Cover Story: Why The Post Mattered

And why its writers, editors and readers cared

Click here for The Post's full operations timeline. Before they moved, they worked at that majestic building at 800 Broadway on the eastern edge of downtown. They arrived at a time when old-school journalism was becoming new, when The Front Page was giving way to All the President's Men.

Those who had embarked on careers in journalism in the 1940s and '50s stuck around — many of them born and raised right here — and mentored a new generation of journalists who were arriving from elsewhere.

This new generation arrived in the '60s and '70s smitten and compelled by twin prompts — either the giddiness of a new breed of investigative journalism, an outsider journalism inspired by Woodward and Bernstein at The Washington Post, or the New Journalism that Tom Wolfe was popularizing, a narrative non-fiction that applied the techniques of storytelling to news reporting.

They recall those days three decades ago wistfully. Dan Andriacco, a Cincinnati native and now spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, began as a copyboy at The Cincinnati Post in 1969, went to work there fulltime in December 1973 and left after 24 years for the archdiocese.

"I have always been thankful that I was in newspaper journalism at a very interesting time," says Andriacco, who left The Post as business editor. "It was through the death of one era and the birth pangs of another. When I arrived we had manual typewriters, and the florescent lights hadn't been installed yet.

We had just hanging lights."

Bob Kraft, another Cincinnati native, came to The Post in 1977 and stayed 24 years before leaving as managing editor, the No. 2 position editorially at a paper. He's now an account executive for Dan Pinger Public Relations.

"A good newspaper gets the conversation started," Kraft says. "We help set the agenda. A good newspaper should celebrate a community's successes but also put up a mirror to its failures. We tell a community's stories. We put a spotlight on people and issues. We should try to nudge the community in the right direction. A good newspaper should have a strong antenna for injustice.

"And The Post was, most of the time, a darn good newspaper. Over more than 100 years, we were a good citizen and we helped make this community a better place to live."

The desks were crowded into a compact newsroom at 800 Broadway, and each desk had a rotary phone and shared a bank of switches that allowed reporters to put callers on hold and make long-distance calls through company operators. Polk Laffoon IV came to The Post in September 1971 and stayed until December 1977.

"The building, an Art Deco marvel, was straight out of Superman comics," recalls Laffoon, who left The Post for The Detroit Free Press and then The Miami Herald before becoming a spokesman for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, in an e-mail from California. "Many of the reporters and photographers could have stepped out of The Front Page, fueled by booze and biases that would never be tolerated a decade later. The windows opened to real air. We still used typewriters. If you needed a pencil you walked across the newsroom to Elmer (the office manager), who reached with palsied hand into his ancient steel desk to retrieve one, but always reluctantly, because he knew you were wasteful with company resources."

Enthralling readers
The recollections of Andriacco, Kraft, Laffoon and others are more than an exercise in nostalgia; they're an attempt to recapture days that meant something to them personally, a history that meant something to the community and to journalism.

And, most importantly, they meant why The Post mattered.

The Post, in all likelihood, will cease to exist before or by the end of the year. A joint operating agreement (JOA) entered into in 1977 with Gannett, parent company of The Enquirer, will expire on Dec. 31, and Gannett has already announced it won't continue it. Thirty years have passed quickly.

If there is a consensus among a handful of Post alumni who have passed through the city on their way to greater heights or different pursuits, it is that The Post was a breeding ground for talent. It became a venue for talented editors and writers who in turn attracted others they knew — from Cincinnati natives to Texans to those from Indiana, from Leo Hirtl, Woody Sudhoff and later Bob Kraft to Mike Blackman, Henry Holcomb, Bill Burleigh and Tom Dunning.

Laura Pulfer has spent a career in Cincinnati, first at The Post and then 17 years at Cincinnati Magazine as its editor and then moving on to The Enquirer as a local columnist through 2003. Her Post experience began in 1971, working in the paper's features section for the late Marianne O'Regan, who would later become the paper's first female editorial page editor.

"Marianne O'Regan was a pro," Pulfer says. "I learned so much from her. She was liberated before liberated was cool."

Pulfer worked in features, became co-editor (with Paul Knue) of the paper's Saturday Weekender, as well as an assistant city editor, suburban metro editor and finally assistant managing editor. Appearing in the Weekender for reporters became as coveted as a Sunday newspaper — it gave reporters a chance to spread their literary wings.

What Pulfer most appreciated at The Post was that it was what she called an "honorable" place to work.

"I can't remember anything we couldn't go after," she says. "I never knew of any sacred cows. We were the people's paper. The Post was the paper that didn't owe anybody anything. The First Amendment is not a marketing plan."

Henry Holcomb was a hard-driving city editor who pushed his staff to be aggressive reporters. He left in 1976 for The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram and now works for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Bob Mong, an extremely talented writer and reporter at The Post who lived in Mount Adams and walked to work, wound up as managing editor and currently executive editor at The Dallas Morning News. Ken Bunting went on from being a street-savvy city desk reporter here to several places before becoming executive editor of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and currently associate publisher at that paper. Graydon DeCamp worked at The Post from 1960-70, the last two years as city editor. He went to The Enquirer in 1970 as politics editor and later was a night city editor and the editor of the Sunday Enquirer Magazine.

Polk Laffoon IV, perhaps the best newspaper writer in Cincinnati in the past 35 years, moved on to the Knight Ridder newspaper chain. Jolie Solomon was a crackerjack business reporter who left The Post for The Wall Street Journal. Meg Kissinger did an admirable job covering Hamilton County courts before moving on to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Thomas Kunkel, who spent just two years here as an assistant features editor, went on to write the book on Harold Ross, the legendary founder and editor of The New Yorker, and is now dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and president of American Journalism Review.

They spent anywhere from a handful of years to a quarter-century at The Post. They all helped define the face of journalism in Cincinnati, especially over the past 35 years.

Those who walked through the doors at 800 Broadway and later at 125 E. Court St. were encouraged to bloom as writers and kick ass as reporters. There might have been no Pulitzers in the offing, but The Post prided itself on beating and staying ahead of The Enquirer and local TV on the local reporting level, and enthralling readers with dramatic and compelling human interest stories. That had become reward enough.

Fun with the underdog
Ken Bunting was a resourceful reporter who knew how to ingratiate himself with sources with an easy-going, deferential demeanor, yet he was sharp and incisive when the situation called for it. On Easter day 1977, when a man named James Ruppert had killed his entire family — 11 members — Bunting took off for Hamilton to cover it.

Holcomb was worried: How would a black man negotiate his way around a white neighborhood? Bunting came back with the story and then some.

"He just owned that story," Holcomb recalls.

"We were scrappier, and we had a staff that was loaded with talent," Bunting says. "We had verve. We had better writers, and we knew how to respond to breaking news. There wasn't a lot of enterprise and investigative reporting. But we had a solid reporting and features staff that kept our readers informed and entertained. And we offered a better sense-of-place essence of Cincinnati than the competition did. My recollection is that we beat them decisively on the Xenia tornado (in 1974). We were always ahead on the police scandals."

Holcomb directed the police scandal stories of 1975, which involved the city's police chief (whose case was overturned) as well as the police department's vice squad and some district commanders. It involved indictments, convictions and a department house-cleaning, particularly the vice squad. The Post's Gary Grace and the late Chuck Durfey did much of the work on the stories, joined eventually by Al Andry, who gave up a career as a New Orleans police officer to join the paper's investigative team.

"That showed a lot of skill and courage," Holcomb says of the coverage.

The audacity extended beyond the paper's metro pages. Kunkel, recruited by Dunning from a newspaper in Evansville, Ind., would become P.J. Bednarski's editor in the feature section. Bednarski, the TV critic for The Dayton Journal Herald, was recruited for the paper by Bob Kraft, who was The Post's news editor at the time.

"As an editor there, we published stuff The Enquirer never would have published," says Kunkel, who left The Post for The Miami Herald. "When we got P.J., we got 'Mr. Highlights' (an irreverent column that Bednarski wrote about both television and Cincinnati). I think you could have waited a long time and not seen that in The Enquirer.

"If you have to choose sides, it's actually a lot more fun to be with the underdog. It's very liberating. The Enquirer had to be hide-bound and hue closer to what was expected of it. The Post had the liberty to pick its spots and to be cheekier and much less stiff."

Mike Blackman, who was at The Post as a reporter and assistant city editor from 1970 to 1973, later became executive editor of The Ft. Worth Star Telegram and now teaches journalism at Sam Houston State University in Texas. He says The Post was something of an incubator.

"It was a place where people could argue about what worked in a sentence or could we cut it out," Blackman says. " 'How does this sound? Read it back to me. Does this have the right cadence, the right rhythm?' "

'A critical mass of talent'
The recurrent and overarching theme that runs through most interviews with Post alumni is how the two local newspapers differed in personality and character. The Post offered a choice: For much of its almost 130 years it was seen as the newspaper for the working class, a genesis that actually dates back to the 1880s.

"It's a little bit of an oversimplification, but I always saw more Cincinnati in The Post than I did in The Enquirer," Kraft says. "I saw more Price Hill and more College Hill and more Northside and more Norwood. And certainly more Northern Kentucky. I always had the sense that we had more Cincinnati in our blood, that we heard — and reflected — the voices in those communities better.

"I had the sense that we were in the streets and the stores and the coffee shops getting our hands dirty and The Enquirer was back in its ivory tower. We were often quicker to take the little guy's side, to question the official version of events, to challenge authority."

"For a mainstream paper, it was an alternative voice," Blackman says. "It was feisty and quick out of the chute. We had to struggle and fight and scrap and try a little harder. It was vibrant, it was caring."

Kunkel agrees: "I don't want to say The Enquirer didn't care about Cincinnati — obviously, it did — but I think The Post probably cared more about the heart of Cincinnati. It was probably truer to the spirit of the city. That's important. That's one of the reasons why you need more than one newspaper in town: They serve different functions and serve different people. The Enquirer might be talking to the bosses, and The Post was talking to the working stiffs."

Bob Mong, who left The Post 30 years ago, still recalls the blue-collar bar across the street on Broadway where the pressmen hung out.

"The Post was a place where a city desk reporter died while gardening at home on a work day," Mong recalls in an e-mail, "and he was toasted by the pressmen at the bar across the street: 'To Harry, he died on company time.' When I was in town in the '70s, The Post was a feistier and more unpredictable paper than The Enquirer. The Post was gritty, uneven with lots of paradoxes. Yeah, it was blue collar, but the patrician Polk Laffoon wrote eloquent and windy prose on its pages alongside the laconic, poetic Tommy West."

Bunting recalls a Pulitzer that could have been earned were it not for an internal turf battle and had it not been for one of the paper's editors insisting they stop writing about the tragic Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977 because readers were tired of reading about it. As it turned out, The Post was pursuing some of the same leads on faulty wiring that earned the journalism prize for The Louisville Courier-Journal.

J. Patrick Moynahan, currently vice provost at Northern Kentucky University, worked at The Kentucky Post from 1984 to 1991 and is quick to point out that it helped the whole area matter.

"Throughout its history, The Post has been a voice for Northern Kentucky," Moynahan says. "When I joined the paper, Northern Kentucky felt like the ugly stepsister to Cincinnati. It wasn't true, but people felt that way. They felt like they needed to have their voice heard, and The Post gave them the means. Northern Kentucky felt that 'The Post is ours.'

"It was the most challenging place I ever worked because we were determined to provide local coverage throughout Northern Kentucky. It was very people intensive. It cost a lot to staff the paper in order to cover so many communities at the same time."

Laffoon recalls The Post of Walt Friedenberg and David Bowes and Mike Blackman — "a jewel of a writer" — and Tommy West and Larry Surratt. And that was just until 1977.

Ask current and other former Post journalists, and the list grows.

"People around me were coming up with profiles, investigations, features that collectively illuminated Cincinnati in ways that had not been seen before," Laffoon says. "The Post mattered because anytime you have a critical mass of talent that brings passion to a task it has impact."

Lew Moores was a reporter at The Post from 1973 to 1990.

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