Last week at the Strib brought to mind that old expression from the Vietnam War: "We had to burn the village to save it."
First came "Black Monday," during which the paper announced it would cut 145 jobs—7 percent of its workforce—including 50 positions within the newsroom. Next was "Blue Tuesday," a depraved corporate ritual in which affected staffers were invited to meet—sans union rep—with editors Nancy Barnes and Scott Gillespie.
"It's like a death in the family," says A&E editor Tim Campbell, who describes the turmoil as "one of the worst weeks in my working life." "People were asking each other, 'Have you gotten a note?' and 'Who's it from?' because that would tell you whether the news might be good or bad. It's like waiting for the puff of black smoke."
Among the expected casualties of reassignments, according to newsroom sources: Larry Oakes's Duluth bureau, Linda Mack's architecture coverage, Doug Smith's outdoors column, Jay Weiner's sports-finance beat, Jeff Shelman's coverage of the Golden Gophers, Neil Justin's national TV writing, James Lileks's humor column, Doug Grow's metro column, Sara Glassman's fashion coverage, Jeff Strickler's film criticism, and Randy Salas's internet column.
"If you care about online, if you care about reaching out to young people—which is another thing they often talk about—then getting rid of something like Web Search and getting rid of your TV critic seems counterintuitive," says Justin, whose TV job was the subject of a last-minute appeal Friday by Campbell.
Editor Barnes concedes that "it's been a difficult week," but says her mission remains the same: more online, more in-depth coverage like the paper's 3M investigation, and more feet on the ground in communities outside Minneapolis. "Bloomington is the fifth-largest city in the state...we don't cover Bloomington," Barnes says. "People who live outside of Minneapolis have to see coverage of their communities."
Yet Pam Miller, the paper's religion writer, argues that the staffing changes may not bring the benefits Barnes touts. "There's going to be less to read, unless you want to read about Woodbury traffic," says Miller, who adds that the paper hasn't exactly won over locals with the recent hiring of publisher Par Ridder. Ridder left the competing St. Paul Pioneer Press under suspicious circumstances with a laptop allegedly bearing trade secrets, according to a pending court case. "It's embarrassing," Miller says. "I cover the religion beat and the first thing people ask me about is Par Ridder."
The one bright spot of the week came with the hiring of veteran Chicago Sun-Times features editor Christine Ledbetter. Reached via cell phone, Ledbetter says that she wasn't aware of the impending changes at the Strib, nor was she consulted about who would be reassigned, but she remains committed to putting out a top-flight section. "It's a troubled time to go to Minneapolis," Ledbetter concedes. "But I've sort of been through this at the Sun-Times, and I know how to get through it, and I'm confident that we'll do that."
On Thursday, reporters left their desks for a 10-minute protest at the park across the street from the newspaper's downtown Minneapolis office, which is itself threatened by a stadium proposal that would create a 50-yard line running through the newsroom. Speakers at the protest included Jaime Chismar, one of three union reps for the Star Tribune, who gave a fiery call to arms that religion writer Miller describes as "like Sally Field in Norma Rae."
This week opened with a four-and-a-half-hour negotiation between union and management over the terms of the buyout. On Monday at 4:00 p.m., the Newspaper Guild met with a packed house of more than 300 workers, many of whom were unclear on the terms of the offer. "You'd think that a company that specializes in communication would communicate better with its employees," says Chismar.
If management is unable to scrounge 50 voluntary buyouts, it will likely resort to layoffs that would be conducted in order of seniority—meaning the paper's youngest and most diverse hires will be the first sacrificed on the altar of economic necessity.
"That troubles me greatly, especially as the Twin Cities gets more and more diverse," says TV writer Justin.
Being that newsrooms are stocked with cynics, there has been a fair amount of gallows humor at the Strib during this bleak week. One popular newsroom game involves suggesting songs for a proposed soundtrack. One recent addition: "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash. "If I go there will be trouble/And if I stay it will be double." —Kevin Hoffman
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Early demises at the Pulse
Pulse of the Twin Cities publisher Ed Felien announced two weeks ago that he's pulling the plug on his 10-year-old weekly and relaunching it as an online-only news entity. Now word comes of Felien's first maneuvers at the helm of Pulse 2.0: He fired the only guys on staff who knew how to update his website.
"It seems like that might be an issue next week when Pulse becomes a web-only publication," says graphic designer and writer Max Sparber, who, along with music editor Steve McPherson, was unceremoniously dumped from the paper. (Disclosure: Both have written for City Pages.) The move was especially strange considering Sparber and McPherson were already planning to quit this week when Pulse ceases its print publication.
In an email to Sparber, Felien said he didn't want to fire him or McPherson, but was forced to after they "sabotaged" Pulse's website. Their infractions: Sparber updated the front page a day late, and McPherson, anticipating the paper's demise, renamed Pulse's music blog in order to continue posting new content.
"His reasoning was nonsense," says Sparber, who speculates the firings were actually a result of Felien's unwillingness to fork over unemployment and vacation pay. (Felien refused to comment.)
It's possible that McPherson and Sparber are simply the broken eggs of the new online Pulse omelet. But Sparber thinks Felien is the one who's cracked.
"I'm sure the current publishing climate is part of the reason why the paper is closing," he says. "But I suspect the rest of the story is one of simple incompetence." —Chuck Terhark
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