‘Fully engaged’

The Post-Dispatch editorial page welcomed the new year a quarter century ago by mixing a requisite dollop of civic boosterism and Pollyannish claptrap with soft criticism and multisyllabic buzzwords. Reading the Jan. 1, 1998 editorial is a reminder of how little some things have changed in St. Louis

— and how the editorial page, back during the waning years of the Pulitzer ownership and the brief tenure of editor Cole Campbell, was rarely a source of illumination or enlightenment.

What it said was holding back the region:

• “We have been grumpy about paying for public education and high culture.”

• “We have been slow to give the boot to lazy, venal or incompetent leaders.”

• “Racism continues to be a big contributor to factionalism and to sprawl.”

The problem with St. Louis, the editorial suggested, was the “public doesn’t feel fully engaged” — and when it’s not fully engaged, “it no longer defers to leaders to make the best judgment for the region.” (The editorial writer didn’t entertain the possibility that a “fully engaged” public could well be one that refuses to defer to leaders.)

But, the editorial assured, there were reasons for hope in 1998: plans for a $171 million convention hotel, a growing downtown loft district, Bob and Gail Cassilly’s City Museum, “bold and controversial plans … to reform the city’s public school system,” a revamped city health department, and enlightened leadership from Robert Archibald of the Missouri Historical Society and Richard A. Liddy of Civic Progress. (Liddy, at the time, was CEO of General American, which hit the skids in 1999 and was acquired by MetLife. Archibald, as head of a tax-funded nonprofit, had more of a shelf life — he quit in 2012 under duress, criticized for his excessive pay package, among other things.)

The convention hotel struggled, as has the convention center. The Rams came and left. The public schools are a shadow of what they were 25 years ago. Civic Progress is defunct. Downtown has lofts, but fewer workers and retailers. Many of the advertisers that helped pack the newspaper back then — including Circuit City, Famous-Barr, Levitz, Rothman and Venture — are gone. St. Louis has 50,000 fewer residents than in 1998, and its homicide rate has doubled.

In fairness, few things published by newspapers stand the test of time. At best, they offer a snapshot — cropped, blurry and sometimes out of context.

Campbell, the Post-Dispatch editor, didn’t last long either. The proponent of civic journalism bailed in 2000, just four years after taking over. D.J. Wilson wrote about his departure at the time.

In a 2007 story about his death in a traffic accident, the New York Times described Campbell as “one of the first newspaper editors to embrace the idea that journalism should help readers be engaged citizens.”

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