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Strib's offshore-drilling editorial boosts owner's interests

The Strib began overhauling its editorial board nine months ago, so it shouldn’t surprise that certain editorial positions have changed. In general, the page has shucked its rep as a lefty lightning rod; on some days, it’s hard to find a call to action at all.

But a Sunday, June 29, editorial clearly moved away from the paper’s reliably pro-environment rhetoric. Writers pointedly accused offshore oil drilling opponents of “turning the issue into an ill-informed litmus test of environmental credentials. A knee-jerk ‘no’ has equaled a green candidate. A politician wanting to discuss the issue is derided as a pawn of Big Oil. … The snap judgment approach is unfortunate.”

Even though many economists link surging prices to fundamental supply-demand gaps, with new offshore oil years from market, the Strib breathily declared: “Just the possibility that domestic oil supplies are expanding would likely deter speculators, sending prices down.” (Emphasis mine.)

Worried about spills? “Though some environmental advocates dispute this, drilling technology has advanced over the past quarter century. Oil companies can drill more efficiently in deeper water with significantly less risk to the environment.”

But there was one unnoted fact: The company that bought the Strib last year is heavily invested in that technology.

Avista Capital Partners, which raised $2 billion in 2006, has more investments in energy (seven) than its other sectors, health care (six) and media (five). It’s impossible to tell which segment accounts for the bulk of the private company’s revenue, but the company's offshore drilling concentration is undeniable and includes:

Blake Offshore. The Metairie, La.-based company touts itself as “the only remaining privately held Offshore Rig provider left in the United States.” Avista invested $51 million in September 2006.

Frontier Drilling.
The Houston-based Frontier operates and manages “conventional drillships, semi-submersibles and floating production, storage and offloading vessels,” its website says. Avista invested $27 million in the company in September 2006.

Peregrine Oil & Gas.
Another Houston firm, Peregrine “conducts exploration development and production operations in the Gulf of Mexico.” Avista is listed as one of four primary equity investors who pumped in $160 million, though its share isn't specified.

Geokinetics Inc.
A third Houston company, Geokinetics provides shallow-water cable and seismic data “between land and deep marine,” according to its website. Avista invested $100 million in September 2006.

The company’s three other energy sector holdings — Celtique Energie, Manti Exploration and Laramie Energy II — are on-shore companies.

Now, Avista’s holdings and the Strib’s editorial position could be a coincidence. Writing a pro-drilling editorial isn’t beyond the pale; however, not acknowledging the very specific corporate conflict of interest is.

Editorials are the one place in a paper where the business side formally exerts influence: Publisher Chris Harte sits on the editorial board. And while Harte isn’t an Avista Capital partner, he’s a Strib co-owner – the partners’ partner, in other words.

I emailed Editorial Page editor Scott Gillespie to see if Harte played a role in the June 28 editorial; he said he'd "pass" on the question. As I think about it, I’m not sure it matters very much, and establishing direct owner-to-writer influence isn’t really the point, either.

The bottom line is that readers would've been better informed had the editorial included this sentence: “Full disclosure: Star Tribune owner Avista Capital Partners has several offshore drilling investments.” Gillespie declined to offer his opinion on this, too.

Let’s face it, if Strib reporters were writing about another company or powerful pol, they’d eagerly note this level of entanglement. The Strib editorial page should hold itself to at least that standard, which doesn’t demand an actual conflict but merely its perception.

Where does it end? Does the Strib have to append a disclaimer any time it writes about oil or med-tech, or media? When the corporate interests are advanced this precisely, yes.

A couple of side notes:

The editorial preserved the paper's long-held opposition to drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge; I couldn't find any Avista investments in the 49th state, though some of its broader energy-equipment holdings might profit.

Also, my own full disclosure: Two ex-editorial board members, Susan Albright and Steve Berg, now write for Minnpost.com but didn't inspire or inform this piece.

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Comments (7)

Let’s be clear. David Brauer’s employer has an economic interest every time he writes about the Star Tribune. MinnPost views itself as a Star Tribune competitor. It stands to benefit directly from a weakened Star Tribune, something that Brauer clearly has an interest in hastening. Does Brauer state his employer’s interest in each of his frequent, negative columns about the paper? No. Should he? By the standards he puts forth in his latest underreported broadside against the Star Tribune, yes.

Not surprisingly, today’s hypocritical piece begins with a cheap shot, that it’s hard to find a call to action in the editorial pages. David, I thought you read the paper every day for the pointless, commentless Daily Glean? Apparently, you missed some of the very fine work the editorial board has done recently on the bridge investigation, the uproar at the Attorney General’s office, subsidies for Mall of America and Sun Country Airlines, just to name a few topics we’ve covered with the sharp elbows that supposedly are off limits. Our editorials on Lori Swanson played a key role in triggering the legislative auditor’s investigation and calls for reform at the office. Our edits on Sun Country Airlines and the Mall of America went against the interests of two major advertisers by not supporting state subsidies for them. The Star Tribune editorial board may have suffered significant staffing cuts, but the people who continue to work here – Eric Ringham, Lori Sturdevant, Denise Johnson, John Rash, Steve Sack, Tim O’Brien, Lisa Hoff, David Banks, Scott Gillespie -- are easily among the best journalists working today. Your columns continue to denigrate the excellent work they do.

As far as the offshore drilling editorial goes, you’re way off base. Let’s start with your reporting techniques. You only wanted to do an email interview with the editorial board to follow up on the editorial? You didn’t want to talk to anybody in person? Depth reporting does not happen via email and it takes guts to make phone calls to those who will question your conclusions. It makes me wonder how often you do email interviews and do not disclose this to your readers. I also know from my reporting days that you frequently do not attempt to reach those you write about to get your facts straight. Remember the Star Trib’s award-winning Allina coverage that you ripped without reason for another publication? There’s a pattern here.

The editorial itself was the culmination of staff interviews with energy experts recommended by the paper’s reporters. The idea that Avista owners dictated its conclusions is ridiculous and insulting to our staff --- those in editorial and the very talented reporters still in the newsroom.

The editorial’s point remains a strong one – that it’s worth having a discussion about offshore drilling in light of $4 gallon gas and advances in drilling technology. This is something that many on all sides of the political spectrum are saying. I’m not going to apologize for advocating for families suffering from high gas prices. Or, asking for a debate over opening up new domestic oil supplies, something our experts agreed would help drive prices down and get speculators out of the markets. If that makes us “breathy,” so be it. We’re in pretty good company.

As far as disclosure goes, David, heal thyself. By your own standards, your columns require a lot more of them than the meaningless Gray Plant disclosures you put in. Today’s reality, which you should know as a critic, is that most media companies have owners with vast investment interests. Do these newspapers, TV stations and other outlets disclose this every single time they write about these topics? Has MinnPost ever disclosed its founders' and funders’ vast investment interests when it writes about various topics? No.

Your reporting was weak. Your motivation, suspect. Your conclusions, circumstantial. Were this an editorial, I’d be forced to conclude with an uncomplimentary summary graf about your reporting integrity and trustworthiness.

Jill Burcum
Star Tribune Editorial Board

Jill - everyone's entitled to their opinion - thanks for yours. I'll try to address your points.

1. Your speculation about my anti-Strib motives are completely off-base. If I were all about destroying the Strib, why do I have so many sources inside 425 Portland? Why did several write me emails to applaud today's piece? Because they believe the now-ombudsmanless paper should be accountable, not hypocritically opaque.

2. I contacted Scott Gillespie directly because he's the boss of the edit pages. When I've contacted editorial board members in the past, they will not speak to an editorial's evolution since "what happens in the editorial writing room stays in the editorial writing room." OK, fine - it's often the boss who can supersede that discretion. I offered Scott the chance for an email reply for his convenience (see point #3 - non-cooperation difficulties) nothing more. In my experience, people respond more quickly to emails than phone calls; I certainly wouldn't have resisted a call from Scott. (It's always fun when a sore subject complains about your reporting methods AFTER they've refused to comment.)

2a. Since you mentioned my email to Scott, I thought readers might want to see it. Here's the text:

Hi Scott -

A reader brought to my attention your June 28 editorial supporting offshore drilling. I know Avista has some financial interests in offshore drilling companies.

Couple of questions:

1. Was this an editorial Chris Harte was involved in?

2. Do you feel the editorial page should disclose its owner's financial interests when an editorial supports those?

The reasoning behind the edit is self-explanatory, but anything else you'd like to add about the position would be helpful. Email is fine and probably most convenient at this point.

Best,
David

2b. That wasn't so bad, was it? Had he replied with info you provided, I would've included it. That missed opportunity was your side's fault, not mine. But as you know from your reporting days, you can't let a source's non-cooperation stop a story.

3. I always contact people I write about at 425 Portland. But they don't always get back to me. I know the poohbahs don't like me, but that's no excuse for not calling a reporter back - if so, the Strib's more aggressive reporters would never get a callback. Please communicate your feelings about callback decorum to Nancy Barnes (who has never returned a call or email, though Rene Sanchez does) and Ben Taylor, who has also stiffed me since November. I certainly hope the Strib's sources don't follow management's pattern.

3a. I recall us having a disagreement over something I wrote while you were on the health beat, but we had a civil exchange and I don't believe it was a reporting error. You'd have to more explicit about that Allina piece I ripped "with no reason" for me to address this slam.

4. A pattern of criticism. Man, this is something for an ex-reporter to allege! How often have you had a subject in the business or political world allege that?! It's true - I write more criticism than praise, because frankly, problems are more important than back-patting. I'm old-school that way. The Strib has abandoned its own public review by cutting the ombudsman position, which makes external oversight that much more important. And by the way, one of the nice things about Glean is that I can praise Strib things, which I do every day. I pointedly praised Larry Oakes' sex-offender piece. But in general, good news takes care of itself and bad news needs some help.

5. Your point about my personal disclosure is offbase. Not many writers disclose their wives' conflicts - I do that in the Gray Plant case because it's material ... and as material as my point about Avista's drilling interests. I expected someone to make the reductio ad absurdum argument, but that's lazy and it's a long way from the case here. It's pretty simple: Avista is a small, tightly held private interest with a definite concentration in the boutique offshore-drilling industry. As noted in the piece, I can't say there was undue influence - but that's not what conflict policies are all about. It's keeping trust with the readers.

6. Your blanket statement that "Has MinnPost ever disclosed its founders' and funders’ vast investment interests when it writes about various topics?" is basically wrong. Read the disclosure here - http://www.minnpost.com/about/ - it's certainly more than anything the Strib publishes about Avista. That said, I'll ask Joel if he has any investments as concentrated as Avista's in offshore drilling - let's make that the standard for now.

Your opinions about Daily Glean, etc. are fair comment, though I'm proud it's one of the most-read things on the site and that real, working reporters write me all the time to ask why something of theirs wasn't in. There appears to be some value there.

On the flip side, I do find the editorial page less pointed than it once was. Not saying that's every time. And it's fair to ask me for specifics, which I'll attempt in a future column.

Best,
David

I find it interesting that the Strib Editorial Board (through Ms. Burcum's post) sees fit to try and publicly pillory Mr. Brauer and MinnPost on a personal and professional level within a few short hours of the posting of Brauer's column.

Ouch.

It is also interesting (and rare) to see a public comment from a member of the Editorial Board (as opposed to "THE Editorial Board") reacting to criticism from elsewhere. Remember Ms. Burcum that you, your colleagues and your predecessors have skewered many public figures and institutions of all types and sizes over the years and it has had an impact at times. Many of those scorned by the Strib Editorial Board have worn that criticism as a badge of honor. Others have literally profited from it.

To put it more succinctly: if you are gonna dish it out, you better be prepared to take it as well. That goes for MinnPost as well as the Strib.

From this reader's perspective, it is clear that this exchange belies more than just a tete-a-tete over a columnist's view on one editorial. There are some underlying tensions and hostilities bubbling beneath the surface.

I will agree with Ms. Burcum's view that trying to disclose each and every fiduciary interest would be like trying to read those little pamphlets you find in a lot of medications that use a lot of big words in a very small and frugal font. You don't bother to read it, you just toss it and take your medicine like your doctor told you to do. Like it or not, private equity partnerships are seemingly snapping up anything and everything they can get their hands on. It's part of the world we live in today.

I do not always agree with Mr. Brauer's pieces, but I have respected his body of work over the years and I think he deserves better than what is posted above. The over-the-top response tells me that a raw nerve has been struck.

Even if you established a direct and unseemly link between the contents of the editorial and the parent company, it still does not address the proposition on the merits. To suggest a direct link somehow taints the editorial is itself without merit. Only if the editorial somehow distorted the facts to mislead at the request of the parent company would it be inappropriate. To my knowledge that is not so. By the way, those who claim that drilling would take decades to develop told us that decades ago. If we had started drilling then, we wouldn't have the shortage we have now.

R.I.P.: The Political Impact of the Newspaper Institutional Editorial

http://www.politicsinminnesota.com/2008/jul/10/r-i-p-political-impact-ne...

Strib-MnPost Throw Down: Burcum v. Brauer
JULY 10, 2008

http://msp.blogs.com/brianlambert/2008/07/strib-mnpost-th.html

I notice the Strib didn't address the glaring factual errors in the editorial. They've printed a couple opposing letters, but not letters that addressed the errors. They didn't print mine, so I posted it on my own blog:
http://www.ravensblog.net/#drilling-onshore