If you see Mike Klingensmith standing on a corner in the Twin Cities and need directions, chances are he can tell you where to go. That’s because he spent several summers in college driving a Yellow Cab around Minneapolis. Now the 57-year-old is back as the publisher of the Star Tribune, trying to steer the paper forward as he gets reacquainted with the city he left some 30 years ago. That was when the Twin Cities native set off for New York City, where he scaled the heights of various media and corporate empires, landing top spots at Time Inc. and Sports Illustrated and even co-founding Entertainment Weekly. On the eve of his one-year anniversary at the Star Tribune, we sat down to ask Klingensmith about his first year as publisher.
You’re a former financial analyst and investment banker who left to get into the newspaper business. Do you know something we don’t know?
I actually thought that the timing was pretty good. You know, things start to become conventional wisdom, like “There’s an irreversible decline in print.” I never really subscribed to that. I’m a little bit of a contrarian, and I felt like this just might be a good moment to get in. I honestly thought it was an interesting opportunity.
Any surprises during your first year?
The consumer base for the Star Tribune was more dedicated than I expected. We’ve been seeing that in our research. And I’ve been a little surprised that the hard-core print subscribers don’t see digital as substitute for the print; they see it as a corollary. So during the day, as things are breaking, readers use the website. But it’s incredible the extent to which people still want to sit down with a cup of coffee and actually go through the physical product. The newspaper is a very elegant way to display information.
You said in an interview with a trade publication that “excellent and valuable content doesn’t want to be free.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
That was the cliché that was making the rounds a couple years back: “Information wants to be free.” It was actually excerpted from a larger quote that made the opposite point, but nonetheless everybody glommed on to that. I think if you’re going to have good, quality information, it can’t be free. The process required to produce it is too expensive. Everybody says that news is everywhere on the Web, but it’s there only because it’s put there by organizations that spend a lot of money and craft it. I’m not sure it’s going to be there forever.
And so how can a newspaper sustain itself in the digital era? Is there a model that works?
The newspaper industry was slow to accept that digital would be an important part of the future. We were behind with our paper. I think part of it was the financial issue. There was no money to make investments and to re-craft things. But over the longer term, I would hope that we, along with other newspapers, are going to have a consumer revenue stream from our digital products both online and on mobile devices. The question is, Will we get the model right?
Post-bankruptcy, how are the paper’s finances?
We’re actually doing pretty well this year. We’ve made a lot of progress. We’re stable again financially, so it’s been heartening. Things have shored up pretty well.
And how is circulation looking?
We reached 504,600 in Sunday circulation, which was up for the first time since 2004. A year ago, circulation was 477,000, and six months ago it was 493,000. Our daily circulation, while it wasn’t up over the previous year, was up over the previous six-month statement. I think there’s more life to the print product than conventional wisdom suggests.
What’s the difference between working for a big national media property and a smaller regional one?
There are lots of differences. When you work for Sports Illustrated, the percentage of people who subscribe nationally is very low compared to the overall population, so the likelihood of running into your consumer is low. Whereas if you’re in the newspaper business, 40 percent of the people you run into are your subscribers. And they’re very quick to tell you what they thought of last week’s editorial or today’s sports column!
Anything you’ve especially enjoyed about being back in Minnesota?
My wife and I went on a fall-colors trip up to Grand View Lodge just north of Brainerd. I’ve also been to the new TCF Bank Stadium. I was at the Ohio State debacle, where the Gophers lost 52 to 10. A couple of Vikings games. The Twins. I’m a big sports fan.
What are you reading these days?
Right now I’m reading The Big Short, which is Michael Lewis’s book about the financial crash. I love Michael Lewis’s writing. I think Moneyball is my favorite book of all time; it blends my sports and business interests. And, honest to gosh, it sounds cliché, but I do like Garrison Keillor’s books. I’m not a huge book reader, though. I read a lot of newspapers and magazines. There was a period of time when I was reading books only by or about people I knew—books about Time Inc., Time Warner; books by Anna Quindlen, somebody I know from New York.
Any regrets about leaving New York?
I don’t really miss it, to tell you the truth. There’s plenty going on here: theater, music, sports. I’m never bored. I’m a huge Twins fan. On weekends, I ride my bike to Target Field. You couldn’t ride your bike to Yankee Stadium! We’ve also been trying out all the restaurants in town. That’s one thing we miss a little bit from New York. There isn’t quite the range here. But you can get walleye in much more sophisticated versions than you used to be able to. Even if you go to the top restaurant, there’s walleye. Which is fine—I like walleye.
Frank Bures is a writer based in Minneapolis. He profiled U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones in the December issue of Minnesota Monthly.