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Postmortem on Post's 'Imagine'.

In some ways, the final edition of "Imagine St. Louis" in the July 1, 2001, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was as bizarre as the first edition of "Imagine" that debuted on April 11, 1999.

The final edition of "Imagine" featured the paper's Weatherbird destroying the top-of-the-page logo of the section with a sledge hammer. A half-page photo above the fold showed Post staffers waving to readers outside the downtown headquarters.

The photo's cutline said staffers were "greeting readers via this special section." But they might as well have been bidding good riddance to the final installment of "Imagine," an ill-fated experiment in public journalism that came to represent the gobbledygook mindset of its mastermind, Cole Campbell.

Campbell tried to impose a "civic culture" on the Post during his brief tenure as editor of the St. Louis daily. It's a culture that purportedly inspires journalists to connect with readers as citizens rather than as spectators.

Through this "connectedness," readers and journalists can come together "to imagine new possibilities and outcomes for the community," according to self-appointed gurus of public journalism such as Campbell.

How ironic that in the very last edition of "Imagine," Post editorial management felt compelled to run all the phone numbers of editors and reporters; while snuffing the Readers' Advocate column. Was this action somehow a commentary on the success of "Imagine" in connecting with St. Louis readers?

In the final edition of "Imagine," Campbell's successor, Ellen Soeteber, described the birth of a new section called "NewsWatch" to replace the Campbell prodigy. She acknowledged the past disappointment of readers with Post approaches to news, and resolved to welcome suggestions from the readership.

All in all, Soeteber's claims for the new "NewsWatch" section have been quite modest compared with the fanfare that initiated St. Louisans to the "Imagine" section a little more than two years ago.

The introduction of the "Imagine St. Louis" section drew deep from the well of what former Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) executive director Rosemary Armao has referred to as the "cultlike language of public journalism."

Among key phrases in the public journalism lexicon are "working through problems," "atmosphere of public life," "conversations about public life," and "issue-driven conversations." Such terminology was found in abundance in the section introductions penned by Campbell and Robert Duffy, the "Imagine" editor.

Duffy's indoctrination and surrender to the "fluffspeak" of public journalism were obvious in his section introduction entitled, "One Kind of Conversation." Duffy used the term "conversation" in maddening fashion to emphasize that "Imagine" would have a conversation with its readers.

Duffy did, however, soften all this conversation with a new term for public journalism -- "charrettes." Duffy said "Imagine St. Louis" would be all about charrettes. The section would provide public space for charrettes. He packed his intro piece with at least a dozen "charrettes" and "conversations." The "charrettes" in "Imagine" would help the citizenry converse and to come to "public judgment" on major community issues.

Imagine's Post-mortem

Now, the charrettes have been silenced. And after two years and three months at the helm of "Imagine," Duffy said he is returning to writing about art and architecture as he did before Campbell arrived to replace editor William Woo in August 1996.

"I essentially ran the thing," said Duffy of the now-defunct "Imagine" section. "I'm very proud of the things we did with it. But I would really rather leave it in the past. I don't want to glorify it. I don't want to apologize for it.

"Nobody pulled the rug out from under me with the section," added Duffy. "I think it became increasingly clear to us that there was a need to go in a different direction. I think it is fair to say that 'Imagine' was not very

popular with the staff and they were glad to see the end coming."

When asked if newsroom hostility toward "Imagine" was, in part, due to its reputation as the brainchild of an unpopular editor, Campbell, Duffy balked.

"I wouldn't want to comment on that," said Duffy. "I think it's fair to say that a lot of people are drawing that conclusion.

Although Duffy told SJR that he wanted to put "Imagine" and the controversy surrounding the section behind him, he still could not resist singling out issues he thought the section covered well, nor could he resist explaining the philosophy behind the Sunday experiment.

"We need to think about ourselves in St. Louis as a region," said Duffy. "I think we wanted to take people by the lapels and say: 'Look, you just can't think about your suburban city or your special issue. We all need to work together as a unified community.'

"I wanted to make it clear that none of the issues we face exists in isolation," added Duffy. "It's all inter twined and regional and that's what I hoped the section would point out. I know a lot of people in leadership positions in the community were eager to respond and collaborate with the section. But as far as working some kind of civic magic, the section was certainly incapable of that."

Duffy said expectations for "Imagine St. Louis" were all out of proportion. The rhetoric of public journalism and the hype surrounding the section's introduction contributed to those inflated expectations. The section also suffered a backlash from traditional readers who were furious when "Imagine" replaced the long-standing "News Analysis" section of the Sunday Post.

"I never viewed 'Imagine' as some kind of radical, public journalism experiment," said Duffy. "I looked at it as a way to get some serious public dialogue about education, health care, transportation and the decline of the urban core. I still feel very strongly that these are issues that need to be addressed publicly."

Praise from Pew

While Duffy complains that "Imagine" should never have been tagged as some public journalism experiment, there's no question that the Pew Center for Civic Journalism viewed it in that light. Duffy treated the section in that light as well when he was interviewed for an article in Civic Catalyst, the Center's quarterly for public journalism's cheerleading squads.

In the Pew piece, "Imagine" was praised as public journalism at its best. It was said to be connecting with average citizens. It was giving regular folks a chance for a hearing. It was helping St. Louisans deliberate and come to judgment on issues facing the community.

How well did "Imagine" perform in meeting the public journalism goal of connecting with the average citizen? What topics did it address to make the reader feel like a stakeholder in the community, rather than a mere spectator?

An examination of some headlines, and a short synopsis of the material covered, would indicate the "Imagine" section often fell short of any mission to address needs and concerns of regular citizens. Even more egregious were its failures from a traditional journalistic standpoint: Headlines were rambling and pretentious. Reporting was often shoddy or non-existent. Transcripts of civic leaders' "charrettes" replaced investigation and enterprise.

* A Nov. 7, 1999, "Imagine" was headlined: "The Kiel Opera House is big, beautiful and dark. Ideas abound on what could be the highest and best use for it." The main story and accompanying stories in this issue focused on the glory of yesteryear at the opera house. All of the stories gave short shrift to the behind-the-scenes politics and business competition that have kept the opera house shuttered. None of the stories made a strong case as to why the citizenry, now mostly residing in the suburbs, should care about the fate of downtown's opera house.

* A Nov. 28, 1999, "Imagine" was headlined: "High technology is booming in our region. Entrepreneurs need money to prolong the boom. But what will it take to get them the capital?" It's doubtful that those Joe Six-Packs who still read the Post clutched this section and lamented the plight of high-tech entrepreneurs. "Catalysts" was the overwrought buzz word in this section's copy, as in finding "catalysts" with the bucks to fund future dot.com industries in St. Louis.

* A March 26, 2000, "Imagine" was headlined: "One way to revive downtown might be to build a new museum about American character." The main story focused on the brainstorm of St. Louis attorney Alan B. Bornstein, who arrived at a vision for a Smithsonian-affiliated museum in downtown St. Louis while riding his bicycle. One can only imagine the Average Joe's response to the opening paragraphs of this article: "Can you imagine a new museum downtown, with part of the Gateway Mall as its front yard? ... Might an institution such as that enrich and strengthen the cultural character of the region?"

In fairness to the Post, not all of the "Imagine" editions focused on high-tech, high culture, museums and the arts community. No less than one-half dozen "Imagines" were devoted to education-related issues, which according to recent political opinion polls, rank high among areas of public concern.

At least three of those education-related issues focused on the problem of illiteracy. A worthy topic, but its frequent appearance prompted some observers to ask if Post editors were struggling to find subjects for "Imagine." A professor from Southern Illinois University took aim at the Post's problem-solving on the illiteracy issue. She questioned the Post's wisdom in calling for volunteers to teach the illiterate how to read. She likened it to "calling candy stripers to do surgery."

Imagine a new ballpark

A Nov. 14, 1999 "Imagine" edition was headlined: "The Cardinals say they need a new ballpark soon. They're hoping fans here are more supportive than their counterparts in Minnesota." The main article noted that the Cardinals' management wants a new stadium upwards of $250 million to replace 30-year-old Busch Stadium. The Cardinals want the new stadium to have roughly the same 50,000 seats, but want to have far more premium seats with extras.

The Post sponsored a town hall forum on the new stadium issue at Charlie Gitto's Restaurant, which was chosen because of its baseball history. Only two citizens showed up. A man on the street outside paraded with a sign that said if the owners wanted a new ballpark, they should borrow money from the players to pay for it. In this attempt at a public-journalism style forum, the news people from the Post, and from a television station which came to cover the event, actually outnumbered the citizens who came to discuss the stadium issue.

Citizen letters in the stadium charrette in the following week's paper were not supportive of the Cardinals' demands for a new stadium. Some letters suggested there were far more outstanding priorities for the city. Some letters decried the idea of public tax money going to subsidize a privately owned stadium. Perhaps the most telling letter came from Dale Taylor of St. Louis.

"I would like to know who the media genius is that dreamed up the 'Imagine St. Louis' concept? Is this supposed to make us feel all warm and fuzzy when we pick up our Post? Who cares how John Q. Public feels about Kiel Opera House, or Busch Stadium, and 'how shall we put them to best use?"' asked Taylor.

"The questions you pose week after week imply that your readership have a say in the future of St. Louis. Well, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee, Post-Dispatch. Those decisions will be made in some smoke-filled rooms influenced by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions than by some goofy imaginative discourse ... So next time you're imagining something, imagine the trees that are being cut down to support your 'exploration of the possibilities for progress and reform in the metropolitan area.' I say let's give the trees a break, and get back to news and analysis that is grounded in reality."

Taylor's admonition was hardly profound, but it was prophetic. Despite public opposition to the idea of wrecking Busch Stadium and building a new taxpayer-subsidized stadium, civic leaders worked out a backroom deal with the Cardinals and announced it with great fanfare this June. So much for "Imagine" charrettes and helping the public come to judgment on important issues.

Letter-writer Taylor exposed one of the fundamental frauds of public journalism: That a newspaper can help the citizenry come to public judgment on an issue that civic leaders will then act upon.

In the case of the Post-Dispatch's public journalism experiment with "Imagine," the fraudulence is only compounded. While goading readers to think about the stadium issue and to engage in charrettes about it, the newspaper company actually bought stock in the Cardinal organization, thereby becoming a party to the backroom dealing for a new, taxpayer-subsidized stadium.

Public journalism? Coming to public judgment? When it comes to covering the St. Louis stadium issue, perhaps "public betrayal" would be a more apt description for the Post, for "Imagine St. Louis," and the so-called journalism reform movement that inspired the Post to experiment with its Sunday paper.

Bare improvements

Ed Bishop

Almost anything would have been an improvement. So, the new section that replaced "Imagine St Louis" in the Sunday, July 8, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was a step up--but just barely.

Called "NewsWatch," the section is edited by Margaret Wolf Freivogel, one of the best journalists at the Post, and SJR expects the section to improve under her leadership. But the inaugural effort was disappointing. The articles were too long--not too detailed, too long--reflecting the continuing problem of mediocre writing at the Post. And, with the exception of Diane Toroian's piece on the use of the Arch grounds, there was little news or insight in the section.

The lead article, on the patients' bill of rights, borrowed one of the worst aspects of "Imagine"--a headline that asked a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is the laziest and, least-interesting form of headline writing known to mankind. Please, Post editors, stop asking readers questions and start giving them solid, new information. What followed the headline was basically a rehash of information that has been floating around for months. A long' sidebar on page B6, by Deirdre Shesgreen, on national healthcare, however, offered some new insight into the overall situation surrounding healthcare legislation. But it, too, was thin. Why not dig a little? For example, why not ask business associations why they oppose national healthcare. It has always been puzzling why businesses, especially small businesses, which have to deal with mountains of paperwork and tons of expense, oppose having the government take the bother and cost of providing healthcare to employees off their hands. I'm sure they have a g ood answer but what is it?

Inside, it got worse. Harry Levins' piece on boycotts was basically bait and switch. The headline and the large photograph of two African boys who were slaves on cocoa plantations promised analysis on the horrendous situation in West Africa. where American candy companies have been buying cocoa beans from outfits that use slave labor. Instead, the article was about why boycotts rarely work. Actually, the article was interesting. But its link to the current situation in Africa was forced. Rather than going out and finding something new about slave labor in the cocoa fields, readers got information Levins found in a book.

Then there's Kevin Horrigan. SJR has always liked Horrigan's work. His old columns on the sports page were raw, funny, sarcastic and fun to read. His work on the radio was equally entertaining. But something's happened to Horrigan's writing. It lacks the old flair. It's dull. SJR is not suggesting that the Post replace him with more Cal Thomas or that idiot Limbaugh brother. But encourage him to take the gloves off and maybe even piss us off.

Now for the good stuff. Graphically, the section was fine. The promise of variety in the section was fulfilled. Besides the stories on the patients' bill of rights, the Arch grounds and boycotts, Kathleen Nelson wrote about the lack of corporate sponsorship for women's sports. Also, the short news items in the margins were fun.

But you know you're got problems when the letters to the editor remain the most interesting part of the section. More insightful analysis, more probing questions, more behind-the-scenes reporting, in short, more news is going to be required before NewsWatch will be what Post editors want it to be.
COPYRIGHT 2001 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
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Author:Corrigan, Don
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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