If you're one of the folks who's going to launch into a rhapsodic wax about the good old days of the local alt-weekly, frankly, Tom Finkel doesn't necessarily want to hear it.
"I gather that there's some nostalgia for the past," he says. "St. Louis has a nostalgia problem, period. Maybe all places do."
It's with a similar wariness for his own past relationship with this town that Finkel returned earlier this year to St. Louis to assume the editorship of the Riverfront Times from the departed Jim Nesbitt. (Finkel keeps a low profile on the question of Nesbitt's editorial direction and brief tenure, saying only that when New Times' executive managing editor Christine Brennan called, she said, "Our editor in St. Louis isn't working out; would you think about coming home?")
So home it was. Finkel who was raised here with two sisters, the children of poets Donald Finkel and the late Constance Urdang talked the move over with his wife and decided it was a good time to bring their two young children here, to spend time with their grandfather and other family. He cites his mother's struggle with (and ultimate death from) lung cancer as "a catalyst for me resolving to be closer to family." The move wasn't a no-brainer "We had a great house with a great kitchen in a really nice neighborhood in St. Paul," Finkel laments but he found the job hard to resist. Since returning to town, he's been enjoying rediscovering his hometown. "Right now, I don't know St. Louis, but I am interested in what's going on," he says. "It is, at times, a surreal experience; I mean, I used to work at that fucking Shell station! We spent one afternoon of our house-hunt looking at the house next door to where I grew up."
Which brings up the question of how one gets to know a place that's at once strange and familiar: well, it doesn't hurt to start with the easy stuff. Finkel is an avid Cardinals fan, having hung on through the character-building years when the team was a losing proposition. "I can't not love them...so I do," he says. Secondly, he reads the Post-Dispatch every day: "it's like taking my castor oil, but it is the daily paper of record, and so we have to be aware of what it says." He tells his staff at the RFT to read it, too, along with any other local publications they can get their hands on. In fact, Finkel relies heavily on his staff and the people who call him, whether to compliment or complain, to keep him informed. The role his paper plays in this media universe is to provide a depth of context, he says, and he expects to make his own contribution soon, when he launches his own column in the RFT.
Since Finkel was clearly brought in to take the paper in a different direction, what might readers expect from the retooled RFT? "I expect my staff to be beating down the halls of power, rooting out the maggots that need to be exposed," says Finkel. At the same time, he acknowledges that the RFT like nearly every other media outlet these days, it seems has a mandate to pursue a young demographic, quarry that will lead the paper's coverage to "not be so deadly serious" as in past years. "The RFT of old had a kind of an earnestness about it," says Finkel, his tone implying that earnestness is without a doubt a state one should avoid. Examples of the "more freewheeling" editorial tone ahead might include Mike Seely's recent "Hoosiers" cover story (which Finkel "very much enjoyed, because it held a mirror up to a segment of St. Louis") and Randall Roberts' Hoosierweight boxing story, which "epitomizes what a great magazine feature should be." Cases in point of how serious journalism can be couched in a light tone, says Finkel: "turning over dirt isn't only done in a place like City Hall."
"Ultimately, we are going to pursue stories that appeal to, you know, Mike Seely and me, or Randy Roberts and me," he says. He's particularly interested in stories that get around the conventional wisdom. "There's this whole storyline that young, talented people are leaving here in a way that they don't leave Kansas City, or Atlanta, and I think that's a load of shit. There's a seeming recent excitement and energy being lavished on the city by a whole group of young, talented people." Rather than stories about broad issues, Finkel says he'll seek out specific people and specific conflicts to illuminate trends that particularly interest him, including the "paralysis of the city schools, and what seems to be the infancy of that same problem in U. City," and the chaos of city government.
Consolidation under the New Times umbrella (a conglomerate of alternative weeklies based in Phoenix) hasn't been bad for the Riverfront Times, Finkel says; in fact, he believes across the network that "stories remain very local, peculiar to Denver, Dallas or wherever." Having a consolidated editorial apparatus makes it quite easy for papers in the network to bring in freelance editing and art directing help, for example. Finkel isn't a new convert to the New Times camp: his career in journalism began at the New Times in Miami in 1989, following his completion of a master's program in creative writing at Brown University. He remained in Miami until 1998, when he took the lead editing position at City Pages in Minneapolis.
It's perhaps no surprise, then, that he arrived in St. Louis ready to defend the New Times world order and, by extension, the RFT "brand." In one early move, Finkel redefined the relationship between freelance writers and the paper, decreeing that no freelancer for the RFT could write for other local competitors. His action caused something of a tempest in a teapot, but he makes no apologies: "I was really surprised when I got to town at the degree to which there was byline-swapping," he says. "I know that trying to make a living as a writer at all is difficult, and freelancing is a bitch. Still, what we offer to writers is much more freedom of voice than other local publications, but in return for that, we have to protect our own brand. It was something I thought should've been addressed a long time ago; I mean, I can see why the Post wouldn't mind having young, hip bylines, but it just shouldn't happen."
Time, readership and advertising dollars will tell if the evolving RFT brand is something St. Louis is willing to embrace. For his part, Tom Finkel is ready to take some chances. "In the end, I'd rather take a risk with a SheBron story than trot out the same shit that everyone else has been doing for years. Good journalism takes you somewhere you wouldn't otherwise go."
When asked if the RFT has to piss people off to be doing its job, he considers the question for a while before answering, "Probably. The stereotypical, left-leaning, cause-championing path isn't the only way to do journalism. I'm sorry; I can't always comfort you, but I can say, 'This is the wealth of the place that you love.'"