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.
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.”
A Dry and Chilly Climate?
Gyllenhaal’s arrival at the Star Tribune ended an era. The man he replaced, Tim McGuire, had worked at the Strib for nearly a quarter-century, first as managing editor, then as editor, before retiring in 2002. It’s hard to imagine two more different men.
Despite being five-foot-four and born with a rare and crippling joint disorder, McGuire was an oversized figure in the newsroom, a backslapper who practically bounced off the walls, an unrepentant gambler, and a sports nut who relished newsroom battles. Gyllenhaal, in contrast, has a sense of humor so dry it’s almost a mirage, and his compliments are regarded like water in the desert.
James Lileks, a McGuire hire who now writes the paper’s “Daily Quirk” column, observes, “Tim did not have a door; he had ferns. There was an open area at the back, and I’d go knock on the ferns. Anders has a door. I like the idea of a guy with a door. That shows that there actually is a more classic approach to management.”
According to Kent Gardner, an administrative editor for both men who retired this year, “Tim involved people more. Anders has a more top-down, sort of a militaristic approach that has its advantages in accomplishing things. He works more closely with a smaller leadership group.”
That approach has increasingly alienated many in the newsroom. Toward the end of last year, Gyllenhaal held a series of staff meetings to focus goals for 2006. After a lengthy soliloquy, he opened the floor to questions. There was one question—just one, from a room full of reporters.
After the meeting broke up, Gyllenhaal approached a group of metro-section writers and asked them about the silence. Rochelle Olson, the paper’s hard-nosed Minneapolis City Hall correspondent, bluntly told her boss that they didn’t feel like it mattered, that he regarded as personal attacks their concerns that there was too little watchdog journalism or too much process kudzu. “There’s a sense he’s made up his mind or is never wrong, so it’s not really up for discussion,” Olson says. “What’s frustrating is, we care deeply about the paper, as much if not more than he does, and he doesn’t seem to believe that.”
A dozen reporters I spoke with expressed similar sentiments. In one of our meetings, I asked Gyllenhaal if such dissatisfaction mattered to him. “Of course it matters,” he replied, somewhat taken aback. “The newsroom has to change, and that’s always painful. But we had more than a dozen different groups working on the redesign, tons of ways to collaborate.”
The frustrations are not universal. “I’ve always found his door to be open,” says Lileks. “I can walk in, knock on the doorframe. He’ll break from whatever task is eating up his minutes, point to a chair, and find out what’s up. He doesn’t give the sense of someone who’s tapping his foot and waiting. My views have been considered thoughtfully. He strikes me as a man who is not going to say something just to get you out of the room.”
Eric Black, whose “historical perspective” beat adds context to the news, says that when he proposed the development of “The Big Question,” an expansive, substantive print-website combination of context and discussion, Gyllenhaal was helpful—within his emotional range. “I think the best word is he was supportive,” Black recalls. “There were no hugs…or anything like that.”
Fathers and Sons
The second of six kids, Hugh Anders Gyllenhaal was born in Cleveland in 1951. But he grew up in Pennsylvania, in what he calls “a pretty remarkable place,” a religious community dominated by an 87-year-old medieval-style stone cathedral and a hulking Romanesque castle.
Bryn Athyn, a town of 1,000 or so 15 miles outside Philadelphia, was founded by adherents of Swedenborgianism, a small Protestant denomination rooted in the teachings of the 18th-century Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a man of reason—a famed chemist, mineralogist, and inventor—who announced in midlife that he spoke with spirits. He affirmed the divinity of Jesus, but rejected the concepts of original sin and the notion of eternal judgment; instead, he believed that good works in this life, more than faith, determine one’s fate after death.
Gyllenhaal’s parents, Hugh and Virginia, were Bryn Athyn natives and lifelong Swedenborgians who sent their children to the denomination’s private schools. Gyllenhaal’s siblings say the faith’s practices are disciplined, logical, and cerebral. Anders’s older brother Stephen—a Hollywood director and father of the actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal—describes the religion as “hyper-rational.” A younger sister, Liza Bennett, remembers it as “this very complicated religious system based on 32 books translated from Latin—not very well. There are a lot of numbers. It’s something you have to put a lot of work into.”
Swedenborgian doctrine isn’t conservative per se, Anders says, but Bryn Athyn was. “It was a pretty sheltered religious community,” says Bennett. “We weren’t supposed to communicate or even socialize with the outside world. I remember in third grade, they asked in class if we were donkeys or elephants. I was the only donkey in the room.” (Though raised by parents with Democratic leanings, these days Gyllenhaal calls himself “very much a ticket-splitter” who “doesn’t have the strong opinions you hear from some. I’m more interested in the debate.”)
Hugh Gyllenhaal was responsible for the family’s unorthodoxy. As an American soldier in World War II, he helped open German concentration camps, then used the GI Bill to get an Ivy League education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he edited the school newspaper. (Ink runs in the Gyllenhaal blood; Hugh’s great-grandfather, Anders Leonard Gyllenhaal, edited the New Swedish-American and Svenska Tribunen, among other papers, in Chicago from 1874 to 1905.) Stephen says his father’s service and education transformed Hugh into “a cosmopolitan,” who later became a private-industry management consultant respected enough to organize government-operation conferences for President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Pursing his professional dreams, Hugh moved his family to Cleveland, New York, and New Jersey, before returning to Bryn Athyn.
So how did such a worldly man wind up in a cloistered place? Hugh’s alcoholism, answers Stephen; his parents “moved back because they were struggling with deep issues they really didn’t understand, and retreated back home to try to work it out.”
Stephen says Bryn Athyn embraced the family, but “it didn’t help with the bigger problem” that absorbed both parents’ energies. Hugh’s drinking didn’t make him violent, but he was unreliable. Stephen recalls that after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, his father simply disappeared for a month.
“To some degree, Anders and Liza and I raised the three younger kids,” Stephen says. “It certainly caused us to be more responsible, sooner, than kids who had more normal families.”
Stephen describes himself as the “crazy son,” while Anders was “a dutiful young man, very loving, and so loyal.” Anders says Stephen’s view of family history is more melodramatic than his; the responsibility took the form of “cooking and chauffeuring,” not teenage parenting.
By all accounts, however, the Gyllenhaal house wasn’t joyless. Music permeated the atmosphere. Hugh sang with the choir at Bryn Athyn’s cathedral, and all of the Gyllenhaal kids were taught to play instruments at an early age. Shortly after returning to the town, Stephen and Anders were invited to join a string quartet with the granddaughters of millionaire philanthropist Raymond Pitcairn, whose castle-like home still stands at the center of Bryn Athyn. Anders graduated from the cello (a “difficult relationship,” Liza remembers) to the guitar and finally, the banjo.
“I always loved the sound of the banjo, and when I first started, I don’t think I realized what a versatile and beautiful instrument it was,” Gyllenhaal says. “It’s been a kind of a journey each step of the way. I began with a very basic instrument, and then at different stages, really worked at it, discovered it was not just a folk and bluegrass instrument but was capable of all kinds of styles of music, including jazz.”
While in Florida, Anders played with “some of the best bluegrass bands” in the state, Stephen says. He found other musicians in North Carolina and, in the Twin Cities, has gigged—“not as often as I’d like”—with the band Long Time Gone.
In 1970, Anders left Bryn Athyn for the wider world, escaping the confines of his hometown and family. He lasted a year at Boston University, and then, flush with freedom, bummed around the country for six months. The journey unlocked the newsman.
Anders says he wasn’t an avid newspaper reader as a kid, but on the trip “I started to collect newspapers, and by the time I got home, I thought this might be something I’d like to try. I started working for a weekly paper, went back to school at a local college just to get back into school, and found I really liked newspapers. I just found, to be in the middle of everything happening, writing about it, out running around—everything about it was really fulfilling.”
He entered George Washington University “very focused on journalism,” and after graduating, cut his teeth at a small newspaper in Virginia. Then family needs resurfaced. Hugh had a heart attack, and Anders returned to Bryn Athyn to help run his father’s management firm.
“After a year, he got better and stronger. And it was clear I was not cut out for the business,” Anders says. “You have to pack a lot of wisdom into management consulting. A 23-year-old just doesn’t have that.”
In the wake of his father’s recovery, Gyllenhaal returned to journalism—and rapidly rose through the print ranks. After a two-year stint with the Atlantic City Press in New Jersey, he was snatched up, at 28, by the big-city Miami Herald as a news reporter. At a paper that was then a jewel in the Knight Ridder chain, he snared a plum writing job, traveling Florida and crafting slice-of-life pieces with the kind of memorable scene-setters he now urges his reporters to write. To wit:
Ever so gently, the men maneuvered a 10-foot pole toward the gator’s head. At the end of the pole dangled a lasso headed for the gator’s mouth. The mouth popped open with another hiss, a bloodcurdling sound full of venom and nightmare. The teeth were numerous and sharp and crooked. They looked well-used. Dozens were missing, lost in half a century of ruling this part of the lake. Tanner leaned cautiously toward the action. ‘Take your time,’ he half-whispered.
Eventually, Gyllenhaal became one of the Herald’s investigative reporters, but it wasn’t long before he began to hunger for something more, careerwise: “How will I spend the second half of my time?” he recalls wondering. “I gradually realized I should try editing, and I really enjoyed it from the very first day.”
Changing caps, Gyllenhaal took a job as editor for a four-reporter, suburban Herald outpost. When management made him chief of the paper’s Fort Lauderdale bureau, he found himself running a newsroom of ambitious, skilled reporters, including several future Pulitzer winners—Don Van Natta and Dexter Filkins, now with the New York Times, and Scott Higham, now with the Washington Post.
“My memory of [Anders] is with this expression on his face, squinting a little bit, skeptical of everything he heard,” Van Natta says. “He made a strong impression on me at an early age…. He was aggressive, smart, and always pushing for the best story possible. He was never satisfied with second-best. I learned a lot from him about not necessarily accepting the first account by a public official, to do truth-testing.”
Gyllenhaal believes the skepticism is a result of professional experience, not his upbringing. “You’re taught to truth-test in this business,” he says. “You’re taught to question your assumptions.”
Van Natta remembers Gyllenhaal as benevolent as well as tough-minded. Once, after a Friday-night scramble to finish a complicated piece for the Sunday paper, the editor showed up on Monday with a bottle of booze as a post-work reward—for his reporters. (Family history aside, Gyllenhaal says he is a moderate, social drinker.)
While in Florida, Gyllenhaal met and married Herald reporter Beverly Mills. The couple had a son, Sam, and daughter, Grey, and then, in 1991, moved to Beverly’s native state, North Carolina, so Anders could take a metro editor’s job at the Raleigh News & Observer, which was then privately owned. In 1995, the McClatchy Company, a California-based newspaper chain, bought the company (foreshadowing the company’s 1998 acquisition of the Star Tribune). Within two years, Anders had become the Raleigh paper’s first McClatchy-installed editor.
In 1998, Anders was again called upon to be the family rock. Beverly was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Anders says she was “seriously ill when the disease was diagnosed, sick a good part of that year.” He plugged away with the help of “a vast support network” of friends, relatives, and coworkers until Beverly’s health improved. (Medication has alleviated most of the symptoms, he says.) Beverly has since returned to full-time work: she co-writes a syndicated column, “Desperation Dinners,” that appears in the Star Tribune and other papers, and she has just released her third cookbook.
Gyllenhaal says dealing with his wife’s illness was the sort of experience that “presents you with mortality, especially when you face an incurable condition.” Faith and family helped him through the ordeal, he adds. After marrying Beverly, he became a Presbyterian—the only Gyllenhaal sibling to embrace organized religion, according to his sister Liza. In Minnesota, the Gyllenhaals, who live in an older section of Edina, attend Edina Community Lutheran Church, where Anders has played in a dueling banjo-guitar arrangement of “Deliverance From Evil.”
“Fair and Complete”
Much of Gyllenhaal’s strategy at the News & Observer foreshadowed his Star Tribune efforts: a redesign (more modest than the Strib’s), new sections aimed at readers in fast-growing communities, and a push for improved storytelling and stronger writing throughout the paper. Judy Bolch, who worked as managing editor with Gyllenhaal at the News & Observer, calls him a “strong journalist” determined to be “fair and complete” in stories. “He is unusually adept at spotting holes or faulty arguments,” Bolch says. “He’s unusually good at keeping a staff on course, moving toward the goals it set. That actually was the thing that impressed me the most about him. He doesn’t get distracted and forget what we said we were going to do.”
Business reporter Chris Serres, who worked for Gyllenhaal in Raleigh before coming to the Strib, says, “I’ve always felt he’s moved things forward.” Gyllenhaal creates an environment, says Serres, “where everybody’s rethinking what they do all the time, why they’re there, what they’re doing there—not just taking themselves and positions for granted.”
Star Tribune publisher Keith Moyer found Gyllenhaal an attractive candidate for the top slot at the paper because of his focus and drive. From the start, because of his experience within McClatchy, Gyllenhaal was “the leading horse” to replace McGuire, Moyer says. Citing his accomplishments, the publisher points to a 1996 public-service Pulitzer for a series on factory hog-farming, published while Gyllenhaal was managing editor. “I knew he was trying some new and interesting stuff, reader forums, talking to the community, doing a better job at trying to create a dialogue with community, town hall meetings, round tables, reader involvement,” Moyer says. “I also liked the fact that Anders worked for the Miami Herald, a really respected paper, as the bureau chief in one of the most competitive bureaus. He had a good hard-news background but was well-rounded on the features side.”
Moyer says when he called Raleigh to inquire about the editor’s availability for a position at the Star Tribune, Gyllenhaal’s reply was “Absolutely, I’d like to talk to you.” The publisher adds with a chuckle, “It is the biggest paper in the company, with the most resources.”
Despite the Strib’s recent readership falloff, Moyer is optimistic that Gyllenhaal’s reforms will show bottom-line results. Earlier this spring, Moyer said that yet-to-be-released internal audits showed “increased circulation, things like single-copy sales up and stops [cancellations] down. I feel we’re trending in the right direction.” (It should be noted that since the October rollout, the paper has more aggressively marketed itself: for instance, the company briefly cut the Sunday newsstand price from $1.75 to $1.) Still, according to first-quarter McClatchy financials, Strib net advertising revenues dropped 2.3 percent compared to the same 2005 period.
University of Minnesota professor Dan Sullivan, a former director of strategic development and chief research officer with the Star Tribune, says, “Any time you do a redesign, your core readers may be a little bit disgruntled, because people don’t like change. The history has been you rarely lose many. You won’t know for at least a year whether the redesign has been a success.”
But in many ways, response to the redesign has been less noisy than the response to Gyllenhaal’s most controversial change: the hiring of a conservative columnist.
A Sharp Right
When Gyllenhaal joined the Strib four years ago, the paper, incredibly, had just one news columnist. Opinion-spewers are among the best-read writers in any paper—“crucial,” he says—and most papers have several in their local news section. Under McGuire, the Strib seemed almost embarrassed by them; they had been banished from the metro-section front page years ago.
The new editor beefed up the roster. In fall 2003, he swiped away the gadfly Nick Coleman from the Pioneer Press. Gyllenhaal, who clearly relishes Coleman’s lifelong local knowledge and aggression in presenting it, also indulged his business side; as he told his own paper in a news article on the hiring, “When we saw the chance to bring him back, and bring readers with him, we jumped at it.”
Getting a leg up on the competition, however, meant having two left feet; Coleman and incumbent columnist Doug Grow are both liberals—50-something white male liberals. Gyllenhaal had wanted a conservative to be his first addition—“It was an obvious way to improve the paper,” he says—but Coleman’s unexpected availability scrambled the schedule—and saddled the Strib with a glaring ideological imbalance.
Looking for a voice on the right, Gyllenhaal first scoured his own staff, turning to James Lileks, a 40-something white male libertarian whose gymnastic wordsmithing had livened up the Variety section and who, in his spare time, pens a blog with a conservative following. “There was chatter, discussion, feelers,” Lileks remembers. “I thanked him very much for it and declined.” He adds, “I don’t think I would’ve been reliably conservative.”
Gyllenhaal eventually found reliability in spades: Katherine Kersten. The lawyer/activist/polemicist was a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, a Twin Cities conservative think tank, and she had been a Strib op-ed columnist for eight years—until she and two other (nonconservative) writers were dumped in an op-ed housecleaning in 2003.
Kersten’s column-writing tenure, provocative stances, longtime activism on behalf of conservative causes, and myriad contacts on the right gave Gyllenhaal confidence that she could do the job. She recalls that Gyllenhaal emphasized “storytelling rather than just public-policy analysis” in discussions about the position.
“I am very impressed with Anders. And I am not somebody who was known to give the Star Tribune lots of praise in the past,” Kersten says. “There’s a real integrity there; he saw a real need [for a conservative viewpoint], and I don’t know that there had been an understanding of the importance of having that role filled.”
Many in the newsroom felt journalistic integrity didn’t fare so well—not because of Kersten’s viewpoints, they insist, but because she lacks independence. Most reporters I talked to said they wished that the Strib had diversified earlier, but they fault Gyllenhaal for hiring an activist with no reporting experience, without enough skepticism for the facts on both sides of an argument.
Grow and Coleman, despite their lefty proclivities, love tweaking DFL pols, but Kersten has yet to acknowledge any deficits in the Republican Party or the positions of the political right. Problem? Let the rookie journalist be, Gyllenhaal responds: “She’s still starting out. Let’s see what else she has to say.”
Gyllenhaal sweeps aside reader objections to Kersten’s logic, sourcing, and factual completeness as its own selective reality. “She’s probably getting more reaction than the dozen columnists across the whole paper,” Gyllenhaal says. “She definitely has an edge to her. She’s introducing ideas and opinions and perspectives that the paper hasn’t had. Those all add up to an important new element in the paper.”
If nothing else, the editor fulfilled one of his primary goals: to make the Strib less boring. Kersten is must-read for conservatives—and the dirty little secret is that she’s also assiduously followed by liberals, who fill the Strib’s letters pages with outrage and occasional invective, assuring her a regular position in the website rankings of the paper’s most-read stories.
“Soft” and “Fluffy”?
Nearly as controversial as the addition of Kersten are the changes to the paper’s front page, which critics decry as unfocused, superficial wrapping paper for whatever substance remains inside.
Gone are the days when the most important government story got the biggest headline and most space; now, the page is as likely to be dominated by human-interest or sports stories surrounded by a half-dozen or more “teasers” above the Star Tribune nameplate and a “Have You Heard?” list of entertaining briefs.
Columnist Grow concedes that the redesign improved many aspects of the paper. But he, too, criticizes the Page One makeover. “The front page still is very disturbing,” he says. “It makes us look fluffier than we are.”
Says Sullivan, “You hear lots of people grumbling on the street—‘It feels soft. It feels different. I can’t figure out what the important stories are.’ Most of it deals with Page One of the paper.”
When I brought such criticisms to Gyllenhaal, he was sympathetic. “We’ve trained readers for 139 years what the front page ought to be; as that evolves, some of them are going to say, ‘I don’t want to see this change.’
“But—and this is an important point—for a century and a half, the front page has been reserved for only the strongest story around the world and the state. That’s what we crowded onto the front page, and that tended to make the front page a place for very institutional news. That is important, but doesn’t work as well in a time when the news cycle is constant, when our Internet site is changing every 15 seconds. When people get the paper, they are not relying on it to give them all the news; they’re relying on it to give them a lot of other things.
“So the front page should be like a cover of a book; it has a lot of news on it, but it also has to get across all that’s in this vast [compilation] of information. You are trying to lead people into the paper deeper. You’re trying to portray the variety that is most people’s lives.”
That diversity is something Monica Moses, a former deputy managing editor for visuals who oversaw the redesign, champions. (This spring, Moses was named executive director of product development, a position in the publisher’s office.) “I think the whole idea that newspapers should be serious and focus primarily on public-policy issues is puritanical,” she says. “The newspaper needs to reflect the way people live. People live in a way that involves a huge array of things now, and stories that get people to talk are a piece of that. I guess I subscribe to the Will Durant school of journalism. Will Durant was a historian who basically said, ‘Yeah, you can say history is about great people, or you can say it’s about how people lived in a given time,’ and I think that’s what journalism ought to be. I think it can be more subtle, more human, and less institutional than it’s been.”
University of St. Thomas journalism professor Mark Neuzil sees the redesign as a success, if the aim is to win back younger readers. He recently brought a group of students to the paper’s offices on a field trip. “We had spent a fairly intensive week or two before that talking about what they wanted to see in the paper, what they thought of it,” he says. “No surprise—the students liked the redesign way better.”
In fact, youth culture played a curious—perhaps even notorious—part in the development of the Strib’s new front page. In 2004, the newspaper and the Northwestern University-based Readership Institute, an industry-funded think tank, piloted a project to design a newspaper expressly aimed at readers under 30. Experience Newspaper, as it was titled, quickly became the subject of notoriety and derision.
A Strib team led by Moses worked from research indicating these “young adults” could be lured by “experience hot buttons”—stories that looked out for their direct interests, gave them something to talk about, and offered humor and fun.
Ordered to break all the rules, the team radically remade an actual Strib front page from February 2005. They dumped a story about President Bush repairing relations with international allies and replaced it with a short, boxed, people-on-the-street piece that asked if America should export democracy through the world (granted, it was a teaser linked to a more traditional story inside). A feature on a middle-aged woman walking every block in Minneapolis was dropped for an article bearing the headline “Should poker be a crime?” about efforts to legalize Texas Hold ’Em tournaments. Finally, a story about local politicians who maintain blogs was replaced with an article on identity theft—an issue judged more interesting to young readers. The last item was illustrated with a photo of a hapless identity-theft victim: the socialite Paris Hilton.
For a bunch of professionals on edge about the future of their profession and of their paper, the idea that a news story was being flagged with a picture of a featherweight celebrity perhaps best known for starring in an amateur sex video posted on the Internet was too much. At one presentation, an editor tried in vain to get disgusted staffers to ignore Hilton’s presence on the page and concentrate on the redesign’s larger principles—a little like asking someone not to think about pink Chihuahuas.
Gyllenhaal, too, had to fend off criticism—from peers at other papers. In a piece in The American Editor, he noted that one colleague “wrote a pointedly dismissive column, saying that nothing was going to run in the Star Tribune from now on that didn’t meet one of the three experience concepts tested out, which is, of course, not the case.”
When I mentioned the Hilton episode to Moses, she said, “If there’s a reason why the Experience experiment became a muted part of the paper—it’s because of that. When we showed prototypes to core readers—older readers, heavier readers—some of them did say, ‘That’s sensationalistic.’ You’ve got to point out that connection to reader’s lives, but you’ve got to be tasteful about it. You’ve got to be moderate about it.”
Later, Gyllenhaal admitted frustration with the editor’s critique: “It epitomized the difficulty you have when you’re trying to improve and change and reinvent what amounts to a religion. Journalism has a lot of religion to it, and that’s a good thing. That means that there are beliefs and there’s passion—and in many people’s minds, absolute truths—yet that means as we try to figure out how to use our strengths and figure out how to change and improve, you can run into fundamentalist thinking.”
Gyllenhaal clearly has the respect of the leaders he’s chosen. Kate Parry, who was political editor at the Pioneer Press before becoming the Strib’s reader representative, calls Gyllenhaal “the smartest manager I’ve ever worked for.”
She also praises Gyllenhaal as a reformer who has empowered women editors. “I think he looked at the management structure of the newsroom [when he arrived] and realized it was very white and male-dominated, and in order to reflect your community you need managers who reflect the diversity of the Twin Cities,” Parry says. “People had told him that the newspaper, the printed product, seemed quite male.”
Early in Gyllenhaal’s tenure, Parry notes, only white men ran the paper’s afternoon planning meetings. But that quickly changed. “It’s much more diverse than it was even when I got here, and I’ve only been here a little more than a year. The people who ran the meetings when I got here…it’s not that they’re clueless about what women are reading, it’s just a nuance of difference no matter who’s on the job. Now, I notice he’s got [deputy managing editors] Nancy Barnes and Mi-Ai Parrish running the [daily news] meetings, so it makes it a little more interesting.”
Indeed, the boss believes in moving all the levers at his disposal. In 2005, one-fifth of Gyllenhaal’s newsroom switched jobs. He champions “alternative story forms”—for example, question-and-answer pieces that journalists often disdain as lazy transcription but readers love to read. He has pushed for more headlines, photos, and graphics in each edition. The new Strib is more visually engaging. And research shows that good design elements get readers to read deeper into stories, Moses notes. “Packages” containing charts, pictures, sidebars, and pull quotes can be marvelously effective.
But the price is fewer words overall. Using a prototype, reporter Steve Brandt estimated each redesigned page contains 12 percent less copy than before. (Nearly every reporter I spoke to said they’re now told to write shorter articles.) And putting all the elements together requires its own sort of planning and production concert between editors, word and graphics reporters, photographers, and the copy desk. The details still bedevil the Strib. Culture reporter Bill Ward recalls a training video that showed reporters how a “talker” story—an offbeat feature so interesting you’ll talk about it over the water cooler—should move through the production pipeline. “It started with a meeting of three to four people, then went to one that was six to eight, then to one with about a dozen people,” Ward says. “The story wasn’t worth that.”
Such Lilliputian entanglements may help explain why the Strib still produces too few exposés for a paper of its wealth. No other Minnesota news organization has more people and resources to throw at the toughest stories: the Strib’s newsroom is more than twice the size of the Pioneer Press’s, and four times the size of Minnesota Public Radio’s. Yet the paper hasn’t earned a Pulitzer in 16 years.
Hoping to juice the paper’s award prospects, Gyllenhaal has put investigative projects under the thumb of Barnes—an ass-kicker best known for injecting more local copy into the Strib’s business section. And he concedes that the Strib has been “slow and plodding” in recent years. “We’re not producing as many high-end projects, which is part of our challenge,” he says. He points out that the paper has won Premack Awards for Minnesota public-service journalism in each of the past three years—an honor the Strib hadn’t regularly bought home until recently. But such victories fall short of the paper’s natural goal, a Pulitzer.
Awards aren’t the full measure of a newspaper, of course. Any editor can tell you that day-to-day excellence is the ultimate challenge. Surely, Gyllenhaal deserves credit for inclusiveness. He has aggressively broadened the paper’s outlook—installing women in management positions, adding a conservative columnist to the news pages, and creating a paper that better speaks to the diversity of experience in our state. He has given readers a more human view of themselves—the Strib’s redesign certainly caters to our need to understand family relationships, personal finance, home appliances, Internet technology, and iPod innovations.
Investigative work, however, has been the crowning achievement of newspapers for more than a century. From the early muckrakers to Woodward and Bernstein, print reporters have shed light on unrecognized problems. Exposés have helped make newspapers a daily must-read—as well as a pivotal, powerful player in American democracy.
If Gyllenhaal intends to preserve the Strib’s readership and restore his profession’s “glory,” he may have to look beyond stories about common people, beyond the broadened conversation, to the kind of stories that merit Pulitzers. The newspaper needs to go beyond serving up “resources” and “service-oriented” items that can increasingly be found in books and magazines, on the Internet and TV talk shows. A well-funded, well-staffed newspaper can do what no book or magazine or blog publisher can do, what few TV news programs can do. It can call out corruption, cronyism, and problems that degrade our civic life in a piercingly responsible way. When it comes to proclaiming that news, Gyllenhaal holds the biggest bullhorn in the state. It’s certainly no time to mumble.
David Brauer is a Twin Cities journalist whose work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and other publications; most recently, he edited the Southwest Journal and Downtown Journal in Minneapolis. He is also an occasional media commentator for MPR.