Hard News

Can the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press survive in an era of tougher competition and declining readership? Yes, here’s how…

Singular Sensation?

After the recent turmoil at the state’s biggest newspapers, it’s time to consider another possibility— that less could be more

By David Brauer

It 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.

In recent years, the news-gathering business has changed in ways that have tended to preserve the best aspects of competition and punish the worst aspects of monopoly. As MPR proves, a monopoly in any one medium matters a lot less when there’s competition among media. And the surviving newspaper would hardly be the only source of information in town; in addition to public radio, the info sphere includes monthly magazines, alt-weeklies, community papers, and a new generation of blogs that feature actual reporting. Like a forest’s taller trees, a decaying newspaper giant’s fall could open the landscape to many fresh, vigorous upstarts. And though it’s hard to have much faith in the uncertain, less lucrative present for papers, the long view suggests that if the market demands substance, someone will figure out a way to provide it.

In the meantime, having two papers means wasting tons of newsprint and human potential duplicating each other’s stuff: local and national wire copy, rote meeting or game stories, do-I-have-to cultural coverage (does the prospect of only one local American Idol critic really bum you out?). Right now, most Twin Citians who get a paper get one paper, and losing the replication would not hurt readers at all. As it is, the PiPress doesn’t offer home delivery in the west metro area, so most Minneapolitans never read its top reporters and terrific east-metro coverage. Likewise, due to parochial habit, the top Stribites are unread by many in St. Paul. A combined paper could leverage the best of both worlds: an all-star lineup of scribes blending the Strib’s relative breadth and clean design with the PiPress’s bite and hyperlocal focus. It’s not inconceivable to think the PiStar or StribPress would cover more beats than either current paper—and throw more reporters at the biggest stories.

Before imbibing the Kool-Aid too deeply, we need to acknowledge the biggest downsides of monopoly. The obvious one is that some of the city’s most talented journalists and back-shop workers would lose good jobs, among the few in journalism today that provide enough money to support families and provide decent retirements. Even more significant for readers: Some worthy coverage would be irretrievably lost. The newspaper editorial, for example, remains journalism’s most influential opinion piece, but there would be a justifiable howl from conservatives if the left-leaning Strib editorial page had no counterbalance, and similar liberal yelps if the PiPress’s more conservative viewpoint won out. More importantly, if the single owner, publisher, and editor left standing made bad hiring and coverage decisions, there would be no peer to check them. (This is not a small fear: Anyone who’s worked in a newsroom—or any large organization—can cite examples of mediocre cronies getting choice jobs and promotions over talented boat-rockers.)

Still, we need to be realistic about the future. The prospects for news written on dead trees isn’t exactly rosy. Is one decent newspaper in a highly literate market really worse than two mediocre ones? And we also shouldn’t be too nostalgic for the past: Even in the good old days of bloodthirsty rivalry, there were a lot of stupid stories, bad reporters, and overhyped “scoops.” During the March episode of Almanac in which Kahn, Smith, and Shefchik discussed the declining dailies, the latter noted, “Obviously, it’s a better media market when you have a couple of big organizations that are challenging each other every day.” Smith, never one to romanticize anything, shot back, “Makes you do stupid things, too.” He was referring to the silliest of self-congratulatory reportage and story placement, which even Shefchik acknowledged could result from the local papers’ longstanding antagonism. “You can decide ‘we’re going to own a story’ that isn’t worth owning,” he allowed. “Ultimately, it’s about news judgment. You’d rather have two newsrooms trying to figure out what the important story of the day is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have terrible journalism if you don’t have two papers.”

David Brauer is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

PiPress to Strib: Drop Dead!

A plan for the underdog

By Burl Gilyard

Media pundits have been predicting the demise of the St. Paul Pioneer Press for at least two decades. The death watch began in 1987, when the Star Tribune dropped “Minneapolis” from its name and tried to infiltrate the east metro. Yet despite numerous rounds of job cuts, a series of short-lived publishers, and the paper’s sale last year, the Pioneer Press ain’t dead yet. But if the paper is on its last legs, I’d like to see it go down swinging. My proposal: the Pioneer Press should recast itself as an elbows-out tabloid full of attitude, loud headlines, and hard-to-find news. (Consider that amid continuing circulation declines for most American dailies, two of the papers that did post gains were tabloids, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. How about them apples, punk?)

To start, PiPress owner Dean Singleton should rename the paper the East Side Bugle or the Twin Cities Clarion or the Metro Muckraker. The new moniker would signal the new ’tude. Second, acknowledge that you can’t be everything to everyone. Pick your targets and exploit the bejeebers out of them. You can find and break news if you dig where no one else is looking. I’m not saying that the prospective Bugle should be as celebrity- and gossip-obsessed as the New York Post. This is still the Midwest. Tabs are about packaging, not compromising accuracy. Cover politics, business, and local issues aggressively. And ask someone besides a rich guy what’s happening.

The formula is less alien than one might think. When former editor Walker Lundy ran the Pioneer Press, one of his stated goals was to “raise hell,” a tabloid-worthy battle cry if there was one. The result: a Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of the scandal-ridden University of Minnesota basketball program, a story the paper managed to snatch while the larger but lumbering Star Tribune was busy trying not to offend anyone.

They say that print is dead, but everytime you haul out the recycling someone has launched a new local title—including many tabs. The Onion debuted a local edition in 2004 and last year the Star Tribune launched its own faux alternative weekly, the cheesily christened Vita.mn. So the fake news and lifestyle niches are covered. That leaves plenty of open territory for a paper willing to pick and choose its targets.

This spring, the local dailies were squabbling about a purloined laptop and executive poaching by Par Ridder, who jumped from the PiPress to become the new publisher of the Strib. For the St. Paulites, the best revenge would be to publish a paper that people can’t wait to read—a newspaper worth stealing.

Burl Gilyard is a reporter at Finance and Commerce.

The Strib: A Tale of Two Eras

To see how the Star Tribune has evolved, we compared five days’ worth of front pages with those printed on the same days a decade ago. Then: national news. Now: guns and babies.

By Tim Gihring

Average number of teasers (e.g., “Are you sofa savvy? See page C12”) per day
Then: 5
Now: 9.2

Average amount of copy above the fold
Then: 9.2 paragraphs
Now: 5.8 paragraphs

Number of headlines phrased as a question (“Do you YouTube?”)
Then: 2
Now: 15

Total number of national stories:
Then: 17
Now: 6

Total number of shopping/consumer-related stories
Then: 1
Now: 10
(Mini Cooper, Apple TV, Spanx anyone?)

Total references to dogs or children
Then: 0
Now: 11

Total references to death or violence
Then: 5
Now: 10
(number related to the war in Iraq: 0)

Biggest story
Then: Mass suicide of 39 California cult members
Now: Dog attack in Minneapolis

Number of days a photo obscures the newspaper’s name
Then: 0
Now: 4 out of 5

Percentage of those photos that are of dogs, babies, celebrities, or models:

Number of photos featuring attractive young women
Then: 0
Now: 6

Number of photos of dangerous men
Then: 2
(O.J. Simpson, James Earl Ray)
Now: 2
(President Bush, Darth Vader)

Uses of the word “you” or “your”  (referring to readers)
Then: 0
Now: 9

Uses of the phrase “sexy and confident at Mystic Lake”
Then: 0
Now: 1
(in reference to singer Taylor Hicks)

Global-warming index
Then: High
temperature: 55
Now: High
temperature: 75

Then: 50 cents
Now: 50 cents

Four reasons to appreciate the daily newspapers…

» The PiPress’s capitol coverage.

Proximity has always given the Pioneer Press an edge on the statehouse beat, but the paper’s Rachel Stassen-Berger owns it—perhaps because she’s the granddaughter of former guv Harold Stassen.

» The survivors.

Bloodletting has thinned both newsrooms’ ranks, but major talent remains: At the Strib, there’s courts reporter Rochelle Olson, education guru Steve Brandt, and storytellers Chuck Haga and Jon Tevlin; at the PiPress, columnist Ruben Rosario and movie critic Chris Hewitt.
» East metro headlines. Decapitated dogs, murdered citizens—while the Strib downplays the details, the PiPress trots out the big type (“Mom Stabbed Newborn 135 Times”). A lively paper is not born of restraint.

» The Strib’s Taste section.

Pretty food pics, lavish layouts, oddly compelling articles on egg cups and no-knead breads. What is this, a magazine?
And four things about ’em that drive us nuts

» Front-page navel-gazing.

Will global warming lower your heating bill? Could the war in Chechnya impact your 401(k)? The tax code—what to tell your kids? Please. Not everything has to be made personally relevant.

» Kate Parry.

More apologist than critic, the Strib’s reader representative tends to throw marshmallows when a grenade is required. When the purchase by Avista Capital Partners resulted in the departure of the Strib’s Washington correspondents, Parry failed to note that the staffers would’ve had to take a pay cut had they stayed. Instead, she reassured readers that the bureau remained open, staffed by “experienced intern Brady Averill.” Phew.

» Investigative infrequency.

Both papers still have the talent to pull off major investigative stories. Witness the Strib’s look at questionable business practices at Parker-Hughes Cancer Center last year. Kudos. We just want more muckraking, more often.

» Dead-guy comics.

Charles Schulz, Hank Ketcham, Johnny Hart: All dead, never funny.