A whale of a fail

Sometime in the 1990s, one of my colleagues at The Commercial Appeal proposed creating a sort of anonymous messaging board in the Atex system, allowing staffers to post questions and concerns about the newspaper. It was a way, she said, to prompt useful discussion about change in a newsroom where some saw management as unapproachable and inflexible.

The idea had a promising start, then quickly descended into personal criticism and recriminations. The editor pulled the plug.

That long-ago experiment came to mind while I was thinking about Twitter, the micro-blogging site that also appears to be devolving into something useless — or worse.

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‘Get going St. Louis!’

Protected: ‘A growing problem’

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‘Only the names are different’

Actor Frank Lovejoy played Randy Stone

“Like most newspapermen, I hardly ever read a newspaper. A glance at the headlines, a quick look at the box leads, and we got the roundup. I guess we take the world pretty much for granted. The idea that each day’s news isn’t really news — it’s just a repeat of last week’s auto accident or a political speech or a murder. Only the names are different. It’s history — or what some people think history is. The chronicle of battles and speeches, of victors and vanquished, of winners and losers — and all in black and white, nothing gray, nothing in between.” — “Randy Stone,” from “Night Beat: Somebody Stop Ann.” (aired Aug. 7, 1952)

Then and now

Sam Allender (1862-1932)

In 1917, the Missouri General Assembly passed two groundbreaking pieces of legislation.

Lawmakers approved a sweeping gun control measure.

And they abolished capital punishment.

Gov. Frederick Gardner vetoed the gun bill, even though it had been championed by Sam Allender, the highly regarded chief of detectives for the St. Louis Police Department. -> Gardner cited the opposition of several prominent businessmen who said the bill discriminated against Missouri merchants.

But Gardner, a Democrat whose business interests included the St. Louis Coffin Co., signed the death penalty bill.*

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch applauded the end of capital punishment in an editorial (March 20, 1917): “Missouri is in good company in refusing longer to impose on its officials the repulsive duty of executing criminals.”

And then Missouri, a fickle state, reversed course — on both measures.

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‘The baby burner’

Julia Fortmeyer, 1875

One of the earliest stories about abortion in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch archives was published in 1874 by The Dispatch, one of the newspaper’s predecessors. It involved a midwife-abortionist named Julia Fortmeyer, who lived at 1817 Morgan Street (now Delmar, between 18th and 19th streets).

Fortmeyer’s brush with infamy began in August of that year, when she asked local authorities to retrieve the body of Lena Miller, an African American woman of about 18 years, who died after a crude abortion and after receiving what was described as an overdose of morphine.

Police also found a second woman, Louise Beehler (or Biehler), clearly in distress.

And they discovered, according to contemporaneous reports and trial testimony, remains of fetuses, or babies, in Fortmeyer’s oven.

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Protected: ‘To tell the truth’

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Bob Minor’s last year in St. Louis

Robert “Fighting Bob” Minor developed into one of the nation’s best political cartoonists in St. Louis, but he didn’t stay long. In 1911, he quit the Post-Dispatch for the New York World; he exited the World a few years later because he wouldn’t draw pro-war cartoons. His politics continued to shift left; he joined and later became a leader of the nascent communist movement in the United States.

Signs of his progressive tendencies are evident in his work during his final year in St. Louis. His cartoons attacked monopolies, child labor and a justice system that favored the rich; he embraced women’s suffrage and supported an income tax. He also frequently featured airplanes; one cartoon, published Aug. 15, 1911, has the Post-Dispatch mascot, the Weatherbird, joining aviation pioneer Harry Atwood on a flight sponsored by the newspaper.

‘Quando voglio’

From Antonio Sartorio’s ‘Giulio Cesare in Egitto’  (1676)

‘The secret’

Pulitzer József

“To think rightly, to think instantly, to think incessantly, to think intensely, to seize opportunities when others let them go by – this is the secret of success in journalism.” (1904)

“Every reporter is a hope, and every editor is a disappointment.” (1899)

The dynamite plot

A horse-drawn streetcar at the Fairground Park entrance, circa 1880s (from the collection of the Missouri Historical Society)

In 1885, streetcar workers in St. Louis went on strike, seeking a 12-hour workday (instead of the usual 16- to 18-hour day), a wage scale of $2 per day for conductors, 20 cents per hour for overtime, and $1.75 for drivers. The streetcar companies responded by hiring replacement workers.

The strikers, backed by the Knights of Labor, responded, in some cases, by dragging the replacements — denounced as “scabs” and “rats” — from the cars and assaulting them. They also tried to disrupt service by rocking cars, stretching carpet across the tracks to frighten the horses, and blowing cars off the tracks.

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Afraid of being alone? You are not alone.

Being told repeatedly “you are not alone” may not be all that reassuring. What may be intended to validate your experience, or at least spark your curiosity, also potentially strips your story of its particularity.

When “you are not alone” you no longer are unique — you fit into a pattern. You’re a statistic. A data point, frozen in an icy lake along with all the other data points.

A reminder that you are, when all is said and done, very much alone.

Of course, that’s not exactly what is happening here ->

Instead, consider being told you’re “not alone” a journalistic or marketing device — a shortcut for turning the specific into the universal — drawing you in, making a subject “relatable.”

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‘Three papers united in one’

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was created in December 1878 when Joseph Pulitzer combined the Dispatch and the Evening Post. Most contemporary histories of the paper, however, omit Pulitzer’s acquisition of the recently launched Evening Star in May 1879 for a paltry $790.

From 1880 business check

“Three papers united in one” is how the Post-Dispatch described itself after it bought the Evening Star. The paper even adopted a new logo on its checks and other correspondence, featuring the slogan, a telegraph pole and a six-pointed star.

And a “prospectus” published repeatedly that year included language similar to Pulitzer’s famous platform, penned in 1907, and still repeated each day on the newspaper’s editorial page.

This wasn’t the only time Pulitzer bought a newspaper to put it out of business. It did the same in 1951, when it acquired and closed the Star-Times. And in 1983, the owner of the morning Globe-Democrat, which was part of a JOA with the Post-Dispatch, announced plans to close that newspaper, and continue splitting profits with Pulitzer. The Reagan administration’s Justice Department intervened, and forced the sale of the Globe-Democrat, which struggled for several years under a succession of new owners before dying. — Roland Klose

‘A full-fledged insurgent’

Reading outrage-provoking journalism was, for many, a substitute for meaningful action. One urban myth in New York magazine offices told of a well-to-do Alaskan who walked into an editor’s office, clamoring that the time had come for the people to rise up:

“Well!” replied the editor, “you certainly are a progressive, aren’t you?”

“Progressive!” the man cried. “Progressive! I tell you I’m a full-fledged insurgent. Why, man, I subscribe to thirteen magazines.”

– from “Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America.”

‘He studied nothing, but knew something about everything.’

In January 1903, Rep. John T. Crisp of Independence proposed a “Jim Crow” law for Missouri, requiring Black and white passengers to ride in separate railway coaches. “Col. Crisp’s bill is taken seriously by his fellow members at Jefferson City. It is necessary to say this for the reason that Col. Crisp’s colleagues do not always take him seriously,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported

The “portly orator” did, in fact, introduce such a bill, but he was beat to the punch by Rep. Lon B. Williams of Scott County, a fellow Democrat who hoped to ride Jim Crow racism straight to the lieutenant governor’s seat. The two bills were combined into one, but after considerable debate and lobbying, the legislation was soundly defeated, 55-70, with all of the House Republicans and a few Democratic leaders opposing the measure.

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‘Stop complaining’

Marcus Aurelius (Photo by Carole Raddato/Flickr/CC)

“Everything that happens is either endurable or not.

“If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.

“If it’s unendurable … then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.

“Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.” – Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations

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Watermelons and Prophets

Illustration of one of the floats in the 1890 Veiled Prophet procession (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Oct. 5, 1890)

Organizers of the Order of the Veiled Prophet in 1878, led by brothers Charles and Alonzo Slayback, sought to lift the city’s profile as a growing, affluent commercial hub. But, early on, the all-white, all-male Veiled Prophet promoted racist tropes, which were unapologetically echoed by all the leading newspapers of St. Louis.

One theme, which appeared several times in the organization’s first four decades, depicted “carefree” African Americans, gorging on watermelons. “One of the best comic floats in the procession,” the Globe-Democrat said of the 1890 display.

In The Atlantic in 2014, historian William R. Black explained how watermelons emerged as a politically potent symbol used by whites — and it’s worth revisiting to better understand the racist underpinnings of the Veiled Prophet organization.


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‘Real news’

Old press.

“In this market-driven world of easy-to-digest events, news increasingly becomes almost a parody of the term. News is no longer something ‘new’ but instead becomes a commodity that can be passed off as something interesting or original.

“Unfortunately, the lack of real news in the newspaper – news that gives a sense of depth and insight and context to surface events – is the one solution market-minded managers won’t consider when they analyze why readers are abandoning newspapers.

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Porta il luce …

“Facesti come quei che va di notte, che porta il lume dietro e sé non giova, ma dopo sé fa le persone dotte.”

(“You were as one who goes by night, carrying the light behind him – it is no help to him, but instructs all those who follow.” – Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio XXII, 67-69, Divina Commedia)  

The Missouri editor whose bigotry outlived him

John W. Jacks (1897)

John W. Jacks, who died a century ago this year, was in his time an esteemed newspaperman, a native Missourian who started, owned and edited several publications before buying the Montgomery Standard in 1881 and editing the weekly for some 40 years. He was politically active, accepted state and federal appointments, ran for office and used his position and his paper to advance his interests. “One of the ablest newspapermen in Missouri” is how he was described in news stories about his death published across the state.

None of those reports, however, cited Jacks’ most notorious contribution to Missouri journalism, when, as president of the Missouri Press Association, he responded to British anti-lynching activist Florence Balgarnie’s solicitation of support by sending a racist broadside.

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Colonel Jones

A Globe-Democrat cartoon published the day after Jones was ousted as editor of the St. Louis Republic.

“Journalists who take themselves seriously, who regard the work of moulding public opinion as a high vocation, who believe in duty and are willing to accept responsibility, who would rather champion the rights of the many than defend the privileges of the few, are finding it more and more difficult either to enter or to remain in the newspaper field, whether as employees or proprietors.” – Col. Charles Henry Jones, Feb. 23, 1899 [From “Charles H. Jones 1848-1913: Editor and Progressive Democrat” (1974)]

Veteran newspaperman and Confederate veteran Charles H. Jones, whose accomplishments included reviving the fortunes of the St. Louis Republic, was hired in 1893 to edit Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. But Jones’ populist leanings quickly proved irksome to the publisher and other World editors. Not only was Jones, among other things, an advocate of free silver, he wrote a celebrated editorial siding with Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union in the famous 1894 Pullman strike.

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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.

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Depressingly consistent

The Tampa Times, April 4, 1980

In 2015, I wrote about a century-old insurance industry study that examined murder in selected U.S. cities, including St. Louis. The study linked high homicide rates, in large part, to the “unrestrained sale of firearms.” It also found rates tended to be higher in cities with “persons of color.”

That theme – guns as a cause, minority communities as victims – has remained depressingly consistent for more than a century, especially in St. Louis.

That was true in 1920, when St. Louis had a homicide rate of 12.6 per 100,000 people. And it was true in 1980, when the rate reached 50 per 100,000 and The Associated Press described St. Louis as the nation’s “murder capital.”

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Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann

White riot, 1920

08-17-1920 negro's home burned small
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 17, 1920

The East St. Louis Massacre of 1917, a series of riots triggered by white labor’s reaction to the employment of Black workers as strikebreakers, left dozens, if not hundreds, of Black residents dead and thousands homeless. But workplace-related racist violence continued in the region for years, albeit on a smaller scale.

On Friday, Aug. 13, 1920, the owners of a coal mine in Coulterville, Illinois, faced with a shortage of white workers, decided to make a Black worker, William Morrison, work in a pit hitherto reserved largely for whites. But the white miners refused to work with Morrison. And they again refused  on Saturday, Aug. 14.

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‘No longer will policemen beat the heads off malefactors’


In April 1911, voters in Granite City — a company town founded by steelmakers near St. Louis — elected Marshall E. Kirkpatrick, a 28-year-old shearer at the Niedringhaus mills, as mayor. Kirkpatrick, a Socialist, would prove to be a capable administrator, serving nearly two decades in that office, until his death in 1942.

In an introduction to the new mayor — he enjoyed dancing and “ball playing” — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Kirkpatrick wanted a municipal-owned coal yard and ice house, which would sell fuel and ice to residents at cost. He also promised a new approach to law enforcement under Police Chief Adolph White, also a Socialist.

The Post-Dispatch reported, “No longer will policemen beat the heads off malefactors, and it is going to be bad form for a Granite City policeman to kick a prisoner in the ribs.

“’Prisoners will not be beaten up by policemen while I am Mayor,’ said Mayor Kirkpatrick, telling what it is going to be like in the only city that has a Socialist Chief of Police and two or three Socialist policemen, as well as a Socialist Mayor. ‘And all prisoners will be treated alike. A poor man will have just as much consideration as a rich man.’”

Kirkpatrick promised a “clean administration.” No more slot machines and gamblers. Saloons would have to close at midnight. And government appointments would be based on qualifications. “We Socialists believe in the merit system,” he said.

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100 years of disappointment

04-13-1920 a1 editedThe 1920 Census bumped St. Louis out of fourth place, launching a century-long quest to undo the Great Divorce of 1876. And though its population would climb for a few decades – peaking at 856,796 in 1950 – St. Louis kept sliding in the rankings and dropped out of the top 10 in 1970.  (Most recent estimates indicate the population is hovering just above 300,000 – below the 1870 count.)

Reaction to the preliminary census results, published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 13, 1920, was predictable:

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Robert Lemen

Joseph Robert Lemen

Joseph Robert Lemen (1890-1955) was born in St. Louis, went to art school at Washington University, married in 1912, joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as an artist a couple years later and remained with the paper until sometime in the 1920s when he took off for California.

In the 1930 Census, his wife, Constance Andrews Lemen, and their two children are living on Orchard Avenue in Webster Groves. Constance is listed as widowed, and three years later she remarried. She died in 1970.

Lemen, who was not dead, signed a draft registration card in 1942, giving his address as 4013 Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He’s buried at Bellefontaine in St. Louis. (There’s more about him at Stripper’s Guide.)

Here are examples of his work (with some added color):

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‘Policies and practices’


“In order that one may understand exactly what the Lee Syndicate is, it is necessary that certain policies and practices of the Lee Syndicate be disclosed…. They descended largely from Mr. (Alfred Wilson) Lee himself …. ¶ The first of these ideas … was to promote your own men, to delegate authority freely, and place upon authority strict responsibility…. ¶ Another policy of the Lee Syndicate has to do with the management of the several papers. From the outset the original trio, Messrs. Lee, (E.P.) Adler and (James F.) Powell, came to the conclusion that there must be no dictation from any central authority controlling the policy of the individual papers of the syndicate. They felt these papers must be of and for the cities which they sought to serve …. ¶ There is one feature of the syndicate newspapers, or most of them, that is rather exceptional. It is a thing many publishers would say could not be done.

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‘Land of opportunity’

ST. LOUIS – Somebody was emptying the poor box at the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel, so the Rev. Father Joseph R. Watson rigged the box, wiring it to an electric buzzer that would sound in his study.


On Feb. 3, 1920, the alarm went off, and Father Watson, accompanied by a nearby store clerk, ran into the church and caught a man who said his name was Vaclav Krejci, a 35-year-old immigrant artist. When police officers searched the suspect, they found tools, skeleton keys and three slugs that Father Watson had placed in the box.

Krejci was sentenced to the City Workhouse for a year, but was paroled less than two months later despite the fact he was facing a separate felony charge of stealing from a different St. Louis church. Police caught up with the newly freed Krejci in Chicago.

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