Years in print:
Metro-East Journal Bids You Goodbye
By Larry Spohn
One of the more depressing chores at the Metro-East Journal over the years was writing the obituary of yet another business to shut down or leave the East St. Louis area. On March 30, the paper had the bitter experience of writing one last obit – its own.
“Metro-East Journal bids you goodbye,” the headline proclaimed, and just like that the paper that had served East St. Louisans for three generations ceased to exist, over a hundred persons were thrown out of work and an East Side institution vanished…
Though painful, the Journal’s demise was hardly unexpected. Five other papers in the parent chain, Lindsay-Schaub Newspapers, Inc., of Decatur, Ill., had been sold in January, leaving the Journal and the Champaign-Urbana Courier to twist slowly in the wind. (In April, the Courier went out of business.)
The closing was especially hard to take for the 121 employees who lost their jobs. Only about four or five have managed to find work with other papers – mainly the Post and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat – and the rest were still pounding the pavement weeks after the paper shut its doors.
In folding, the Journal ended more than 90 years as the mainstay of East Side journalism. It was founded in 1888 and acquired by Lindsay-Schaub in 1932. Over the years, the paper underwent several name changes, from the East St. Louis Journal to the St. Clair and Madison Counties Evening and Sunday Journal in 1958, and the Metro-East Journal in 1964, as the owners tried to nail down a constantly shifting market.
Some say the Journal’s “identity crisis” paralleled the problems of East St. Louis, and the paper seemed to be in perpetual quest of the middle-class whites who were leaving East St. Louis in droves for suburban St. Clair and Madison counties. As the financial health of the Journal deteriorated in the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s, it was customary to blame the paper’s troubles on the decline of East St. Louis.
However, persons long associated with the paper said internal problems were at least as much to blame. They cited “lax management” in Decatur, weak editorial direction and a failure to compete with the rival Belleville News-Democrat as contributing to the Journal’s downhill slide.
Reporter Charles Bosworth, Jr., (now with the Post) said, “The trends I saw developing in the Journal for some time were as disturbing to me as its closing. I’d have to say I disagreed with the news judgment and with the direction or lack of direction at the paper.”
Bosworth’s disagreement can be traced to a judgment error involving editors and a story Bosworth wrote on alleged racketeering and corruption in Madison County. Editor Rick Stegeman and then-news editor Pete Selkowe balked at publishing the article, even though it had been based on a court transcript, because they felt the story lacked credibility.
Then last year, about three years after Bosworth wrote his unpublished story, two Madison policemen and a former policeman were convicted in federal court of taking payoffs from prostitutes, and last February, Madison County Sheriff John Maeras and two others were convicted of related charges.
Nearly every reporter on the staff had a similar horror story and these experiences so discouraged reporters that morale had sunk to an all-time low by the time the paper closed its doors.
There were other problems, too. The Journal’s owners refused to install modern computer typesetting equipment at the paper, leaving the composing room looking like a relic from Ben Franklin’s day.
Other papers, notably the slick and hungry News-Democrat (part of the Capital Cities chain), were spending money to improve the look and content of their paper, and the Journal always seemed to be playing catch-up.
Many reporters and editors questioned the concept of a “metro” newspaper, not to mention the wisdom of trying to cover an entire region with an editorial staff (at its most numerous) of 34 reporters and editors. “I have my doubts whether a single newspaper can serve this area,” said Editor Stegeman a few weeks before the paper ceased publication.
Stegeman himself came in for criticism from reporters. Tony Canty, a veteran of 34 years at the Journal, said Stegeman refused to let them engage in investigative reporting, that he preferred soft features and “people” stories.
But Stegeman said the paper, particularly the editorial page, “had some harsh words” for many East Side civic and political leaders.
Probably the most fundamental disagreement at the Journal concerned whether the paper should have stayed in East St. Louis, its home fornearly a hundred years. Bill Boyne, Journal publisher, said the owners opposed moving out of East St. Louis on moral and ethical grounds. The paper had championed economic recovery for the depressed city and felt it would be wrong to “abandon” it in its time of greatest need.
But almost all the employees, who nearly without exception were white, non-East St. Louis residents, felt staying in East St. Louis was a fatal mistake. Boyne was one of them, saying that remaining in East St. Louis meant continued loss of advertisers, dwindling circulation, high labor costs (i.e., unions) and the detrimental “East St. Louis identity.”
“East St. Louis is probably the most devastated city in the United States,” Boyne said. “The fact is our market just disappeared.”
The loss of advertising was a serious problem that reflected much of the overall racial isolation of East St. Louis. Ad salespeople complained that merchants, particularly suburban merchants, wouldn’t advertise in the Journal because they didn’t want to sell their wares to East St. Louis blacks. Similar explanations were given for the paper’s small classified section: suburban whites didn’t want or need to sell their services or possessions through a publication that could bring blacks to their homes or offices.
Advertising and circulation problems went hand in hand. Daily circulation fell from a peak of 40,000 in 1973, to about 31,000 at the end. Sunday circulation, too, enjoyed its peak in 1973, when it climbed to 43,000. But on March 25, Sunday sales were only 37,000. Boyne said the paper began losing money in 1973 and losses were reported to have totaled well over $1 million in the last six years.
These problems spurred plans for zoned news and advertising sections, but Boyne said he was opposed to “segregating” the news and the idea never got past the talking stage.
Among news people, the Journal enjoyed a reputation for integrity and its aggressive news staff was known for the pride it took in putting out a good product. The paper exposed deficiencies in an area juvenile detention center (partly as a result, a new one was built), the misuse of federal manpower funds at the East St. Louis Community College (more convictions) and the existence of favoritism in tax assessments in Belleville.
And during the newsprint shortage a few years ago, Lindsay-Schaub decided to cut out all advertising for two weeks, printing a 100 percent newspaper. This unusual approach won praise from reporters and a footnote in Editor & Publisher, but reportedly raised the ire of some advertisers and more than a few salespeople.
Just before the Journal closed its doors, there was a surge of hope that Rube Yelvington, a former Journal editor and now published of several suburban Illinois papers, would step in and save the paper. Up until one week before the newspaper died, Lindsay-Schaub was asking $3.5 million for it, but with time running out the asking price was reduced to $1 million.
Still, that was too much. Yelvington said he offered $500,000, but that the offer was never forwarded to the owners.
If he had bought the Journal, Yelvington said he would have moved it to Belleville from East St. Louis, reduced the labor force, switched to cold type, published separate editions for East St. Louis and the suburbs and changed to a morning publication schedule to compete with the afternoon News-Democrat.
“I think it would have worked,” he said.
As things turned out, another Yelvington comment probably summed up the feelings of many: “The Journal did a hell of a lot for the community.”
The severe strain in the paper’s last few weeks was beginning to tell, according to Boyne. He said he felt “a sense of guilt because I was at the top and I was responsible.”
Boyne was wrong. If any one thing killed the Journal, it was history. Existence is a day-to-day struggle for papers like the Journal and cities like East St. Louis. Ironically, the Journal went out of business just as East St. Louis was electing a dynamic young mayor full of promise and hope for a troubled city. But what may be more telling for the future of East St. Louis than the victory of another politician was the vote of “no confidence” when its newspaper died.
(Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 6/1979).
Former East St. Louis Journal.