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Amid bankruptcy talk, Strib ponders cuts the newsroom actually likes

Given the New York Post-fueled Star Tribune bankruptcy talk, it will surprise few that upper management has a plan for smaller papers.

The man-bites-dog? At least one influential reporter says he “really liked the changes.”

Here’s the concept, which not every department has signed off on, but is firm enough to sell to the newsroom:

The Strib’s Sunday feature section, Source, will die sometime this summer. The Home & Garden section will no longer be stand-alone — it becomes the Wednesday Source section. And — in a move pregnant with meaning for 2005-redesign-haters — the Source name is being dumped for the old moniker, Variety.

All told, the paper will lose seven full pages of stories each week. That’s a solid ad-free page of copy a day, though the loss may be concentrated on Wednesday and to a lesser degree, on Sunday. The stakes are especially high for the latter edition; it’s by far the week’s biggest moneymaker, but it’s been shrinking steadily and circulation is down 7 percent in the past year.

So why is Graydon Royce happy? The Strib’s longtime theater critic is also co-chair of the newsroom’s union, so he’s not one given to ebullience about management decisions. The L-word I expected to hear from his lips was “loathe,” not “like.”

But Royce says there are several positive aspects to the proposal. Sunday Source is a vestige of the redesign’s Signature section, which showcased long-form weekend pieces but quickly flopped. It survived as Sunday Source — which basically wrapped classifieds and ad circulars. “It was a small section, advertisers were frustrated and readers couldn’t find it,” Royce notes.

Less kitty litter coverage
The new plan is to plump out the current Sunday arts & entertainment section, to be called Variety A&E. There will be fewer pages than in the current two sections combined, but Royce figures a heftier A&E section will lure more readers.

So what dies? Casting a gimlet eye at current Source offerings, Royce says, “We might not have the 30-inch feature from the Baltimore Sun or the Dallas Morning News on kitty litter, that sort of thing.”

In other words, the Strib will lose mostly non-local, non-news wire-service copy. That’s no biggie for a paper that must concentrate on local content to set it apart.

The dynamic plays out for Wednesday’s Variety-nee-Source. The Hump Day section isn’t that local; Home and Garden is. While reformatting could nick some plants-and-flowers space, it won’t be devastating.

Since bankruptcy-watchers are super-hepped-up about the Strib’s upcoming labor negotiations, here’s another reason Royce is sanguine: the moves won’t reduce newsroom headcount.

In fact, a few quote-shy newsroom types said that the move may leave editors, reporters, copy editors and designers with a bit more time to work on their local stuff.

Says Strib “presentation” managing editor Cory Powell, “One of the realities is that our features reporting and editing staff got a lot smaller a year ago. So if we can find a way to [make changes] in a smart way, we’ll match up better with our resources.”

Hard news junkies might also benefit. Royce is hopeful about a plan to make Variety “quicker and livelier.” Deadlines might be stretched so later-breaking arts reviews end up in the arts section; now, it often bangs heads with local news in Metro, where deadlines are later.

Royce says features boss Christine Ledbetter wants to create a daily Variety “destination page” for timely stuff, perhaps on page 2. Now, because of printing schedules, section deadlines are so early that Source feels stale and Metro feels fluffy.

Says Royce, “I thought back on my conversations with many people in the theater community who’ve been bugging me for years about why we have reviews in amongst the cops and the crime. Why not make an arts section?”

‘Significant’ savings

Powell says production imperatives may limit this upside, but the paper aspires to a quicker back-of-book pulse. As for the Sunday situation, he says an enhanced A&E section is “huge” and adds that Travel could get more space. Beyond that, he hopes for more local Taste content, and increased coherence as scattered lifestyle coverage gets consolidated on specific days.

Against the bankruptcy backdrop, Powell terms the production savings “significant,” but “in no way could it be a home run.”

One key constituency to be heard from: advertisers. Explains Powell, “Advertising — or a lack thereof — doesn’t drive a content or section decision, but it certainly factors in. … Readers build up certain expectations, as do advertisers. If we’re contemplating a change in such an area, we certainly want to know beforehand if there are any looming problems.”

It’s normal to be aghast at advertiser influence, but someone’s gotta float this paper, and presumably advertisers flock where satisfied readers land.

Of course, it all falls apart if those readers simply feel they’re getting less — again. But everyone knows cuts are coming, so for now let’s root for judicious ones.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by B Maginnis on 05/07/2008 - 01:38 pm.

    I am sure the rank and file at Medtronic, NWA, Stearns were / are hoping for “judicious” cuts, too.

    Who’s to decide what’s “judicious”?

    And why are you setting yourself up to do so regarding Avista, which is clearly helming a sinker here?

    I find it utterly fascinating that the media “pundits” in this town are so concerned for the flippin’ union newsroom jobs at the Strib, which puts sub-standard fare out on a daily basis…..

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/07/2008 - 03:26 pm.
    Star Tribune owner writes down 75 percent of its investment
    Associated Press
    Article Last Updated: 05/07/2008 01:33:47 PM CDT

    The owner of the Star Tribune wrote down three-quarters of its $100 million investment and said the newspaper’s outlook “remains uncertain.”

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