, his successor, is largely unknown in the newsroom but has spoken to community groups. Many staffers don’t know how to pronounce his name (it’s buy-loan). Under Lee ownership the editorial page has continued its hard-hitting liberal, or progressive, editorials as it has since the paper was founded in 1878. Bailon, in a statement, said the Post will continue “aggressive investigative, watchdog, in-depth reporting along with strong opinions and voices.”
“We are and will remain the dominant content, online and advertising marketplace for the St. Louis region,” Bailon said.
Even so, the Post continues to lose circulation and advertising during the economic downturn that has been hard on big-city newspapers. For the six months ending March 31, the Post’s weekday circulation fell 4.2 percent, to 187,990 and its Sunday circulation dropped 7.5 percent to 333,530. That puts the Post behind the Kansas City Star which had a weekday circulation of 209,260 but trailed the Post on Sunday with 305,110. The Audit Bureau Circulations said Sunday circulations for 532 papers rose 5 percent in the six months.
Most of the Post’s economic problems are on the corporate level and stem from Lee’s borrowing $1.46 billion in 2005 to acquire Pulitzer Inc. Lee has good cash flow, especially from about four dozen smaller papers it owns, and continues to pay down the huge debt. But it had to refinance its loans last winter and use a bankruptcy filing to get all its creditors to go along.
Lee was almost delisted on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year when its share price stayed below a $1 a share for a good spell (it was $46 a share when Lee acquired Pulitzer).
Following the brief bankruptcy episode, the Lee board of directors approved a bonus of $500,000 for Mary Junck, the Lee CEO, and $250,000 for its chief financial officer Carl Schmidt. The Guild, in a protest outside the Post building, said the money should be given to employees who have seen their incomes reduced.
This was followed by an announcement that Lee, through a proviso of tFederal law, has decided to delay funding its Pulitzer Pension plan for 2011. The Guild saw this as another way for Lee to save money. The union is fighting Lee in federal court to try to get it to arbitrate on the issue of whether health care benefits should be restored to Guild members who contend they were promised lifetime health benefits in union contracts.