AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2007

Star Tribulations   

In short order, Minneapolis’ Star Tribune has experienced an ownership change, two rounds of staff reduction, a top-to-bottom newsroom reorganization--and its publisher is being sued by its archrival in St. Paul, where he used to work. Editor Nancy Barnes is banking on beefed-up suburban coverage and enhanced online offerings to bolster the embattled paper’s future.

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

Nancy Barnes returns to the charge that she is dumbing down the Star Tribune in Minneapolis as if scratching the bite of one of those fat Mississippi River mosquitoes.

Barnes, the paper's editor, is letting this preoccupation cool a nicely grilled salmon and asparagus at the Atlas Grill, a couple of blocks from the Star Tribune building downtown. The grim talk of the future of newspapers adds a touch of irony to her wearing a bracelet made out of typewriter keys.

It seems all she's done for the past several months is outline her plan for the new Star Tribune. She talks of owning the online market in Minneapolis and St. Paul. She touts the creation of an enterprise team devoted to serious reporting for the region. She reminds people that she resisted breaking up the newspaper's investigative team.

Barnes has said goodbye to 68 newsroom staff members in two buyouts just three months apart. She engineered one of the most ambitious reorganizations of a major metro newspaper in recent years at the same time her publisher, Par Ridder, was being sued by his former employer, Barnes' rival on the other side of the Mississippi River, the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

She is well aware that some of the roughly 330 people who still work for her do not believe their managers can be executioners of the staff and saviors of the paper at the same time. Some think it cold that Barnes planned ahead before their colleagues were shown the door. Others wonder why she said nothing to try to stop some of the best and most recognized talent on the paper from leaving.

As rotten as her first few months have been, Barnes also faces a precarious future. Whatever false comfort Star Tribune staffers once felt at being owned by a company primarily involved in producing newspapers has been torn away by Avista Capital Partners, a New York investment company in the newspaper business for the first time.

Barnes has had to carry on while her publisher is preoccupied with a lawsuit that has many in the community questioning not only his loyalty to the paper but also his honesty. Some see Par Ridder's jump to the Star Tribune as an early signal that one inevitable day the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press will be one newspaper.

And as Barnes attempts simultaneously to remake and stabilize her newsroom, Joel Kramer, the former publisher and editor of the Star Tribune, is looking for investors and considering snapping up the paper's forgotten stars to create a powerful new online news source in the market.

Just now, however, Barnes, 46, can't seem let go of that dumbing down charge. OK, so she reassigned experienced editors and reporters to the suburbs. Can't the critics see this is where readers and potential readers are? Don't they know these people want to know what's going on where they live? But no matter how she explains that the dateline on a story does not dictate the quality of the story, it always comes out the same way.

"I have said it over and over that local doesn't necessarily mean the chicken dinner out of Coon Rapids," Barnes says, stabbing an asparagus tip. "When I say local, I mean owning our market. I mean hard news. I mean enterprise. And, oh, maybe some of those enterprise stories will come out of the suburbs. And still community leaders keep telling me that they think all we are going do is dumb down the paper."

However much it rankles, the skepticism is understandable. Readers have a right to wonder just how, exactly, will the Star Tribune deliver more with less.

It's a question being asked of newspapers throughout the country. Reorganizations have followed newsroom cuts over the past year at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Dallas Morning News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. In addition to shrinking the payroll, the new alignments feature a heavy emphasis on local coverage and online operations.

Anticipating the criticism that Barnes has endured, Morning News Editor Robert W. Mong Jr. assured his staff that "a more local focus does not mean less sophistication or ambitiousness."

Serving the local or immediate news needs of the people most inclined to read your paper or view it online makes sense, media analyst John Morton says. The suburbs are the last best hope for the Twin Cities newspapers to turn their circulations upward. "Take a look at those weeklies in the suburbs. They are full of advertising," says Morton, who writes a column for AJR. "These are small and medium businesses that have up to now been priced out of the Star Tribune market. The suburbs are up for grabs."

On the morning of June 15, when Star Tribune reporter Jon Tevlin was scheduled to have a cup of coffee with me, he opened the newspaper to find that Avista Capital Partners had sold the Star Tribune's parking lots to the Minnesota Vikings for $45 million.

On top of everything else, talk has been going around that Avista wants to sell the Star Tribune's headquarters altogether and move out of downtown to a cheaper place to operate. Tevlin is sure the staffers who will gather to say goodbye to some of those taking buyouts this afternoon will be talking about the latest surprise move. "We've gone from being a newspaper to being a real-estate opportunity," Tevlin says.

Tevlin is one of the lucky ones, assigned to the enterprise team. He is seen as a newsroom leader. But Tevlin doesn't feel so lucky. Nothing feels right anymore, not in the newsroom, not in the whole news business.

"My friend used to call me. He'd say, 'Let me guess. Morale has never been worse.' It used to be a joke. Now it's true," Tevlin says. "Everybody asks you about it. 'Is your job safe?' For me, in the short term, it is difficult to feel any sort of relief when so many talented colleagues are leaving. For the first time in my career, I'm no longer certain that if you can write and report, there will be a job for you. It's very hard emotionally."

Events have occurred in Minneapolis in such cold succession that they mock emotion.

The Star Tribune was for generations the pride and joy of the Cowles family, who continue to exert an enormous influence on the economy and the culture of the region. Given what was to follow, the warm nostalgia for the Cowles era is understandable. The family sold Cowles Media Co., including the Star Tribune, for $1.2 billion to McClatchy in 1998. If the newspaper had to be sold to a chain, the common wisdom went, you couldn't do much better than McClatchy, with its reputation for putting the newsroom first.

The romance lasted eight years. Gary Pruitt, McClatchy's chairman and CEO, stunned Star Tribune employees the day after Christmas last year by announcing the paper was being sold to a private equity firm in New York, Avista Capital Partners. The billion-dollar company was now a $530 million property. Pruitt explained that McClatchy got a great tax break by selling.

Shortly before the sale was announced, Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of the Star Tribune for almost five years, told his staff he would be leaving in early March to take over as editor of McClatchy's Miami Herald.

A few weeks before Gyllenhaal left, Star Tribune Publisher J. Keith Moyer announced that Nancy Barnes would replace him. Barnes had been a protégé of Gyllenhaal's when he was editor of Raleigh's News & Observer, also a McClatchy paper. Gyllenhaal had lured Barnes to Minneapolis to serve as assistant managing editor for business in 2003, and by 2005 she had become a deputy managing editor.

Moyer, effusive in his praise for Barnes on Wednesday, by Friday had had enough of the upheaval. The publisher since 2001, Moyer told his stunned staff that he had no plans for the future, other than to spend more time with his family.

The new owner didn't wait long to spring a dramatic surprise. On March 5, the day Avista officially took over, Christopher Harte, chairman of the Star Tribune Co., convened a company meeting to announce that Par Ridder would start as publisher that very day.

To most people outside Minnesota, Minneapolis and St. Paul are the Twin Cities, as though they are conjoined. But the Mississippi River that separates the two is as much a cultural as a geographical divide. Minneapolis on the west is the corporate, urban hipster while St. Paul to the east is the solid, middle-class working stiff. In a time of tremendous pressure in the marketplace, the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press cling to distinct identities and remain bitter competitors.

Until that Monday, Par Ridder was the publisher of the Pioneer Press. What's more, Ridder was a remnant of the longtime Knight Ridder ownership of the paper. His father, P. Anthony Ridder, engineered the sale of the family business to McClatchy, which in turn sold the Pioneer Press to William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group.

Ridder explained what had just happened with breathtaking understatement. "Since 1927, my family has been trying to chase the Star Tribune out of St. Paul," the Minneapolis paper quoted Ridder as saying. "And I recognize this is going to take all of us a little time to get used to." Soon after he began, the paper offered 24 buyouts to newsroom employees, two weeks' pay for every year of service up to a year's worth of severance and a six-month extension on health coverage.

Steve Aschburner, the Minnesota Timberwolves beat writer for 13 years, was on a road trip with the team, his boss on vacation, when the buyout deadline arrived. With no one to consult and worried he might do worse, he impulsively accepted a buyout via e-mail.

Aschburner, who at the time was president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, quickly realized he'd made a big mistake. But when he tried to withdraw his acceptance, he was told the buyout was final. A Newspaper Guild grievance committee declined to pursue his case.

He's now living on the buyout and wondering what to do next. "Am I responsible for what happened? Yeah," says Aschburner, 50. "There were a perfect storm of factors. The Timberwolves' season, my being tired and everything going on in our newsroom and the business. What I needed was lunch with my boss, a pep talk, not to lose my livelihood. This wasn't handled right."

A little more than a month after Aschburner's deadline, the Pioneer Press sued the Star Tribune. The suit claimed Ridder not only had violated a no-compete agreement but also had taken with him computer files full of company secrets. The lawsuit asks that Ridder and two other Pioneer Press employees who came along with him be prevented from working for the Star Tribune for a year.

During a hearing in June, Ridder, to the astonishment of almost everyone in the courtroom and in both newsrooms, admitted taking loads of financial information and showing it to his new employers. Ridder testified, however, that he had not used the information against the Pioneer Press. Judge David Higgs said he probably would not decide Ridder's fate before the end of this summer.

The lawsuit did not prevent Ridder from announcing in May that even deeper cuts--145 positions throughout the company, 50 from the newsroom--would be necessary. Daily circulation had dropped almost 5 percent, to 345,252, and Sunday more than 5 percent, to 574,406, in the six months leading up to the Audit Bureau of Circulations' March 31 deadline. The paper has lost more than 50,000 daily and nearly 100,000 Sunday subscribers since 2000.

Ridder presented his decision as though the newspaper had no other choice. But his history didn't help him rally the shell-shocked troops. "Ridder's baggage makes it almost impossible for him to exert leadership at the very time it's most needed," says David Carr, who writes about the media for the New York Times.

Carr was in Minneapolis on May 10 when more than 100 employees, many of them in black, walked to a small park across the street from the paper to lament all that had happened and what was still to come. Carr grew up reading the Star Tribune in Hopkins, one of Minneapolis' older, slower-growing suburbs. He had for years edited and written for alternative papers in Minneapolis. Some of those who faced buyouts are friends.

"I was there during the crappiest week in the paper's history," Carr says. "After everything that has happened, they're being asked to rebuild the newspaper. It's like reversing polarity and magically growing a paper."

Whatever the magic, the publisher and editors will be trying to reposition the Star Tribune without some of its best journalists. Aschburner's perfect storm had settled in. Sharon Schmickle, a Pulitzer finalist who had done turns in Afghanistan and Iraq; Chuck Haga, one of the paper's finest prose stylists; and Doug Grow, a fixture for 20 years as a metro columnist, all took buyouts.

For Eric Black, the decision was less wrenching than for some of his colleagues. With 30 years of service, Black was eligible both for a full pension and a full 52-week buyout. Before he left, Black, 56, had become a political blogger, which led to a six-month contract to blog for the Minnesota Monitor, a Web site devoted to Minnesota news and commentary.

"I want you to know that I didn't leave sad or bitter at all," Black says. "I had become increasingly frustrated with the changing journalistic norms, the shorter story lengths, less commitment to serious stories. I found my blogging voice very liberating."

But while Black speaks with enthusiasm for the new technology, he unapologetically defends the old notion of what a newspaper owes its readership. Black's Star Tribune business card read "Historical Context Reporter," a title he proudly conferred upon himself.

Grow, 59, describes himself as a classic Minnesota liberal, which is another way of saying populist. Conservative readers who refer to the Red Star Tribune have Grow in mind. Grow is of a generation that sees the Star Tribune not only as a news source but also as a kind of social agent finding common ground for the entire readership. This idea of a newspaper, Grow says, is being compromised by the shrinking of the newshole, the shift to the frivolous and away from serious news that people need to be good citizens. Never afraid to express his opinion bluntly, Grow says he stepped aside quietly rather than being "another angry voice screaming into the night."

After taking his buyout, Grow called Barnes and told her he was disappointed that she had not tried to talk him into staying. He was not alone in the newsroom thinking that letting longtime employees go without a word was disrespectful.

It was not only a management directive not to talk anyone into or out of a buyout; it was also the way Barnes determined she would plunge forward. "These were hard choices. It's a very painful thing," Barnes says, letting out a long sigh. "People needed to see how it was going to come out and what it would look like. A leader who doesn't set priorities isn't a leader.

I wanted to handle this with grace and not cry about it."

Ridder, who during an interview said he wouldn't discuss his move from St. Paul or anything to do with his court case, calls the reorganization a work in progress that he will review by the end of summer. It was in St. Paul that Ridder had success zoning for local news. He grew up reading the Contra Costa Times, which publishes free-standing papers with strong individual identities tailored to several San Francisco suburbs.

While not saying he intends to follow the reorganization with zoning, Ridder says the paper is prepared to spend more on the production end to give readers the local content they want. "I don't see any way to get the business going again without change," Ridder says. "We have no choice but to try to figure out how to get a very local feel in a metro newspaper. It's not easy to do, but it can be done."

Barnes chose Rene Sanchez as a point person for the reorganization. Sanchez, a deputy managing editor, came to the Star Tribune as a reporter in the fall of 2004 after 17 years at the Washington Post, the last 10 on the national staff. As he describes it, his job is to "roam the room, encouraging, pleading, helping to cultivate meaningful, memorable journalism."

Sanchez doesn't pretend the room he roams isn't a little like a morgue sometimes, or that no matter what he says, it will sound a lot like cheerleading. The best he can do, he says, is prove to the staff that it can create great journalism in new places.

"There certainly is skepticism, and if I were in their seat, I'd be skeptical, too," Sanchez says. "I don't know that anybody's got the four-ingredient recipe for this. I do know that I can't sell anything I wouldn't buy as a reporter. My challenge is to produce distinct and serious content."

To accomplish its goals, the paper reallocated newspeople primarily to a local news department and to an enterprise team of 20 reporters and editors. A major emphasis in the newsroom is strengthening suburban coverage, Sanchez says.

A new six-member regional team made up of general assignment reporters--one who had worked in features, one who had worked in the St. Paul bureau, two who had covered local news beats and two who had worked for the state team--is responsible for the fastest-growing areas around the Twin Cities as well as other parts of the area. Bloomington, with its 84,000 people, for the first time in years will have a reporter devoted to news there. The western suburbs of Hennepin County will now get more attention. Carver, Scott and Dakota counties in the area immediately around Hennepin will also get stepped-up coverage.

At the same time, the Star Tribune is focusing more heavily on its Web site (www.StarTribune.com). James Lileks, a columnist who expressed concern that he would be reassigned to a suburb, took over Buzz (buzz.mn), a destination on the paper's Web site devoted to interaction with readers on local topics. Traffic to Buzz, Sanchez says, has quadrupled in the weeks since the talented and quirky Lileks took over. One of the paper's local news editors is signing on as a Web reporter. A former local news editor is now in charge of updating breaking news stories for the site. A staff photographer has become the paper's first video reporter.

The enterprise group also absorbed most of the Nation/World team, which before the sale of the Star Tribune by McClatchy included two Washington bureau reporters and two staffers based in Minneapolis, one of them primarily a blogger, Sanchez says. Kevin Diaz, a longtime Washington reporter, is now a one-person D.C. bureau. Nation/World is now a wire desk. The paper created a twice-a-week section for world news, but Sanchez says tight newsholes have several times reduced the space from two full pages to one.

To make it work after all the buyouts, the paper has sacrificed its Sunday editor, stripped the features department and broken up its five-person education team, turning its responsibilities over to the new local reporters. Among the other changes, the Star Tribune cut its film reviewing to one reporter (see "The End of the Affair") and jettisoned its aging, architecture and classical music beats, Sanchez says.

As he spoke, editors were putting finishing touches on a series about immigrants in the suburbs. The series showcased all of what Barnes and Sanchez had been selling--serious reporting, long-form writing, regional impact--in the very places they were sure news could be found. Not one chicken dinner.

"It's not about finding the church fish fry to write about," says Duchesne Drew, whom Barnes moved from the business desk to head up the new local coverage. "We're not going to pretend something is important just because it happened here. I can tell you, the suburbs aren't the same as they were 20 years ago."

Kevin Duchschere, a reporter for the Star Tribune since 1989, most recently deployed in the St. Paul bureau, is now in Dakota County. When told he was going to a suburb, he was honest: He thought it a demotion. And Duchschere has serious concerns about the void left by the departure of so many good people.

But the more he thinks about it, he says, the more the move makes sense if management adheres to its commitment to local news. "I'm willing to keep an open mind," Duchschere says. "I'm a reporter. Isn't my job to go out and find the news? I'm kind of excited."

His excitement isn't universally shared. Brian Lambert, who blogs on the local media for a Web site called The Rake (www.rakemag.com), says he believes the premise of chasing readers further into the suburbs is fundamentally flawed. Lambert, who was forced out of the Pioneer Press after 15 years during one of its job-cutting spasms, doubts the reduced Star Tribune staff has the resources to cover more territory, much less cover it well. "It's just kind of a head-slapper, this shift to the suburbs," Lambert says. "All I can think of is that it's a sop to suburban advertisers."

The chase for readers in the suburbs isn't brand new and the industry's cumulative track record isn't particularly distinguished. Investment by metropolitan papers in suburban coverage has ebbed and flowed for decades. Years ago, the Los Angeles Times sent experienced reporters into more than a dozen new zoned regions before pulling back with indifferent results. In 1999 the Philadelphia Inquirer launched a "paper within a paper" in one of its suburban counties that was to be a prototype for dramatically upgraded--and very local--suburban coverage, only to quickly scrap the initiative because of budget pressures.

There's a good reason why metro papers often have had disappointing results with their suburban incursions, the New York Times' Carr says. The problem is many metro dailies end up competing with deeply entrenched local papers. "Good luck trying to elbow the weeklies aside," Carr says. "This behemoth rebuilt on the foundation of local news is the Loch Ness monster. Everyone's heard of it, but nobody's seen it."

Poised for entry into the Twin Cities local news lineup, Joel Kramer answers questions as if he very much enjoys his image as the wild card. Kramer served as editor of the Star Tribune until he was named publisher in 1992. When McClatchy bought the paper, Kramer sold his stock for more than $8 million and started a think tank, Growth & Justice.

In June, Kramer announced plans to find financing to start a Web site. He has kept the plan for site's content secret, except to say that it will be devoted to serious journalism. "When I left the newspaper 10 years ago, I believed that the best strategy was to sustain high-quality journalism by raising the quality, raising the price and accepting a smaller readership," Kramer says.

The timing, he says, is perfect because of the sudden availability of experienced journalists. Kramer says he'd like to launch the new venture by the end of the year.

Those who know Kramer say the Cowles family and other investors have serious interest in his project. Those who have spoken privately about working with him have expressed doubts as to how serious those investors could be about a site devoted only to serious news. "The example I've been using [of a model for a successful site] is a combination of Gawker and Slate for the Twin Cities," Lambert says. "I don't think Joel is from that school."

So is local news the answer for the embattled newspaper business? Perhaps that depends on what you mean by local news. Stephen Gray is managing director of Newspaper Next, an American Press Institute project to help develop business plans to carry newspapers into the future. Gray, a former managing publisher of the Christian Science Monitor, says the problem lies with the narrow definition of news and the chase for fewer and fewer people who accept that definition.

A century ago, Gray says, newspapers flourished by being the primary tool for people to navigate their communities. Newspaper companies of the future will succeed by fulfilling that old mission using new technology. That technology can facilitate creating places for consumers to interact with one another, announce local events, share reviews of restaurants they like or don't like, post photographs of their beloved pets. None of which fits neatly into the categories of "serious" or "news," Gray says.

Barnes is well aware that the future is online but realizes that for now the Star Tribune cannot survive without the dwindling--but still substantial--revenue generated by print advertising. Like so many of its peers, the Star Tribune is caught between the audience that continues to pay the bills and a new audience getting all sorts of information from all sorts of sources.

As confident as she has sounded to her staff, Barnes is no more certain than other newspaper editors under siege that she has the right formula. But she doesn't see standing pat as a particularly alluring alternative.

"The demands on a major metro newspaper to satisfy the needs of lots of different communities and a lot of competing interests has never been greater," Barnes says. "We have made some hard choices. People are a little demoralized right now thinking through what we need to do to survive. You've got to fight to survive, and we need to come out fighting."

Lisheron has written most recently for AJR about Keith Olbermann and about the news media in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.