Can the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press survive in an era of tougher competition and declining readership? Yes, here’s how...
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After the recent turmoil at the state’s biggest newspapers, it’s time to consider another possibility— that less could be more
By David BrauerIt was mid-March when TPT’s Almanac held something of a wake for the future of local print journalism. Playing the role of pallbearers were three reporters who’d just taken buyouts and cleaned out their desks—Dane Smith of the Star Tribune, and Rick Shefchik and Aron Kahn of the Pioneer Press.
As they surveyed the state of daily newspapers in the digital age, the former journalists ran through what has become a familiar list of industry challenges: more competition from newer media, fewer (and aging) readers, less revenue. The discussion held all the cheer of a visit to the dentist. Yet Smith, a wonderfully cynical reporter who covered the state capitol for two decades, refused to be led down a path of unremitting woe. With a contrarian’s smirk, he recalled the last great period of journalistic upheaval: the early ’80s, when the afternoon papers in both cities (the Minneapolis Star and the St. Paul Dispatch) were swallowed by their morning counterparts. “I can remember when consolidation was going on,” he said. “When those things happened, the papers got better, the papers that were left.”
Smith’s heresy was noteworthy. Nearly all reporters are hardwired to loathe media consolidation, for reasons both philosophical—in the media universe, more information always equals better information—and practical: More journalism outlets mean more journalism jobs. But at a time when the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press are shedding staff and pages, Smith’s observation about that long-gone era begs a question about the current local media landscape: Would today’s Twin Cities be better off with just one daily paper?
First, let’s be clear about what we value in a newspaper. It’s easy to point to the obvious stuff: the deeply reported investigations, the ambitious narratives, the big explanatory pieces. And one only need reflect on the last two Pulitzers hauled in by the local dailies—the Strib’s series exposing fire officials involved in arson-for-hire, and the PiPress’s exposé of academic cheating that brought down the University of Minnesota basketball program—to realize the value in those types of stories; they’re the kind of journalism other media don’t have the time or the wherewithal to do. Yet awards are not the sole measure of a daily’s unique place in the firmament; its value is also reflected in less spectacular ways: with experienced reporters who prowl beats of civic import; by feature writers who surprise and delight; through columnists who give voice to a region, who explain a city to its residents. And unlike TV’s reliance on eye candy and the Web’s ability to provide blizzards of data, newspapers are still the best way to efficiently organize and convey massive amounts of information, whether though sharp graphics or mesmerizing photos. Also: They have comics.
Monopolies in any industry get bad press, but their record in journalism isn’t as grim as one might think. Consider that the Twin Cities’ best-loved and fastest-growing news source is Minnesota Public Radio, which has a virtual monopoly in its medium. Do we really think MPR would be better if, say, there had been two public-radio newsrooms, or if commercial radio (WCCO’s Eric Escola excepted) hadn’t long since abandoned newsgathering? Compare this to the most competitive news medium, local TV, which is largely a wasteland of sensationalism and superficiality. It’s also worth noting that there’s little correlation between great newspapers and print competition. The Chicago Tribune has plenty of competitors; it is not a particularly great newspaper. The Portland Oregonian, on the other hand, essentially has none, and has long been among the best papers in the country—even before winning back-to-back Pulitzers in 2006 and 2007. In fact, if you look at the seven papers that won Pulitzers last year that were not major national dailies, five could be considered monopolies in their markets. It’s perhaps not coincidental that the Washington Post and New York Times ascended to new heights in the last half of the 20th century—precisely when their local white-shoe competitors died off.
Monopolies become problematic when a business has the power to name its own price. But that’s not the case for newspapers, which not only face continued threats from their traditional rivals, TV and direct mail, but the new and rapacious piranhas on the Web as well. A single newspaper in the Twin Cities would have no more ability to charge what it wants than two newspapers do—and some local businesses and classified advertisers would save money because they wouldn’t have to buy ads in two newspapers to reach sometimes-overlapping audiences. Instead, the money could be spent on bigger campaigns at the surviving paper, or nourishing other media, or even on the advertisers’ own job creation.