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The Devil You Don't Know

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."

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.

I'm cautiously pessimistic. It's nice to be off Wall Street, but the history of these outfits is to strip and flip. We are regarded as a high-cost newspaper, and the way you cut costs in this business is to go after labor. You either go after the union contract which expires in mid-2008, or lay people off. I could retire today, I could walk out of here today with a pension. I'm 55 now and I'd like to stick around to my early 60s, and I will unless my household takes too big an economic hit or things get so shabby here that it's tough to do a respectable job. If they spread the workforce too thin in the newsroom, you lose the expertise and the projects you only get by spending time getting to know people on a beat. If you're spread too thin, you're just going from press release to press conference to what the blogs are writing. What we do is depth, and I just worry about our social and political culture as a state if we don't have that focus and that depth.

I understand that we're in an era of media fragmentation. I was one of the people pushing for the Buzz [buzz.mn]. But when you fragment like that, you really lose some common dialogue about what people are thinking. The newspaper is always going to hell in a handbasket, but this time it's far more tangible, and my feeling on that is mostly coming from the last two weeks.

I'm doing what I always wanted to do. I could continue to do what I've always wanted to do even if it's no longer a newspaper— I can wrap my head around the fact that a guy now can take his laptop into the john and read the paper. It continues to evolve. I'm not as comfortable with newspapers as I was a year ago, though. It's funny how we're considered a dying industry and the Star Tribune made 19 percent profit last year. That's why I was upset when Mr. Pruitt [McClatchy CEO] said we were underperforming at the time of the sale. It's not true. It's going to be rocky. But the cycle will work its way back up.

It's going to be challenging. It's something we'll get through, those of us who want to do it. The vast majority of us who want to do it here will still do it here. I came here in 1993 and the internet didn't really exist like it does now. It has changed everything. It's made so many things possible, but it has also created some challenges for us in the industry. People talk about it in terms of financial strife, but we're still making money, just not as much as Wall Street would like.

A year ago we were watching Knight-Ridder go up for sale. There are things we have to do to keep up with the fractured media. We clearly don't have that figured out yet. People are moving on without us, and we have to accept that and figure out what to do about it.

The trouble is, we've disemboweled ourselves from the chain, and I was looking forward to [going] overseas—there were opportunities through the chain, and now we're a lone wolf. So I'm not sure what it means. Everybody is expecting them to make big cuts and reduce the staff. Even if you're not laid off, I'm not sure if it's a place where you'd want to work.

I know that my bosses really like my work and my attitude. I'm really not worried about a layoff. I'm not worried because I know I'm doing a good job and they like me. And I was impressed with [Avista's editorial manager] Chris Harte. I was one of a few reporters to meet with him, and he has a news background. His heart is in the right place. So I'm going to put my faith in that. People are cynical and we're worried about our jobs, but I think Chris Harte might be a good thing for us.

 

I think the prospects for me are pretty good. It's an eye- opener. It makes me think, do I have another move left in me? Will I have to go somewhere else? This used to be a destination paper. I don't know if that's the case anymore.

A lot of people thought Anders would be here for five years max, and move on. That's what happened. What I didn't expect was that McClatchy would just sell us out. You get the feeling that after the merger of McClatchy and Knight-Ridder, we were important—but all of a sudden we weren't that important. It just seemed like we weren't anchor of the chain anymore. This [sale] was a well-kept secret. I think that's what people are pissed off at: We didn't see this coming. There's a sense of distrust in the newsroom now. We were numb in the newsroom. The numbness to me was how people felt around here when Wellstone died. You can't believe it, but you just go on.

Even before the sale, I had a lot of questions about where we were going and what was in store for me. We've been in the process of trying to put out one of the best newspapers in the country, and we may have come up short. I'm holding out some optimism that this could be a kick in the pants to get us to the next level. I feel better than I did last week. There's a general sense that this is terrible for us, but I'm not so sure that's the case.

Up until a week ago, I was feeling pretty darn good. But the sale is very worrisome. I fear for the entire industry. This is really all I ever wanted to do. I think it's important. It bothers me to think newspapers are no longer more than just a commodity. If I were a travel writer, I'd be concerned.

I think that a lot of people at the [Star Tribune's suburban] weeklies feel it could be really good or really bad. A lot of older people are salivating at the idea of buyouts. So some of us who haven't been here as long might move up. But if it gets to layoffs, we might be decimated at the weeklies. I don't know what the average age of reporters is, maybe it's 63, so for some of us without seniority, it's not a good situation. In terms of morale, the idea of layoffs just freaks everybody out.

I'm cautiously optimistic, primarily because I work in online and that's the direction journalism is going. With the McClatchy sale, we have a lot of technology challenges that we can deal with now. We were having trouble with some of their software, and we had to use it. When we developed our software in-house, we could do a lot more. For instance, on our site, the search function doesn't work half the time, and people couldn't find stories. We had reporters who couldn't find their own stories—they'd have to use Google. All the complaints had nothing to do with what we were doing, but that we were using McClatchy's platform. It was a frustrating year for us online. So the idea that we can develop our own stuff is a godsend. We're excited.

It's a big unknown, that's the thing. There's a possible rosy scenario where they say 18 percent is not too shabby, and they don't fuck with us too much. But it's more likely they wring out every last penny, sell the land, move the offices to Blaine—this is speculation—and we become a suburban shopper rag. That's just as possible. What they have in mind for quality journalism is anybody's guess. They are a private equity group. They could go long-range and say, Hey, you're making money. But they're not known for that stuff. Then again, there's glimmers of hope here. Hope for the best, brace for the worst.

 

2) 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?

I think the likelihood is pretty slim that a group of people who have never owned a newspaper before will figure out what it takes to do good journalism, and will want to pay for good journalism. Obviously this is a financial transaction, and that's it. We've heard the "quality journalism" lectures before, from Pruitt, and they were abjectly false anyway.

I think there's a greater chance we'll cave to the pressures of commercialism and give people nothing but schlock instead of in-depth journalism. This paper is filled with bright, talented people, so I have a hard time believing we'll just cave in. We're certainly not going to go down without a fight. [The owners] could come to the realization that we have to compete by being different, and we're not going to win by trying to be People magazine. At some point, there's a chance we may wake up and realize that readers expect something different when they pick up a newspaper than they do online, and the only way to survive is to give people depth.

 

I think sometimes the mainstream media has an exalted sense of its own worth. There's a lot of good work being done outside the mainstream. You [City Pages] do a better job than us on a lot of in-depth stories. Maybe we [in mainstream media] are just less important now. But we don't want to be like the network news in the 1990s, thinking we couldn't possibly go under because we're too important to people. It took too long for us to recognize our own decline. Up to a year ago, maybe, I think many of us believed everything was just fine. It's kind of like the Roman Empire before it collapsed—everyone thought it was entirely prosperous and stable up to the end.

I'm not sure, because I don't know enough about this Avista group. On the one hand, I thought that maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe they're not your average cutthroat investor group that wants to gut us and turn us out; maybe we'll see a return to independently owned newspapers. I didn't like the direction a year ago, with the redesign and the efforts to pander to young people.

The upside is that we might see a more radical transformation to put the main product on the web. Then the prospects are brighter because you eliminate—and I say this as a union guy—but to eliminate costs, a lot of the cost is getting the paper out to the people. Economically, though I'd hate to see the job loss, one idea is to give every reader a wireless laptop. If we can focus more of our costs into the news-gathering side as opposed to the news distribution side, we could improve. That assumes an owner who is in it for the long haul and not the short-term flip.

I still believe in newspapers. I'm kind of an old fogey in that regard. There are a lot of ways we could better without major investment, just by taking our readers more seriously and by modifying some elements of the new design to make it easier to do good journalism. I think Gannett has the right idea now in terms of trying to write for the people who actually read the paper, rather than writing for people who don't read the paper and insulting those who do in the process.

I got here 10 years ago and I think it's gotten better. Papers are always evolving. We'll continue to improve. You have to change with the times. Sometimes papers are slow to change. But we've been on it. With the internet and our willingness to embrace online and podcasting, we've been a part of it. Even Sid [Hartman] has a podcast, so you know that something's up.

I think the chance for our product to improve is actually pretty good. Being successful is different now than it was 10 years ago. Now people expect to go to the website and see something fresh up at 10:00 p.m. before they see it on the TV news. They expect new stuff over 24 hours. That's what defines success now. It presents an opportunity for us to be in the cycle, in a way people didn't expect to be 15 years ago. That's good for us. But it's bad in that we're vying for people's attention. Online is not pulling in the kind of money to pay everybody.

You've got to make some bold moves and build the company of the future. That's not going to come just by hiring 30 more people. Some traditional newspaper people will be doing those jobs that are exclusively online now. The fact of the matter is that what you and I think of what's important is not necessarily what people expect from us now. If you and I think it's great but 10 people are reading it, then what's the point? If we are creating something different than we would have 10 years ago and it hits people where they live, then we've done something, and that's how we have to look at it now. That's the goal. That's the thing the traditionalists have to struggle with. I don't want to equate it with selling candy bars, but the reality is, if you're selling what other people are selling, you have to figure out how to sell it in a way that's unique.

There's some hope that they'll reverse the dumbing-down trend from the redesign. Maybe they'll recognize the need for depth and investigative reporting and stop the comic-book aspect of what our newspaper has become.

 

I just don't know. It might not be as bad. McClatchy already cut back, there's old carpeting here, no felt pens, and there's lukewarm water in the bathrooms. So maybe it will get better. There are travel schedules cut. These guys know that the value is in the intellectual property around here. We are what makes it go. If they keep [managing editor] Scott Gillespie, they've got a chance of it getting better. If they put someone else in there, I don't feel as good about it. I'm just waiting to see how it shakes out.

I'd like to think that we'll take this as a challenge to our pride. It's a humbling thing. Maybe this will be a wake-up call. A lot of us were disheartened. The big factor is that someone who's here now might not be here in two months, or 12 months. I don't think they felt that way eight years ago when McClatchy took over. After the redesign there was a whole lot of optimism. There was talk of beefing up our watchdog and investigative stuff. It's a sharp contrast now.

[The future quality of the paper] is a huge mystery. That's the big question. In terms of serving the community, this will be a step back because we are losing the resources that a chain can offer you. And it's a good chain. Despite their ditching us, I have good feelings about McClatchy as a newspaper chain. But we're probably going to lose a bureau in Washington, losing services in Iraq. There may be less commitment to diversity. All those things are on the table.

We have a paper that's been on the fence for a long time between a pretty good paper and a great paper; we've straddled that in the 13 years I've been here. If you talk about the top 20 papers in the country, we're probably on that list. We've moved up slightly not because we've gotten dramatically better, but because other papers have gotten worse. There's still a lot of talent here. We're going to lose some people, so the question is how many of those people are talented. As harsh as layoffs can be, it is a way to clean house sometimes. Buyouts are not the worst thing that can happen to a paper, especially when you have a lot of people who never leave. It just matters how deep this goes. And if there's not a commitment to in-depth stories and reporting and projects, then talented people will leave.

I think [the future of the paper] depends completely on Chris Harte. We've been bought by a company that does off-shore oil drilling, so there's really no alternative but to think of him. We can only hope that he's serious about journalism. Improving? I'd be happy with maintaining. The good thing about the redesign is that we did finally get a Washington section, and of course now we have no Washington bureau. Neither daily in this market has a Washington bureau, and that should scare the crap out of people.

I'm choosing to be kind of an optimist about the whole thing. Nobody is able to solve the newspaper industry's problems, and maybe these guys will be able to solve them. We took a big morale survey last winter, and everybody's morale was pretty low because there's a lot of people who have been here forever, and they were only writing about two stories a month, and there was this feeling after the redesign that a lot of the older people weren't going into the new media online. So maybe it's a chance to get some new blood, because so many reporters have been there forever. A chance to try some new things, to get some young readers. I'm 25, and a lot of people my age wouldn't read the paper. Just because you put Paris Hilton on the masthead, that's not going to solve the problem. So it's kind of disingenuous to say they're going after the younger readers.

That is a tough question to answer. Online is ready to accept a lot of challenges and ready to integrate things we've developed into the main site itself. At the newspaper, a lot of people are becoming more forward-thinking and doing more online media, taking an interest. A lot of people are visiting our side of the building. Avista owns [congressional newspaper] The Hill, I've heard, so people are excited about the info we might get out of that. It doesn't replace the Washington bureau, obviously. I think a lot of the end product might be more influenced by who they choose for editor. It seems like, from the meeting we had, that [Strib publisher] Keith [Moyer] will have a say in that.

 

It's clear McClatchy was going to go after the union, at least. Journalists in general are such codependent enabler types, they don't like to work hard when they think they're being screwed. They get neurotic, and it gets contagious. McClatchy was going to try to chip away and wring some profit out of it, but in a more incremental way.

But there were people in the upper management of the newsroom who still really cared. So there was a balancing act between pleasing Wall Street and doing quality journalism. There were some people who still really felt strongly about it. With the new owner it's anyone's guess. We hoped they were going to care, but I have to say the signs do not look particularly cheerful. They're a private equity firm, in the business of making money for their [investors]. Newspapers are not a growing industry, nobody disputes that. The question is, is it making enough money, and if not, where are you going to make it?

 

3) Would you encourage your kid to go into this business?

Yeah, I still would. It still beats work. I may be made to look a fool 10 years from now. But in some way this institution must exist in a culture such as ours, and there has to be a way to make that commercially successful. Too often we've moved away from much of our fundamental mission—just good old-fashioned beat reporting. I think we undersell our readers. That doesn't mean you write a 15-inch story for every meeting you attend. But at this point our paper lacks importance and it lacks guts, and I think it's because we've become afraid of our own instincts. Ever since I got into this business, I've lived with the idea that I was a dinosaur, because of radio, because of TV, because of the internet. So we rush around asking, how can we attract people who don't read? I think that in the end, it's the wrong question. If we're vibrant enough, if we're telling people things they can't learn anywhere else, we'll succeed. But even some of our newsroom managers are loath to do process stories. Take the [Minneapolis Public] Library—we still haven't done a fundamental dollars-and- cents story about where the money has really gone.

Yeah. I'd say journalism will always be around. It's an honorable profession. I just don't know which way it's going to go. So I'd still recommend it, but I'd also say, "Have a backup plan."

Yes. Would I advise them to work for a mainstream newspaper? No. Would I encourage them to go into journalism? Definitely yes. I think there's a good chance the mainstream newspaper won't really contain much in-depth coverage 10 years from now. But if you mean working for an independent website, freelance writing, or who knows what else, then yes. A lot of bright journalists are losing their jobs now. Don't tell me these people aren't going to find ways to continue their craft outside the realm of conventional newspapers. I can see the day when we have more media than we already do. Why do I come to my office at 9 a.m. and start making calls? Why aren't we all roving about collecting news in a more mobile way? I can see a day when a newsroom will be one-tenth the size it is now, but a lot of people you don't see there will be fanning out and contributing news remotely. I have two kids, and I hope they have the best aspects of a journalist—curious, skeptical, outward-thinking. And I think you also have to like people to be a good journalist. I want my kids to have all those attributes.

Yeah, I would. I've got one that's six now. I still believe in the business. I worry for the profession and the younger journalists. I've been impressed the last few years at the caliber of young people, the interns and young reporters we've had here.

I'm optimistic that there's got to be people who do the job we do. The wild card is, what would be the economics of doing that? Would those be union jobs where you could support a household, or would they be the sort of jobs that continue to contribute to the loss of purchasing power in the middle class of the country? The rich can only buy so many yachts and newspapers, right? One reason I would encourage my children is even if they don't make it or if the economics aren't what they would accept, the skills that go along with being a reporter—research, analysis, writing—are going to be in-demand in the job market generally, or else we're in more trouble than I thought.

 

Journalism includes online as well as writing for newspapers, and it's lucrative—there are lucrative markets out there. I wouldn't discourage him. I'd warn him about some of the things. But I'd certainly say that there's a future here.

I'd strongly encourage my children to do this. Because I think what we do, we show people, we inform the world and entertain, and that's not going to go away. My kids would do much of what I'm doing now, just in different ways. It's a great way to make a living. And the announcement wasn't, "Hey, we're shutting you down." The announcement was, "We're selling you, and people see value in you." And it seems that we're worth something on that level.

I still believe that knowledge is power and the dissemination of information in a digestible format is important. And the mass media is important to the running of a democracy or any kind of society. I don't know what it looks like. But I can't imagine it completely going away.

It's such a fun job. You're always learning and you're always seeing history made. There is something noble about journalism, and you can effect change and shine a light on things. I wish the McClatchy people would have seen that. It really isn't about the bottom-line dollars. When all this bullshit goes on around us, we keep in mind that we work for the people out there. It's a great calling.

The market's really changing. Something like this is a moment. Will the papers now come from your computer? Will it come from your cell phone? There's too much uncertainty now. It's a matter of dollars for [reporting] news, and also figuring how it's going to be delivered. There's this feeling of, "Is this [the end]?"

I love journalism, and it's still going to have an important role. It might not be newspapers, but most days I consider it noble to pursue this. Even this paper, we're still making a 19 percent profit margin. There's going to always be an appetite for gathering and giving information.

I have an eight-year-old who does want to do this. For now I'm going to encourage her because I do believe in this work. It will be in a completely different form, I'm sure. But I don't think the medium matters at this point—it's about getting information out there for the good of a democracy, however naive that sounds. When you talk about readers, I don't think we're losing eyeballs, I think we're losing money. We're losing money because we're giving our product away for free every day on the internet, and we should probably think about how to deal with that.

I don't think so, it would be hard to encourage people to do this. I like my job, but I work with a lot of people and it's a morale issue. They've been in it for 30 years, and they're grumpy and they sit next to you and complain about the business. The media is the scapegoat for everyone's problems. Also, the [reader] emails are really nasty. So I can't recommend this career to just anyone.

I'm still optimistic about the role of journalism in democracy. It will still need to be here to create an informed citizenry. Will YouTube and MySpace take over the world? Maybe. What journalism will be when and if I have kids, I guess it would be okay if they wanted to be a part of that.

If it made my kid happy, I'd say 10. I think there's jobs for journalists, there's always going to be something, but in what form I don't know. For print? I'm not very optimistic, particularly not daily newspapers. They'll be around, though I don't know in what form, and there will be fewer jobs there. They're just not the big dogs they once were.

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