Years in print:
Waterways Journal – One of St. Louis’ Oldest Publications
By Don Corrigan
While John Shoulberg calls the land-locked St. Louis suburb of Rock Hill his home, his thoughts are never very far away from the muddy waters of Old Man River.
That’s because Shoulberg is editor of the weekly “Riverman’s Bible,” otherwise known as the Waterways Journal. When Shoulberg joined the Journal’s operation in 1991, he became part of a river tradition that’s more than a century old.
“When this paper started in St. Louis in 1887, its reporters were writing about steamboat packets carrying cargo from city to city,” says Shoulberg. “In fact, one of the things I really like about the Journal is the view of the Mississippi from the windows where I work in downtown St. Louis on 4th Street.”
This year  Shoulberg has had an unusual amount of river activity to cover. There have been runaway barges, a tow pilots’ strike, a runaway President Casino, industry mergers. In addition, Shoulberg has dredged up a few in-depth stories of his own on navigation and environmental issues.
“This spring has been really busy for me. Between covering the pilots’ strike and the runaway barges, I was running for alderman in Rock Hill,” notes Shoulberg, who lost the city election by only a couple votes.
“The pilots’ strike has been a big story and it’s been hard on everybody, but especially the crews,” Shoulberg continues. “I have a lot of respect for the folks who work on the river. You have to be away from your family for 30 days at a time. It’s back-breaking work and it can be dangerous.
“We’re writing about casualties on the river – sometimes fatalities – at least once a month,” the Waterways Journal editor adds. “But things are getting safer. There have been major improvements. And there’s nothing quite like river work.”
As a trade magazine, circulation for the weekly Waterways Journal is relatively small at 5,000. Among the select group of advertisers are barge operators, naval architects, marine engineers, port captains, river surveyors, pilots, mates and crusty, old river buffs.
“James Swift is our river historian, and he writes a regular column that really appeals to the river buffs,” says Shoulberg. “I really like reading his column because he knows so much about old boats and what used to happen on the river.”
In covering the nation’s inland waterways system, Shoulberg keeps in contact with river correspondents in Houston, Portland, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. The weekly’s publication day is Monday, so Friday is the crunch day when all the deadlines have to be met.
Tow Industry Partisan
Shoulberg readily admits that as a Waterways Journal writer, he has become a loyal champion of the barge industry. Forget all of those odes to objectivity mouthed by traditional journalists. Shoulberg is on board with the barge industry.
“I’m certainly a tow industry partisan, especially in our fights with the competition – the railroads and the trucking industry,” Shoulberg notes. “I consider myself to be an environmentalist and this method of moving cargo is certainly the most environmentally sound.
“A barge can carry 1,500 tons of cargo compared to 100 tons for a rail car and about 20 tons for a truck trailer,” says Shoulberg. “We also use fuel much more efficiently. We can go about 500 miles on the fuel it takes for a truck to go 50 miles or a train 200 miles.”
Shoulberg also is a partisan of the river., and he believes that river towns should pay more homage to the winding waterways that often brought them into existence. Old St. Louis is no exception.
“Cincinnati is a good example of a town that is more conscious about its riverfront and its river heritage,” says Shoulberg. “They have a much more elaborate riverfront area that is much more accessible.
“I attended a celebration of boats and steamboats on the riverfront in Cincinnati called ‘Tall Stacks.’ I got to ride on the Old Belle of St. Louis to get to Cincinnati and it was quite enjoyable. It was very serene just watching the river banks go by,” Shoulberg recalls.
Shoulberg concedes that St. Louis has some real challenges to make its riverfront more user-friendly. A swift river current, a close industrial area and adjacent highway patterns put St. Louis in a tougher position to use its riverfront as compared to the Ohio River city of Cincinnati.
Route to Waterways
Shoulberg’s career route to the Waterways Journal included several newspaper stops along the way. He graduated from North Central College in Naperville, Ill., in 1982 with a degree in economics, but his attraction to journalism soon had him writing stories for Times newspapers.
He joined the Suburban Journals in 1986 where he worked as a reporter and copy editor. In 1990, he went to work for Ralph Ingersoll’s short-lived, “laptop” daily, the St. Louis Sun.
“I got to see what it was like to have your newspaper crash,” recalls Shoulberg. “Our computers were always freezing up and going down. But on April 25, 1990, they froze and didn’t come back up, and Ralph Ingersoll was in the newsroom telling us we were out of business.
“I was putting a headline on a Patrick Buchanan column at the time, so I’ve always blamed him for the Sun going out of business,” Shoulberg laughs. After some months of odd jobs and free-lance writing, Shoulberg found his way to the Waterways Journal.
“I was hired by Jack Sampson, who was editor of the Journal at the time,” says Shoulberg. “He’d been editor for 22 years. The paper is 112 years old, and I’m only the 10th editor in its history. People stay here. It’s a very comfortable place to work.
“I miss newspaper work a little bit, but not the hours,” adds Shoulberg. “I remember working a brutal all-night shift for the Journals. It’s great to have an 8 to 4:30 job and to have time with my wife and three boys.”
Shoulberg uses his spare time to act as a Cub Scout leader and to run with the St. Louis Track Club. And he continues to dabble in politics in land-locked Rock Hill.
(Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 7/1998).