The Devil You Don't Know

Fifteen Star Tribune reporters look to the future of the paper

Fifteen Star Tribune reporters look to the future of the paper



BY G.R. ANDERSON JR. AND STEVE PERRY


It was a dark day in more ways than one when members of the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents Star Tribune newsroom workers, gathered last week on the second day of the new year to discuss the sale of the paper to a buyout firm, Avista Capital Partners. "The meeting was called for 4:00 in this little assembly room just off the cafeteria," remembers Guild unit vice-chair Chris Serres, "and we were all packed in there standing room only. It was dark outside and it was dark in that room. You could barely see the speakers. It created this general ambience of gloom."

Staffers hoping to learn more about where they stood going forward came away disappointed. "There was no real talk about what [Avista's] plan was," adds Serres. "No one knew. They didn't discuss layoffs or buyouts or scenarios for the paper. It was a pretty short, somber meeting."

David Fick

But the absence of information hasn't stopped reporters at the paper from wondering and speculating about the future of their jobs, their paper, and their profession. Between last Wednesday and Friday, we conducted a short phone survey on those subjects with 15 Star Tribune reporters out of the 115 or so who work there—about 13 percent. We asked them for their thoughts on three questions. Then we asked them to answer those same questions on a 1-10 numeric scale—as they felt about them now, and as they believed they would have answered a year ago. (See graph for results.)

And while there's nothing scientific about the cross-section of staff we spoke to, we did take pains to make sure our sample featured young and old, men and women, and multiple ethnicities.

STRIB REPORTERS SEE LESS OPPORTUNITY NOW...


Q: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your own chances for career advancement and job satisfaction over the next three to five years?

Now: 5.3

One year ago: 6.9

AND A DIMMER FUTURE FOR THE PAPER...

Q: How would you rate the chances that your newspaper will improve in quality and usefulness, or at least hold its ground, over the next three to five years?

Now: 5.4

One year ago: 6.3

BUT REMAIN HOPEFUL (OR PATHOLOGICALLY SADISTIC)

Q: Would you encourage your child to go into this business?

7.8

Source: Phone interviews with 15 Star Tribune reporters (out of the approximately 115 employed the paper, or about 13 percent).

1) How would you rate your own chances for career advancement and job satisfaction over the next three to five years?

It's so complex. You look at organizations such as the one purchasing us, and despite their words, their history is to raise profits at all costs and then move on. And as much as I hated the Knight-Ridder thing, it opened up possibilities even for someone older, like myself. I thought, maybe this is the time to try to spend six weeks in Baghdad. That was the bright note—to have the Knight-Ridder international bureaus in the fold. Certainly that was true for the younger people here. Up until the 26th of December, though I disagreed vehemently with the redesign and some of the decisions they made, I had the idea that maybe McClatchy was serious about putting out a chain of products that were special. There was that hope. Now everything becomes a question.

Very low. Since this appears to be another temporary [ownership regime], there doesn't seem to be much chance for advancement in the meantime. I'm not even sure who I'm trying to please. All the agendas that go on in a newsroom make it easy to forget you're supposed to be writing for readers. There's no features editor now. I don't even know who my boss is at this point. Now you've got a new regime coming in that doesn't know the business and doesn't know anybody in the newsroom. How do you advance if nobody knows who you are? It's like applying for your job all over again.

Given where newspapers are heading, I don't think the kind of work that journalists produce now is necessarily going to be what newspapers do 10 years from now. The focus is increasingly on feature-ish, how-to stories, the latest exposés about Carrie Underwood or whoever, wire stories for national and international news, short hits—what they call "talkers," [oddity pieces] that don't really resonate longer than 60 seconds—all this is increasingly happening instead of longer think pieces and in-depth journalism. A lot of us got into this field because we thought we'd expose government corruption and corporate greed. We didn't really get into it to write schlock. And we don't know if we have a place in the future that's coming.

I think that after what's happened with me personally in the last six months, it can only get better. In late June I was summoned to [deputy managing editor] Nancy Barnes's office and told, "We're reassigning you to cops." I've been there at the paper for 19 years. I was a government reporter. There was no talk of what I might be interested in. It was just, you're going to nights. I still can't figure out why this happened.

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