Home » Media » Currently Reading:

Spoiling The Surprise

September 23, 2010 Media 55 Comments

urbanstlmvvaI was very disappointed Tuesday that urbanSTL.com spoiled the surprise, via an “urbanSTL Staff Report,” of the winner for the Arch competition:

urbanSTL has learned that the design team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. will be named the winner of the Framing a Modern Masterpiece competition. MVVA received a congratulatory phone call this past week and will be traveling to St. Louis to attend the official announcement this Friday. The remaining finalist teams, including Behnish, PWP, SOM and Weiss-Manfredi have now been notified that they did not win.

Couldn’t wait a few days for it to be announced?  Staff?  Everyone knows Alex Ihnen writes the bulk of the posts at urbanSTL.com.

Investigative journalism turns up that which is being kept secret – such as the outstanding reporting from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (on S & H Parking) uncovered much that was meant to be kept from the public, led to the resignation of the chief of police and recently, admission of the owners to tax evasion. In April 2008 I broke the story that Pyramid Construction was being shuttered — there was no well-known date that either was going to be made public.

For months the date of Friday September 24, 2010 has been listed as the date the announcement would be made.  To steal the thunder of a group that has worked so hard to organize the competition just isn’t good journalism.

At 10:11am on Tuesday (9/21/2010) I received a media advisory about Friday’s 10am announcement at the Old Courthouse:

City + Arch + River 2015 Foundation will announce the winning design team and the next steps in the effort to enliven the area around the Gateway Arch and connect it to downtown St. Louis, the Mississippi River and the Illinois bank. Remarks will be followed by a question and answer session.

At 10:45am urbanSTL.com pulled the rug out from under the competition organizers. The original post indicated no information on the Friday announcement was known, even though it was. The post has been edited, with no indication of the change.  The “staff” must have made the change.

At 6:26pm I received a press release from the competition which I published in full: PR: MVVA Team Moves Forward in City+Arch+River 2015 Competition.  Clearly they didn’t intend to announce the winner days ahead of the scheduled date.

Next month marks the sixth anniversary of this blog.  In these six years I have tried very hard to have standards that would earn me the trust of you, the reader, as well as journalists and fellow bloggers.  I have served on the board of the St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and received recognition for my work from various publications, including St. Louis Magazine and The Riverfront Times. I’ve never hidden behind a “staff report” or other anonymous name, nor will I ever.

Do I like a scoop? Sure I do, but I’m not willing to undermine the work of many just so I can claim being first.

Tuesday was a sad day for the St. Louis blogging scene.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "55 comments" on this Article:

  1. The reason the original post had been updated is because it was written previously, before the exact time and date was announced.

    What was spoiled or undermined? The result was announced a few days early. So what? There was no news embargo and perhaps those running and participating in the competition should have kept it a secret.

    • Jason says:

      I'm with Steve on this one. I don't read UrbanSTL, never really enjoyed that site. But when I was driving to work, I heard NPR announce something along the lines of “the winner is being announced early because of St. Louis Bloggers” I was a little disappointed that first wind was really about how someone somewhere broke the trust of another's confidence. NPR followed with a brief mention about a parking garage being torn down and a lid over I-70. I'll admit, I haven't really followed the details of the new arch grounds, but would have enjoyed a formal explanation of what the winner plans to do, rather than a few snippets of summary as a side-item to the story of St. Louis Bloggers disclosing information they received in confidence.

    • I often have to change a previously written post right before it goes live, not a big deal to ensure accuracy.

      Since the competition was announced the date of 9/24 was to be the day the winner was announced. That expectation was changed on Tuesday. What was gained by doing so? Was more clarity brought to the process? Was the city improved? I don't expect you to agree since you are part of urbanSTL.com.

      • Unlike you, I don't see this as an ethical issue. The public wanted to know, there was no embargo, and the information was available for anyone to inquire. It's not a simple matter of right or wrong — just of one's perspective.

        And how is it relevant for you to mention your personal awards and SPJ membership in this column? Simple membership in the SPJ does not an ethical journalist make. Just ask Kurt Greenbaum. The ego-stroking and personal attacks are noted.

        • Interesting you bring up Kurt Greenbaum. He too acted in a manner that raised eyebrows.

          I mentioned my SPJ membership & recognition to establish the basis for my criticism. To my knowledge Greenbaum has not been a member of the SPJ and I know he wasn't on the board of the local chapter.

        • Jason says:

          Where exactly was this information available from? Was there a specific phone number or contact one could have called earlier in the week and asked, “Who won the competition?” which would have honestly been answered? I doubt it, and I suspect that the only people who would get a legitimate response by “inquiring” were “insiders”. As I said before, someone violated someone elses trust by posting that on UrbanSTL. And, violating trust is unethical – so yes, this is an ethical issue.

          • Your accusation is without basis, Jason. There was no violation of trust.

          • Jason says:

            “Unlike you, I don't see this as an ethical issue. The public wanted to know, there was no embargo, and the information was available for anyone to inquire.”

            Your claim is without merit. The information was not readily available for anyone to inquire.

          • You're right, Jason. Not everyone can use the phone or interwebz.. 😉

          • I see it more about being respectful of the competition organizers, anyone could snoop around by calling the right people. Again, what is to be accomplished by doing so? We knew they would announce the winner at 10am Friday and most likely the organizers would have allowed the Post-Dispatch to have the story in advance. They've all worked really hard and stealing their moment is not cool.

          • Says the SPJ board member that cruelly leaked info that 100 people at Pyramid were getting fired before they could hear about it internally. Not so sure that you have room to talk, Steve. In comparison, this was good news and no one's innocence was stolen.

  2. ARon says:

    All valid points.

  3. Herbie says:

    On the Friday before the surprise on Tuesday, an Urban STL forum member had this to say: “Well, atleast i know due to my landscape architect college buddy who sent me a heads-up that the winning firm received the phone call today.”

    Sounds like information about the winner was leaking quite extensively well before Alex made the winner public. The competition jury should have waited a few days longer before informing the teams of their decision.

  4. JM says:

    Steve. All I see in this blog post is conspiracy theory, a personal attack (maybe jealousy?) and the pot calling the kettle black! A lot of what appears on the Urban St. Louis blog is written only by Alex. The arch story was a collaboration and he didn't want to take credit for something that others contributed to. I know, I was one of the people who helped get the word out. You are really over the top in your criticism.

    • Anony says:

      Not really a huge fan of urbanstl, but…

      I understand the sentiment behind this post, but the holier-than-thou attitude takes this post off message and reeks of sour grapes.

      You're both just bloggers, and taking yourselves way too seriously these days.

  5. Paul_Hohmann says:


    Sorry, but the way you handled the Pyramid Companies release was just as bad as Urban STL's recent fumble, actually worse. You left me a voice mail at the beginning of the day. I had not even a clue of the impending closure at the time. Around 10:30 am I finally had confirmation from john Steffen of what was happening, and before I could get back to you, or before myself and the other managers could tell our employees, you went public. That was quite frankly a pretty low to do. Over a 100 people lost their jobs that day, and many found out first from you. You really handled that one like an asshole!

    Paul Hohmann, former Manager and Principal Architect for The Pyramid Companies

    • Xyz_soulard says:

      In this case, all the other teams had been notified that they had not won. None of the teams or senior people within the process found out by reading Urban St. Louis.

    • Tpekren says:


      Agree with Paul, you pulled I got a scoop move in the past on the behalf or benefit of your own blog. Now its the kettle calling the pot black as far as my opinion is concerned. Not even taking the time to fully read your post because that was my first and only thought. Now I'm dissappointed in both Alex and yourself. The sad thing, as Bonwich argued on Urbanstl blog, is that the leaks should have never happened or encouraged in the first place.

    • I attempted to reach the main office as well as several employees, including you. My post was published at 11:49am — more than an hour after you say you verified with Steffen and more than three hours after I received the tip. Had I been in St. Louis, rather than a hospital in SW Missouri, I would have gone to the offices to verify.

      • Central Illinois Reader says:

        But you still broke a huge story before an official announcement was made? Seems like hypocrisy to me.

        • John Steffen hadn't published the date he would hold a press conference on the closure of his firm.

          • Nancy Hohmann says:

            So then that makes it alright? You waited a whole hour to publish your post? Wow, what a gentleman that makes you!
            You once asked why I didn't like you, Steve. Right here is your answer. I don't think you understand the frustration and anger that you needlessly caused to the employees and their families that day. As my husband so eloquently put in his post, you handled it then, and now, as an asshole.

          • Read my reply again Nancy, I didn't publish until at least three hours after I got the tip. In that time I placed numerous calls and sent several emails trying to get a response — any response. Had I been in St. Louis I would have gone to the offices to try to find someone. Had I gotten a call back from Paul, or anyone else, asking me to wait I would have.

          • Nancy Hohmann says:

            Wow. Just wow.
            You just have no concept of being decent, do you?

          • Really? I waited at least two hours after placing calls for a response but I received no reply. For all I knew he told everyone at 8am and they were all gone – I had no way to know.

          • Central Illinois Reader says:

            Because we all know that 3 hours is the maximum wait time for a phone call. Heaven forbid they had meetings or issues to attend to, and your response was not at the very very top of their list at that moment. Or they were unable to respond until…say 4 hours…after you initially tried to contact them.

            You are a hypocrite for writing this article. End of story.

          • What is the right amount of time on a breaking news story? Four hours? Five? I continue to see a big difference between a breaking story and spoiling an announcement that had been pre-planned for months.

          • Central Illinois Reader says:

            You tell me. Apparently 3 hours was the right amount of time for you. You didn't even give them time (actually, you did….a measly 3 hours) to try to figure things out before you broke that story. So in many ways, your blog has less standards than UrbanSTL.

            You may see the difference between the two as you were right and they are wrong, but I see it as you are just jealous and angry at a more popular blog.

          • Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

            Yes, I went public with information a major downtown developer with extensive political connections was folding his company. Steffen was indicted on bank fraud last month.Turns out not all the employees had been told when I went public. I took the fact that nobody answered the phones or returned my messages to mean they were either being told or they had already left. I certainly wish, in retrospect, I had given it more time.

            urbanSTL.com, in my view, pulled the rug out from what was going to be a very positive announcement. Did the competition organizers screw up by not putting non-disclosure agreements in place for all five teams? Clearly!

            However, I never talked about what my disclosure of the collapse of Pyramid did for traffic to my site: http://tinyurl.com/urbanstl “Forum and blog traffic are up about 50% and 300% respectively”

          • Central Illinois Reader says:

            Because that traffic can't, by any means, be traced to their expansive outlines of each of the 5 competitors designs? Or possibly they're in depth articles? Sure some traffic is for their post about the announcement, but certainly a lot of it is focused on their breakdown and easy access to the winning design and full presentation as well as the other 4 proposed.

            Again, your arguments just scream jealousy of a bigger, more popular blog along with hypocrisy.

  6. JZ71 says:

    Poor form, but not surprising, given the apparent need in many media today to be first. Journalistic standards may have slipped, but they may have also simply changed. As the number of outlets have multiplied exponentially (newspapers > radio > broadcast TV > cable TV > internet), the audience has splintered and it’s becoming harder to be the prime news source (and who wants to be yesterday’s news?). Heck, back when newspapers were the only source, standards were as diverese as they are on today’s internet – can you say yellow journailism?

    Early notification had to be given so those involved today could make travel plans (the downside to using out-of-town consultants). About the only way to prevent it would’ve been requiring all participants to sign an enforceable confidentiality agreement – you leak and you lose the commission. But with only five teams left, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot of digging to find out who wasn’t making travel plans, and to put two and two together, either.

    Bigger picture, I’m not all that bothered that the “surprise was spoiled”. The unveiling event is probably a lot more important to those involved than it is to the larger public. My two big concerns are if the winning design is “good”, that it’ll actually improve the arch grounds (and the surrounding area), and, more importantly, that funding will actually be found to make at least 90% of it a reality. Too many great ideas just end up on shelves . . .

  7. Mark Groth says:

    Information moves in different ways these days. The established media must struggle with this fact daily. People are informed and willing to share, and if information is confirmed from the right sources, it can be reported as soon as possible. I don’t see the issue. If the Post or KTVI or KWMU can’t keep up by playing by the old rules, they shouldn’t report on the scoop. Seems simple. Isn’t this a case of don’t shoot the messenger?

  8. I don't see what all the worry is – I knew the winner since last Friday (the day MVAA got the phone call) and had to try to keep it a secret and not tell the press – Alex beat me to the punch, oh well…

  9. Very interesting discussion. I personally think that in the age of the Twitter secrets are hard to keep and very easy to reveal, particularly when so many people are so curious. I'm not disappointed that I heard the news a few days early, but I can see that this isn't by any means a clear cut case of one side is correct and one side isn't. Should bloggers be forced to attend ethics classes? Do clearly defined ethics even exist for bloggers in situations like this?

  10. Moot says:

    The greatest thing about these blogs are watching the self-important bloggers self-destruct and what's even better is watching two well known idiots like Dave and Steve battle it out like two MR kids on a playground! The reason I keep coming back to this blog and reading urbanstl is the sheer humor by the people who are trying to post “seriously”. Really? Don't take yourselves too seriously, you are not that important as much as you'd like to think you are.

  11. bonwich says:

    I posted on urbanstl about this and I hadn’t seen your post until today, Steve. I disagree with you that anyone on the “reporting” side — “mainstream” or blogger (as in Alex) — did anything wrong here. The sequence of events is accurately recounted elsewhere in this thread: Someone (probably) from Kansas State posted that he’d heard who the winner was, and Alex simply made a few phone calls.

    The problem, at least from my point of view, is that CityArchRiver almost immeasureably botched the confidentiality/announcement process. As I posted elsewhere, all it had to do was have a single point of contact at each firm and make that point of contact sign a tight confidentiality agreement. Travel arrangements are a very weak excuse — don’t you imagine that at least some members of the team were flying full-freight throughout the design process? And CityArchRiver could have obviated the travel issue simply by videoconferencing in the winner.

    The fact that each firm told lots of its employees and/or was willing to answer Alex’s phone call is definitive evidence that CityArchRiver just didn’t get it and bears 100 percent of the blame for the premature release of the announcement.

  12. Jeremy says:

    Exactly what good would an ethics class have done? Nothing unethical was done here. Are bloggers and reporters ethically required to respect deadlines set by PR firms? I hope that’s not what someone’s saying here. It’s apparent from Walter Metcalf’s presence on a KWMU show the other with Alex that nothing has imploded because the news got out early. Yes, it’s self-important to claim there was some great damage done when those with the most at stake have said nothing of the sort.

  13. GMichaud says:

    The ethics of today are the missed opportunities of tomorrow. How in earth could Steve find out about the Pyramid Companies or UrbanSTL the winner of the competition when neither was a real secret.
    Journalism and journalists should jump on stories. Did the management of Pyramid sit on the closing of the company for a few days, or longer? How could Steve find out about the job loss before the workers if there was not some sort of management foot dragging in informing the employees?
    In the same way a better public relations approach might be to announce the winner immediately and have a formal presentation later.
    In discussing the Arch the solution should be the major journalistic concern, not whose feelings are hurt the worse.

    Not to change the subject but the Arch solution seems flawed on the subject of transit.
    The process does not raise questions about this major project in relation to the rest of the city or the region. Aliens did not drop the Arch onto earth. The Arch is not an isolated object. How is this most central area related to the transportation of the city? Why is there not a major focus on development of a major transit stop somewhere on the Arch grounds? Surely there should be a major stop at the Arch grounds. Can't an attractive transit stop reinforce the economic and social success of both the Arch and downtown? Who knows, maybe the river could supply some mass transit.

    Isolated thinking is how the Arch grounds ended up they way they are today. While improved, this thinking still seems to be the same. Massive changes are needed not only in the Arch grounds, but in the City and region as a whole. The Arch should have a major planning influence on the rest of the region, but it's questionable that will happen. This is especially true with transit and its self-portrait ignored.

    • JZ71 says:

      Umm, there's already a Metrolink stop on/under the Eads Bridge, between the Arch and Laclede's Landing, both major destinantions . . .

      • GMichaud says:

        The point is to make it visible. Yes they are major destinations, exactly, but the transportation collection point is not a focal point, something to make transit desirable to use, it is like the many transit stops surrounded with parking, does that encourage transit use? A major destination such as this should have a major transit presence in the form of public space.

    • Not to be too one-note, but SOM Hargreaves incorporated a very modern and very interesting transit station in its new North Archgrounds design. It had north/south/west transit roots funneling down Washington Avenue (a Washington Avenue OPEN to traffic! Can you believe it?) into a partially-covered public-transit-only roundabout and just steps away from the entrance to the Metrolink.

      This station, in turn, connected to a couple of beautifully-imagined arts/culture/education modules which — with such a potentially strong connection to the people in our region who WOULD rely on public transportation…namely, our youth — had the opportunity to simultaneously bring people to the Arch, help involve and activate the region's youth, and, most importantly, strengthen confidence in public transit for the one's who will be using it most in the future (again, the youth).

      I see (or saw, rather) great possibilities with that simple transit center. Hopefully, MVVA is equally impressed and will rework their Northend plan considerably to do something similar.

  14. JZ71 says:

    The ethics of reporting have always varied. The term “yellow journalism” defined one National Enquirer type a century ago. What has changed is the delivery method, and to a lesser degree, timing. Over the last century, we've evolved through newspapers (with multiple competeing ones in larger cities), radio, broadcast TV, cable TV, and now, the internet. Our electronics have become untethered, going wireless, combining and replacing many of the previous modes.

    What hasn't changed is that people continue to have different standards; what has changed is the “price of entry” – now, as long as you can log on, somewhere, your voice can be heard. Spoiling the surprise may have been poor form, but unless a confidentiality agreement / contract was signed by all parties, it was more a case of good networking than a case of bad ethics. The announcement ceremony is/was exactly that, a chance for a photo op and for self-congratulations. What really matters now are the next steps, hammering out all the details and finding the funding to make it a reality.

    • GMichaud says:

      Yellow journalism or opinions, or ethics don't matter, if Pyramid and the Arch competition committee wanted to keep decisions mum, they obviously failed in their methods. It is not the fault of reporters. By the way, the term yellow journalism refers more to making a story sensational with marginal facts. It has nothing to do with the Pyramid or the Arch reporting.


Comment on this Article: