Newsrooms ask: ‘Now what?’

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By: Joe Strupp

When it comes to competition between the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, newsroom veterans use the term “gentleman’s agreement” to describe the way each paper stayed mostly off each other’s turf. Both former and current staffers say they’ve fiercely competed on stories that crossed circulation areas, but have largely avoided the knock-down, drag-out battles in which so many rivals engage.

“It was almost an ideal competition, because it didn’t lead to pandering and blood and gore on the front page, on the street,” says Nick Coleman, a columnist who wrote for the Pioneer Press from 1986 to 2003 before jumping to the Star Tribune. “It was a gentlemanly competition, but there was a point of pride.”

Brian Lambert, a 15-year scribe at the Pioneer Press who also writes for The Rake, a local magazine, agrees: “You never wanted to get beat on the same story, but there was collegiality. The Strib stayed west of the Mississippi and the Pioneer Press had the East Side. They had this natural geographical boundary and both papers had enough to do.”

But in the past year, both papers changed owners (the Pioneer Press twice), each suffered double-digit staff cuts, and the legal battle over Par Ridder has overshadowed both newsrooms ? especially at the Star Tribune, where he remains in charge. “It has been a very difficult period,” says Nancy Barnes, who in March took over as the Star Tribune’s editor. “I don’t think we will be completely able to focus until we have a ruling from the judge.”

That legal trouble arrives during the newspaper’s continued readjustment after being sold by McClatchy to Avista Capital Partners. The investment group’s push for revenue has sparked two rounds of buyouts since March that have resulted in the departure of 145 employees. Of those, the Star Tribune newsroom has lost some 70 staffers, Barnes says.

Former Editor Tim McGuire, now at Arizona State University but still a yearly summer resident in Minnesota, believes all the upheaval has made a serious dent in the paper’s reputation. “I am amazed and distressed, it is a huge hit to the brand,” he tells E&P. “For a number of reasons ? Ridder, staff cuts, newshole cuts … it was a very strong brand in this market.”

Across the river, the Pioneer Press’ newsroom, hit in July with its second buyout in less than eight months, faces a similar dilemma. The paper lost 29 staffers during its first round of cuts last fall, including 22 in the newsroom, and watched another 14 depart during the second round. About 180 newsroom staffers remain. Buyouts were further impacted by a major reorganization in which many staffers were told to reapply for their jobs and, in many cases, were reassigned to new beats.

“There were a lot of reporters who left, a big chunk of senior reporters that are lost,” says Jennifer Bjorhus, a four-year Pioneer Press reporter. “There is a more concerted effort around the Web.”

Rochelle Olson, who has spent seven years as a Star Tribune reporter, offers a similar view. “There’s tons of empty desks,” she says. “A lot of energy has been sucked out of the room. The question is, ‘What’s next?'”

The elephant in the room

Some beat reporters say the Ridder case has affected part of their day-to-day work, prompting questions from sources and readers. “Par Ridder has been the business ethic topic of the year in the Twin Cities,” says Star Tribune reporter Neal St. Anthony. “I hear about it once or twice a day.” While making calls to local business leaders for a recent story, three former CEOs of separate companies all asked about the legal case. “It has not impeded my ability to do my job,” he adds. “But it does come up.”

Olson agrees, noting numerous queries she’s recently heard from sources about the case. She recalls a recent run-in with two attorneys for the Minnesota Vikings during her rounds at the courthouse: “They were like, ‘What’s with that guy?'”

The impact was enough to prompt Star Tribune Reader Representative Kate Parry to devote a column to the issue in June. “For some, the chatter about the case in the newsroom is distracting,” she wrote. “Others find a refuge in their cubicles with their keyboards.” She tells E&P a constant refrain in the newsroom has been, “Let me get back to reporting a good story.”

Then there are those from both papers who are assigned to cover the legal battle surrounding their owners. “It is unusual,” says the Pioneer Press’ John Welbes, who has reported on Ridder’s legal troubles and the paper’s sale last year. “I have gotten a lot of cooperation from both papers, but it is a hard story to report because it is a pretty small industry in town.”

At the Star Tribune, where reporter Matt McKinney has covered both his paper’s sale and Ridder’s court hearings, the awkwardness is greater. “There is no end to the weird situations, when colleagues of mine become people I have to interview,” he says. “There is a lot of quick switching of hats.”

McKinney says the mix of cuts, ownership changes, and Ridder’s problems leaves little room for morale boosts. “We were sold, we were sued, we’ve had two buyouts, and we sold our parking lot,” he says, the latter a reference to a multimillion dollar deal that handed over the Star Tribune’s parking space to the Vikings for a new stadium project. “In short order, we have had all of these things happen ? and it has been kind of depressing.”

Uncertainty takes root

Of course, those are only the changes that staffers know about. The past year of shake-ups and negative publicity only prompts more uncertainty. Rumors abound about further cutbacks at each paper, a relocation by the Star Tribune to suburban quarters, a possible merger, a shutdown of one of the papers ? or even a JOA between the two longtime rivals.

“We are still bearing down and doing our jobs, but … it seems everywhere there’s a distraction,” says Alex Friedrich, the Pioneer Press’ unit chair of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild and a three-year reporter at the paper.

Some observers already contend both papers’ reporting is not as broad-based or complete in some cases. “It has been rattled,” says Strib columnist Coleman. “Coverage in the last six months at the Star Tribune and the last year at the Pioneer Press has gotten shakier. There seems to be a lack of confidence, a lack of nerve.”

He cites the local news reaction to Thomas Heffelfinger, a former local U.S. Attorney who had resigned ? but not before his name appeared on the controversial list of those who had been targeted for dismissal by the Bush administration last year. “We didn’t really run a lot of stories on it, or scope out a lot until we were dragged kicking and screaming into it,” says Coleman. “It was not the newspaper’s finest hour.”

Bill Salisbury, a 30-year Pioneer Press reporter and one of three in the paper’s statehouse bureau, believes political coverage has suffered ? a blow to a state known to have the highest regular voter turnout in the nation (about 70%) for most elections. “They aren’t served as well as they were,” he says of those readers. “They get less information and we are not nearly as aggressive watchdogs as we were.”

The Star Tribune’s Olson points to cutbacks in national and foreign coverage the paper has seen due to its exit from McClatchy’s vast Washington bureau, which also includes eight overseas offices. She had been approved to do a stint in Iraq earlier this year, and underwent a week of security training at Centurian’s England location, when word came down that the sale would put the kibosh on that assignment.

But not many are ready to give up. Barnes claims her reorganization, which included the creation of an enterprise team, increased suburban coverage, and keeping the investigative group together, will take the paper in a solid direction ? with more emphasis on Web reporting. “The fight is not with the Pioneer Press, it is with all of the other competitors,” she says. “We have so many other competitors we are worried about.” Still, she says the Pi-Press remains a distinct rival, noting, “They have a lot of heart and put out a good daily paper.”

Thomas Fladung, the Pioneer Press’ editor since late 2005, agrees that the recent events and staff cuts have affected newsgathering. He no longer has a religion beat writer, but he says the paper remains strong on the metro desk and has been beefing up suburban coverage for several years. “We are not going to change our goals, we are going to continue to emphasize local news,” he says. “We will still have more reporters on the street in the areas we cover.”

Scott Johnson, one of the founders of the conservative, is a staunch critic of the Star Tribune, claiming it is following a liberal voice. “It is a diminished operation, but it is still dominating,” he says. “They’ve got by far the most resources.”

As for the need for two newspapers in the market or the reality of any kind of merger, those in and around the papers say both should survive, at least for the near future. “I think both papers have a long future,” says MediaNews Group CEO Dean Singleton. “I have had no thoughts or discussions about doing anything other than developing the Pioneer Press.”

Former S-T Managing Editor Pam Fine says the market is still strong enough for both papers, as is the need: “There is some degree of loyalty by residents to their city, and by extension to their paper. But I am aware of people who believe it cannot sustain two papers long-term.”

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