A Good Year on Portland Ave.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Strib

For years, it's been the same Sunday ritual. I awake a little later than usual, brew something stronger than usual, and then wander back to bed to while away the morning reading the Sunday papers.

I've typically spent this sacred time with the New York Times. When I was just about done, I'd rifle quickly through the Star Tribune, mainly to see if any news had broken overnight.

Over the last year, though, I frequently find myself leaving the Times in its blue sleeve until I've spent a couple of cups of coffee with the Strib, which is no longer the hit-and-miss hodgepodge of leftover news, fluffy features, and stuffy cultural commonplaces it once was. From week to week, the Sunday paper features at least one piece of fresh, meaty writing, characterized by some combination of in-depth reportage, above average prose, and thoughtful analysis. The visual presentation is cleaner, and the scope of coverage across sections is wide-ranging and often surprising. Perhaps most noticeable, more stories are landing on the front page without being watered down by apprehensive editors.

Last week's three-part special report on the Parker Hughes Cancer Center is a prime example. Rolled out on that Sunday's front page, the series (by staff writers Maura Lerner, Glenn Howatt, and Paul McEnroe) is a painstakingly documented, artfully packaged investigation driven home by magazine-style anecdotes--the most powerful broken out in shorter, complementary stories.

Last September, there were reports of the state investigating Parker Hughes for receiving kickbacks for bogus referrals and allegedly mistreating patients . So last week's takeout was technically not a scoop (in fact, reporters at other media outlets in town will tell you that disgruntled patients and state regulators have been actively "shopping" the tale); but that is precisely why Lerner, Howatt, and McEnroe's work stands out.

Two years ago, the Star Tribune would very likely have taken its cue from the Minnesota Attorney General's office and waited for data to be officially released or leaked in conjunction with the official investigation before filing follow-up stories. This time, sensing that something larger lurked beneath the initial complaints, the paper did the nuts-and-bolts reportage necessary to make the story its own. Not only that, they took on the Cancer Center, well known for its feel-good ads and venerated as a beacon of hope, just a few days before Christmas, when most regional newspapers run photographs of Santa Claus.

Some readers took offense to the timing. And Parker Hughes, which refused to comment on the story's most damning allegations, has accused the paper of sensationalism. Predictable reactions, yes--and in years past, institutional sensitivity to this sort of "controversy" kept a number of stories buried deep inside the paper or ignored entirely.

Stories like the academic scandal in the University of Minnesota Men's Basketball program, which reporters at the Strib reportedly knew about, but were discouraged from chasing until the bad news was broken by the Pioneer Press; complex, thoughtful profiles on local power brokers, from Red McCombs to Tim Pawlenty, who have traditionally been treated like celebrities instead of potentially controversial decision-makers; stories about race relations, economic disparity, and various other urban maladies that have typically been the domain of smaller neighborhood weeklies or the alternative press.

Of course, the balls-out approach taken in the Parker Hughes investigation is still more the exception than the rule. The bulk of the Strib's daily news coverage, especially in the city's most volatile neighborhoods, reads as though the reporters parachuted in from suburbia to take a snapshot. Outside of the editorial page, there's not enough sophisticated analysis imbedded in local coverage. And much of the paper still has a gratingly provincial tone (the Variety section, for instance, reads like a shopper in Woodbury).

The paper's newfound spirit, however, is hard to ignore--especially on Sundays, when coverage is just a bit tougher, the focus a little tighter. And, if you believe the internal memos being circulated at the Strib, that's exactly what management wants to see more of in 2004.

"The paper is ultimately judged on its major enterprise, work that makes a difference in our communities," one such missive reads. "We are establishing some new approaches to enterprise with the goal of producing at least a dozen major projects a year, as well as at least four that change the course of events in one way or another."

According to veteran reporters and frontline editors at the Star Tribune, improvements in the heft and breadth of the Sunday paper can be traced to September 2002, when newly hired executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal created an assistant managing editor position to oversee Sunday editions and promptly hired Mi-Ai Parrish away from the San Francisco Chronicle to fill the job. Until that time, the bulk of Sunday's editorial content came together in an ad hoc fashion, depending on the news cycle and the whims of various section editors. There was no central command and no sense of urgency or purpose.

Some rank-and-file reporters feared that the feature-oriented Parrish lacked an appreciation for hard news, fueling a concern that the Sunday paper would look even more like one giant style section--an increasingly inflexible one, too, much like a monthly magazine. It didn't help matters when Parrish was asked during the interview process how she would respond to a breaking news story such as a plane crash: She reportedly told a roomful of skeptical journalists that "any idiot can cover a plane crash."

In her freshman year, though, Parrish has won over the grizzled newsies, who now more than ever covet the marquee spots in her weekend edition. "She has a natural feel for how the entire paper looks, and a genuine interest in giving a wide variety of subjects prominent play," says one longtime feature writer at the paper. "It's a big reason that people all across the newsroom have stepped up their game."

Parrish's boss, Anders Gyllenhaal, is also winning over those skeptics initially put off by his iffy people skills. Unlike his predecessor, Tim McGuire--who retired as the paper's editor in June 2002--Gyllenhaal is analytical and aloof. One longtime reporter likens his management style to that of the Washington Post's famed Ben Bradlee: "He's one of those guys who throws a grenade in the middle of the room and then watches to see how everyone will react. He wants to be above the fray, but cause the fray, and that's created a sort of creative tension around here."

McGuire and his managing editor Pam Fine (who resigned in the spring of 2002) preferred to be involved in the minutiae of almost every story, and were a constant presence on the newsroom floor whether needed or not. They were also skittish about taking swings at venerated institutions, whether it was the Minnesota Twins or the Catholic Church. As their tenure wore on, McGuire in particular became increasingly fixated on process (reorganizing departments into teams, creating layers of management), all of which made it difficult to get controversial projects green-lighted. "Right before Tim left, the air in here was just sort of sick," says one of the paper's columnists. "There wasn't any energy."

Gyllenhaal has been inconspicuous but methodical. Besides hiring Parrish and pumping up the Sunday product, he's begun much-needed renovations to the Business and Sports sections, along with the paper's national and international coverage. He's also made a number of high-profile hires, including longtime Pioneer Press columnist Nick Coleman. Still, while the Strib is a better read, the paper has a lot of work to do before its success on Sunday becomes a daily occurrence.

Which may be why, in the next couple of months, Gyllenhaal plans to make a number of moves. In an effort to improve day-to-day news coverage, reporters working for the Metro section, which still suffers from slow-footedness and a lack of in-depth analysis, will be reassigned to different beats. The paper will expand its national desk, investigative team, and online reporting. There will also be more stories from Wisconsin and the Dakotas, filed by a full-time roving reporter charged with breaking regional stories and tying them to national trends.

"The paper has to become even more aggressive," says one editor. "It has to not care if it's seen as a troublemaker or an outsider. Is that who Anders is? Is that why he's doing all of this? It's too soon to tell. No one really knows him. But I'll tell you something, people around here feel like they've been let off a leash--and for now, that's enough."

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