The Little Paper that Won't

Nick Coleman is returning to the Star Tribune after 17 years at the Pioneer Press
Courtesy of the Star Tribune

Over the last couple of weeks, Anders Gyllenhaal, sophomore executive editor at the Star Tribune, has been meeting individually with staffers to talk about "passion," which has recently become an all-encompassing catchword in the newsroom. His impression, reportedly, is that we readers want stories that evoke a strong emotional response, tales written with pathos and cinematic sweep.

Print journalists are a cynical lot with little patience for corporate-speak, so it wasn't surprising to hear that some staff members received Gyllenhaal's orations with equal shares of suspicion and derision--in part because the editor himself is not particularly fiery, and because his edict seemed vague, the sort of managerial hand-wringing that can make for interminable deliberations that rarely result in tangible change.

Then, last week, Gyllenhaal announced that Nick Coleman, considered by many to be the heart of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, would be returning to the Star Tribune after 17 years across the river. At first glance, the deal, which will have the St. Paul native and booster writing general interest columns for the paper's metro section come November, seemed like just another case of those bullies in Minneapolis throwing rocks at their incredible shrinking competitors. Coleman is not the first talented journalist to jump across the river, after all, nor will he be the last, particularly now that executives at McClatchy Co., the Strib's corporate parent, have decided to pursue PiPress patrons in the Twin Cities' eastern suburbs and throughout western Wisconsin.

Coleman's move transcends dollars, cents, and circulation, however. It is emblematic of a fundamental shift in style and attitude at both daily papers. It is a story that features corporate greed, questions of editorial vision, and, yes, even passion--or the absence thereof.


Last Wednesday, the morning after Coleman announced his departure, Pioneer Press editor Vicki Gowler e-mailed staff to let them know she would be presiding over yet another ad hoc meeting to rally the troops. Employees at the paper have absorbed so many body blows over the past year--a few delivered by Gowler herself--that they have turned numb to the pain. Many are past the point of caring.

Last spring, citing budget constraints, the paper laid off its only editorial cartoonist. In the midst of tense labor negotiations between management and members of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, which represents a vast majority of employees in the newsroom, the ouster was further evidence that Knight Ridder, the San Jose-based newspaper chain that owns the PiPress, would do anything to maintain and build unprecedented profit margins.

In late August, after working without a contract for over a year, the Guild had to decide whether to accept a negligible wage increase and an increase in health care premiums or threaten a strike. They ultimately voted to ratify the five-year agreement, which also prevents Guild members from honoring actions taken by smaller, already embattled unions at the PiPress--essentially rendering organized labor at the paper powerless.

Gowler and her managerial peers have since given a lot of lip service to healing the wounds opened and regularly salted during the standoff. For the first time in recent memory, though, veteran reporters in the newsroom no longer believe the PiPress even wants to compete with the Star Tribune--which traditionally has been one of the main reasons why many of the organization's best employees have put up with less exposure, lower wages, and fewer resources.

Worse, Gowler seems incapable of acknowledging that the PiPress is no longer poised to fight head-to-head and has failed to articulate a new mission to inspire her staff or keep the paper's audience. In fact, a popular refrain among longtime staffers is that Gowler's lack of vision and verve has them pining for former editor Walker Lundy, which is telling, since many of those same reporters believe that Lundy, who left St. Paul for an unexceptional stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer, was also a Knight Ridder apologist.

Just before the Guild caved, music columnist Jim Walsh decided to leave the PiPress and join the staff at City Pages. In his first column for this paper in 10 years, Walsh said he left St. Paul "because the thing I know most about this writing life is that a writer needs freedom of mind and autonomy." When Walsh recently returned from a year-long sabbatical at Stanford University, it was clear his employer was no longer interested in letting him stretch out as a writer or a commentator. Unlike Gyllenhaal, it seems Gowler wants less voice in her newspaper, once a hallmark trait, and she is encouraging columnists (the seemingly untouchable Joe Soucheray notwithstanding) to put more people and less color in their prose, which is beginning to yield a product short on distinctive voices.

Even Walsh's harshest critics at the PiPress, who believe his work was sometimes self-indulgent and think he should've been reined in, were horrified by his departure. Walsh is a talent with a legion of loyal readers, and management's inability to acknowledge that reality and negotiate a mutually satisfactory deal signaled an inflexibility and arrogance that have done nearly as much damage as their legendarily high profit goals.

There's no question Coleman was feeling creatively hemmed in, as well, but he says that was not the reason for his departure. Instead, it was the sense, fortified by this last round of ugly contract negotiations, that the quality and long-term health of the Pioneer Press is no longer a corporate priority. "The commitment that Knight Ridder has to the Pioneer Press is looking a little iffy. It's starting to be questioned by the troops," he says. "So a lot of it for me is that I don't want to find out five years from now that Knight Ridder is selling the farm. I mean, there's nothing more hapless than being out of work in your late 50s."

Coleman says Gowler made no effort to counter the Strib's offer. This is odd, if only because it would have given her the chance to tell a flabbergasted staff that she did her best to stop the bleeding. Instead, word among the rank and file is that when Coleman told Gowler he was leaving, she bitterly accused him of betrayal. I left a voice mail for Gowler in the middle of last week to find out whether this was true, and to find out why she didn't try harder to retain Coleman. She has not returned my call.


As staff at the Star Tribune got word of Coleman's hire, there was little in the way of celebration. The decision to hire a 53-year-old white guy with liberal tendencies to write a column in the metro section alongside Doug Grow, another fifty-something lib with skin color to match, actually befuddled a number of people--including Grow, who some believe may be reassigned to a lower-profile beat. "I always assumed, and this is not meant as a criticism of Nick, that they would hire someone with a much different voice; whether it be a female, a person of color, or a conservative," Grow says.

Confusion in the newsroom quickly morphed to anger, not only because a brand-new, high-paying position was created for Coleman while other departments at the newspaper are struggling to do more with less, but because the job was never posted, which offended many longtime writers, especially women and people of color. There was even scuttlebutt, unsubstantiated but illuminating, that Coleman may have signed a package deal so that his wife, PiPress columnist Laura Billings, could come over to the Strib after she completes her pending maternity leave. (Coleman flatly denies the rumor.)

By the end of last week, the Newspaper Guild, which also represents editorial workers at the Strib, was debating whether to lodge an official complaint against the paper for engaging in illegal hiring practices. "It would be more than fair to say that a lot of people are upset," one union rep says. "That's a great job, and there's more than a few people around here who would have done it very well."

As the weeks pass, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Anders Gyllenhaal will do to address this grievance, and what he does with Doug Grow's slot. In the meantime, though, it's clear that Gyllenhaal has decided to feature Coleman in an effort to give the Strib a more recognizable, personable, and passionate voice--one of the few things that, until Gowler took the reins, the PiPress could rightfully claim as a hallmark.

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