The St. Louis Sun Rises—-and Sets
By Susan Fadem
Windows not speckled by grime. Offices without clutter. And an editor-in-chief, Ralph Ingersoll II, whom we would later read that Fortune magazine named one of the 25 Most Fascinating Business People in the year 2000. He actually had a man modify the nibs, or tips, of his fountain pens.
Pinch me. To diehard reporters, including those who gamely tolerated even paycheck-bouncing, swelteringly non-air-conditioned days at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat because we believed in what we were doing, the St. Louis Sun newspaper dawned like a miracle.
Imagine, Ingersoll, owner of America’s 12th-largest newspaper chain, Ingersoll Publications, convinced that he could launch the first new profit-making U.S. metropolitan daily in 50 years, right here in St.Louis.
We wanted to believe, drop whatever we were doing, fill the void left by the closure of the Globe-Democrat and go to work for Ingersoll’s new morning tabloid.
In the SJR story announcing the Sun’s planned September 1989 debut, Ingersoll made what I considered a dunderheaded pronouncement. Reminded that many former Globe-Democrat staffers and some St. Louis Post-Dispatch employees appeared eager to join him, Ingersoll replied: “As far as I can tell, there are only four or five people (in St. Louis) I can identify whose work we’d like to have.”
How could Ingersoll overlook those people, like me, whose family ties kept them here, but whose names he had likely never seen because they were presently paid to ghost-write speeches for CEOs or un-bylined company newsletters? I was then working in public relations. I fired off a letter to Mark Peterson, the Sun’s new metropolitan editor and Associated Press’ former St. Louis correspondent.
That letter, plus the fact that I once sat next to Peterson at a brunch, helped get me an interview. I thought things went fairly well. I had not asked about work hours, which I later learned was an immediate disqualifier. But heightening the almost fairy-tale aspect of the Sun’s sparkling new downtown offices in the MCI building, 100 S. 4th St., was an “emperor has no clothes” kind of feeling. Everybody seemed willing to share what the Sun wasn’t, but nobody clarified, at least to me, what the Sun would be.
Sleazy or breezy? Filled with heart? There was a certain vagueness – but who could expect a startup to reveal its game plan? They got about 2,000 applicants That’s when Sun administrators said they stopped counting and started raiding the staffs of Ingersoll’s other newspapers. For the Sun, Ingersoll wanted about 100 newsroom employees, about a third of what the Post had.
When I finally heard back from Peterson, he said I’d blown it. On a preference form, I’d unthinkingly written, “would prefer daytime hours.” After all, my two daughters were still at home. I begged and got to fill out a new form, this time omitting any mention of daytime, nighttime or anytime. I was hired.
Columnist Kevin Horrigan, the Post's former sports columnist, was already on board, as what one media wag called “the first star in the St. Louis Sun’s writing constellation.” He’d staked out the equivalent of a corner office with a nice-sized desk by the windows with a semi-panoramic view.
Columnist Karen Koman, who would go on to tirelessly write about every sensational detail of a sex trial involving a Chesterfield mayor, was another Post loss and Sun gain.
And despite Ingersoll’s initial, mostly forget-about-St. Louis edict, other “Globies” made the final cut and were hired: Anita Lamont, Bill Feustel, George Csolak and Carolyn Callison. Cheryl Jarvis had worked for magazines here. Aaron Mermelstein was an Emmy award-winning, former local TV reporter. Some of the other Sun hires had eep St. Louis roots. Daniel Kadlec, for example, who subsequently returned to USA Today and Time Magazine, had grown up here. So did Christy Marshall, who at one time had worked for Advertising Age in Chicago. At the Sun, we were all non-union.
In the weeks leading to our Sept. 25 debut, we practiced writing stories. We also became the story, with the national media visiting us. One reporter from USA Today seemed in awe.
“Where’s the dust? Where are the newsroom characters?” she asked.
We had our milestones. Among them: Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, visited for a photo that ran on Day 1. He and his pal Ingersoll posed in matching red Sun caps. A memorable headline: “He Grabbed Hers So She Sues His,” for a story about a woman who sued a fellow male student whom she alleged had grabbed her rear end. When August A. (Gussie) Busch died, sports-writing legend Bob Burnes was invited to the Sun to write a column about the brewing magnate and owner of the St. Louis Cardinals.
One morning, a white female Sun reporter was interviewing a representative from a right-wing organization. Sensing her distress, one of her friends, a black male on staff, kissed her on the neck and said, “Honey, I’ll see you at home for dinner.”
The interviewee promptly left. Reporters were hysterical. We were yelling. We were having fun.
Yet, while most of the editorial staff didn’t realize it, our days were numbered. There were signs. Advertising revenues had slumped. Ingersoll thought the future of retailing was not department stores, so he didn’t need page after page of May Co. advertising. Huh? I can’t recall anyone in the newsroom disputing his logic. I guess we had deadlines and stories to worry about.
The Sun’s circulation department was bombarded by irate subscribers who rarely and sometimes never received their morning paper. Many of the Sun’s drivers and paper-throwers, accustomed to the weekly and the bi-weekly publication schedule of the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis, another Ingersoll property, seemed unable to meet the Sun’s daily demands. Rumor had it that a “rat” on staff regularly leaked dire reports to USA Today, which joined other publications in questioning our future. It was thought the leader was angling for a job with USA Today, which she got but didn’t keep.
During our last day as staff, computer glitches were at first ignored. Then we became aware that the plug was symbolically being pulled. The Page 1 headline on that morning’s paper, our 213th issue, had said “Deathly Quiet.” Though that story was about two neighbors and a fatal shooting over complaints about noise, we as a staff were being silenced, too.
“Closing the St. Louis Sun was a decision which the St. Louis marketplace made for us,” Ingersoll said at a press conference.
He’d spent $25 million. Our circulation had peaked on Day 1, it turned out, with 200,000 paid copies. Circulation subsequently fell to 100,000. And, unbeknownst to most of us – until it was revealed that day, Ingersoll had expected single-copy sales, at newsstands and vending boxes, to outnumber subscription sales.
It must have been those East Coast experts again, because how many people took mass transit to offices here and grabbed a newspaper on the way?
Analyzing the Sun’s demise has provided ample fodder for at least one academic treatise. Ingersoll’s real motivation for starting the Sun, an observer wrote, was to create “a defensive measure to protect Ingersoll’s chain of suburban St. Louis weeklies from domination by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.”
Who knows? Maybe the Sun never found its voice. Maybe, even though Ingersoll denied it, the closing of the Sun was related to his offer to buy back nearly $240 million in high-yield, high-risk junk bonds, issued by a subsidiary of Ingersoll publications.
We may never know. But I do know I’m supremely grateful to Ingersoll for the seven months we all had together. For some, it would be our last opportunity to experience the thrill, the adrenaline-pumping surge of daily newspapers.
I loved it. We believed in what we were doing. I’d probably do it all over again.
(Printed with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 5/2008).