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Rewrite Man

With the state’s largest newsroom and newspaper at his disposal, Star Tribune editor Anders Gyllenhaal has the power to make headlines. But his style—some would say solid, others stiff—has both inspired and irked staffers at 425 Portland. Can a banjo-playing ex-Swedenborgian turned ink-stained media executive re-energize the paper in an age of plummeting print readership? For the answer, turn to Horoscopes.

Rewrite Man

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At first blush, Anders Gyllenhaal seems anything but forceful. The Star Tribune editor prefers sweaters to power suits, and he has to look up at six-footers. There’s a resemblance to his movie-star nephew, Jake Gyllenhaal of Brokeback Mountain fame: at 54, he retains a boyish visage on which wrinkles have only recently made headway. He plays the banjo and wears an engagement ring—a sign of sensitivity or perhaps egalitarianism. He once confessed that he’s prone to “mumbling” and that, behind his back, people often ask, “What did he say?”

Yet he’s plenty tough—as a teenager, he became the de facto head of a family plagued by alcoholism. And he’s talented—a former reporter at the Miami Herald and executive editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, he’s written and managed his way to the top of his profession, so respected by his peers that they elected him to the Pulitzer Prize board of directors in 2002. And he’s tenacious—he’s spent a good portion of his career defending the Freedom of Information Act, an essential tool for investigating government.

In short, he’s a serious man with a serious task: ensuring that Minnesota’s pre-eminent print news source thrives in a fractured, attention-starved, hypercompetitive Internet age.

But Gyllenhaal has stumbled a bit at the Star Tribune. Weekday circulation has remained roughly level since his arrival, but Monday-through-Friday readership among 18-to-24-year-olds fell by nearly half (from 35 percent to 19 percent) during his first two years at the paper. Usage among 25-to-34-year-olds slid from 33 to 27 percent during the same period. Not surprisingly, online readership has climbed steadily in recent years, but print subscriptions and advertising still account for 95 percent of the paper’s revenue. That’s why any drop-off in circulation—for example, 2005’s loss of 7,900 Sunday buyers, the week’s most profitable edition—is ominous.

Those are just a few of the reasons why Gyllenhaal is unafraid to break eggs and bruise egos in his attempts to stem the losses. He can be quick to dismiss those who doubt the urgency of the changes he hopes to make. And he can seem impatient with, say, writers working on magazine profiles. (Over four months, I eked out three interview sessions with the Star Tribune editor, none lasting even an hour and all essentially beginning with the question “How much time will this take?”)

With Strib owner McClatchy Company’s recent purchase of several Knight Ridder newspapers—including the St. Paul Pioneer Press, slated to be sold this summer to MediaNews—Gyllenhaal now edits the biggest newspaper in the country’s second-largest newspaper chain. And at a time when many newsrooms are dealing with layoffs, McClatchy’s decision to invest in the Strib’s reporting staff is a sign of the company’s faith in its editor. Gyllenhaal takes his responsibility to the paper and journalism seriously: he once wrote that his biggest worry was that “We’ll somehow fail to pass this precious profession in its full glory to the next generation.”

Gyllenhaal has set his sights on a re-calibration of the traditional paper. Here and elsewhere, he has pushed for more people-centered storytelling, more nontraditional article formats, more graphics, more staff, more diversity, more Internet tie-ins, and more oomph. In his short tenure at the Strib, he has expanded coverage with a twice-weekly stand-alone World News section and several targeted news sections distributed only in the suburbs. In an effort to broaden the paper’s beats and perspective, he has hired a conservative columnist for the “Twin Cities + Region” section and created such positions as “nightlife” reporter, “relationships” reporter, “seasons” reporter, “how-to” reporter, “talker” story reporter, and “content promotions” editor.

But can one editor’s efforts shore up the Strib’s declining readership in an age of multiple news sources and media outlets—let alone save the “glory” of the profession? If Anders Gyllenhaal has any doubts, he’s not saying.

Paper Tiger

Last October, the Strib’s often sober front page was transformed overnight. It became a hyperactive homepage-in-print, full of teasers, headlines, and other items styled to grab readers’ attention, including the day of the week printed in glorious teal. Now, on any given day, oversize photos, read-at-a-glance charts, and boldface quotes provide rushed readers with a quick overview of real-estate fluctuations, terrorism alerts, and the latest MySpace phenomenon. (You’ll have to turn inside for an analysis of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.) Pages feature fewer words. Stories about kids fighting diseases get lavish front-page play while “hard news” about abstract entities, such as government, is literally pushed to the margins.

A few months after the remake was unveiled, Strib staffers received a memo titled “The Mission of the Redesign.” It laid out Gyllenhaal’s worries and hopes in a single stroke: “As news sources proliferate, audiences fragment and newspaper readership declines, the Star Tribune is no longer guaranteed a place at the center of our community. Operating from a position of relative strength, we seize this moment to reassert our relevance to readers from many walks of life.”

The paper, the memo acknowledged, has “a natural bias toward heavier readers” and tends to underserve those “under 30, women, suburbanites and light readers.” (According to the Star Tribune’s own research, the latter group accounts for 55 percent of the potential audience, dwarfing the 30 percent who are “elite” and “core” readers.) A different emphasis was needed, the memo concluded: “We will focus planning on the reader’s convenience and gratification…. We will publish more stories about ordinary people (and fewer about officials)…. We will employ alternative story forms that make dry topics more scannable and interesting topics more delightful.”

Gyllenhaal allows that the redesign is still a work in progress, but he defends the overall direction. “I don’t think it’s working exactly perfectly right now,” he says, “but if there’s a single way to express what a newspaper has to do these days, it [is] to serve that broad cross-section of readers as their lives are changing because of the obvious differences between now and, say, 10 years ago. Reading habits are influenced by television and the Internet and magazines in a way that the standard linear approach of newspapers isn’t terribly effective” in matching or mimicking.

Ideally, Gyllenhaal wants to lure new, time-starved readers without alienating die-hard subscribers. The bait? Better-written stories that connect emotionally while engaging intellectually. Sections with room for fun and for depth. In short, Gyllenhaal believes he can create a more alluring smorgasbord able to satiate liberals, conservatives, urbanites, suburbanites, hard-news-junkies, and celebrity-gossip addicts—a mix that he describes as “a big family that in many cases doesn’t really all want to be in the same boat, but they are.”

Why try to keep everybody onboard in a single ship? There’s an obvious business answer—the Strib grabs more ad dollars than any single local media outlet precisely because of its large, diverse audience—but Gyllenhaal speaks with almost palpable emotion of a moral imperative.

“The paper [is] where everybody, or almost everybody, comes together; that’s 75 percent or so of this region when you put the paper and the website together,” he says. “The newspaper is the only medium that really takes seriously the role of investigative reporting, public service, covering leaders, providing election material, all of those things—if newspapers aren’t doing that, nobody’s going to be doing that. Part of the role of the press in this country is to give people the information that’s going to make us successful at self-governing. So if we all break up into little pieces and every person who’s interested in a specific point of view only gets news from a source that thinks likes them, we are going to be in trouble as a society. The newspaper has to provide opinions that you not only disagree with, but that you didn’t expect to see.”

Still, some in the community—and the Strib newsroom—believe Gyllenhaal’s changes don’t match his rhetoric: that the redesign has been more eye candy than informative, the paper more a flattering mirror for its readers than critical lens on society and the powerful.

“We now have two rock critics and no energy reporter,” says Mike Meyers, the paper’s national economics correspondent. “We have a how-to columnist whose job it is to tell you how to iron a shirt and fold a napkin. There’s always a tension between style and substance, but news resources seem to be put in other areas.”

Gyllenhaal responds to such critiques with exasperation. “The notion that the paper is somehow thinner is really interesting, because it needs to be quicker—and it needs to be more accessible,” he says. “But behind this is more depth than it’s ever had. We’ve added more space. We’ve gotten more staffers than we’ve ever had in the history of this paper.”

 


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