Breaking the pattern

Vacant in the snow, 2018

When we produced the “Tipping Point” stories for the Post-Dispatch in 2018-2019, I was struck by how there was a familiar pattern to decades of news coverage of housing abandonment, segregation, disinvestment and population loss: every now and then, the newspaper or the civic leadership would recognize the problem, express outrage and try to marshal public opinion into taking action.

Sometimes, there would be an earnest response – committees created, programs announced, headlines generated – and then all would quietly fade for a few years. Just like a roaring fire eventually turns to ash.

The passage of time, of course, ensured that the responsible individuals and institutions would not be held to account. Not the city and state leaders whose actions, or lack of action, a generation ago may have undermined public schools. Not the leaders of cultural and educational institutions, awash in wealth and yet somehow exempt from many taxes. Not the real-estate developers along the prosperous central corridor, all beneficiaries of government subsidies.

So St. Louis would continue on, quietly and slowly circling the drain, until something would spark public interest – a spike in gun violence, a police killing, a rash of arsons, a new population estimate. And then it would begin again. The handwringing. The outrage. And the same, familiar calls for incremental change.

Breaking this pattern is possible, but it will require different approaches – including better local journalism. A journalism with the capability and resources to dig beneath the surface of things, find connections, question everything. A journalism with an understanding of history and places, yet fiercely independent. A journalism in which reporting and facts drive the coverage, not platitudes and personal opinion.

This is an old principle, one articulated by Post-Dispatch editor O.K. Bovard: “Never be satisfied with the surface of the news.”