Amid business troubles, Strib nabs a PiPress star

How’d you like to be the reporter who jumped to the Star Tribune a day before they announced they wouldn’t pay their lenders?

Meet Jennifer Bjorhus, who until Tuesday was the Pioneer Press’ highly regarded housing and economy reporter.

Bjorhus — whose early and steady work on the foreclosure crisis earned notice — will become an “enterprise” reporter for the Strib business desk, working on investigations and chasing hot topics.

It’s a great thing for the Strib, validating management’s claim of protecting newsgathering amid the financial tide, and a real bummer for the PiPress.

As PiPress editor Thom Fladung noted in a gracious staff memo, Bjorhus “built an impressive record of hard-hitting, big-picture enterprise stories — particularly stories that got out ahead of the news.”

In particular, Fladung wrote, “Jennifer was one of the first journalists in the Twin Cities (I’d argue the first) to bore in on a burgeoning housing and foreclosure crisis. Her ‘Uneasy Street’ series, beginning in September 2006 and stretching into 2007 consistently broke news and built a strong case that this housing crisis was going to get worse before it got better, with profound implications for the rest of the U.S. economy.”

Of course, “Uneasy Street” could also describe 425 Portland Avenue, the Strib’s headquarters. Bjorhus gave up six years of St. Paul seniority to move to the bottom of the list at a financially listing ship.

Ahem. Are you nuts?

“I’m walking through the door, and maybe there’s some mystery at the other end,” she says with a chuckle.

I offered her my theory: They plied you with cocktails, told you everything was perfect and that you should pay no attention to those Blackstone Group restructuring consultants measuring the curtains, right?

“They said, ‘We’re going to be here,’” Bjorhus says. “But that said, nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen in this industry.”

Back in the day — five to 10 years ago — St. Paul-to-Minneapolis migration was common. But with hiring in both shops in short supply, the move is now rare enough to be newsworthy. (I think the last byline switch was in 2004, when PiPress senior editor Kate Parry became the Strib’s reader’s rep. Update: Senior editor Dave Peters busted a similar move in 2005.)

At 44, Bjorhus is the kind of hard-news vet the Strib needs. She had stints at big-city papers in Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose before moving to St. Paul (partly to escape high housing prices).

When I write in a headline that Bjorhus is a “star,” I don’t mean she’s a Soucheray; this is about reporting chops, not fame. Anyone who values digging and reportorial intuition should appreciate how Bjorhus’ “Uneasy Street” series came to be.

“It was somewhere in 2005 that I really became aware of how incredibly aggressive the mortgage brokers had become,” she recalls. “I was interviewing people getting homes they never should have gotten. I began trying to figure out how many foreclosures we were talking about — and realized nobody was really counting them.”

At the time, foreclosure was a dull topic, with information buried in the local sheriff’s departments that handled the notices.

“Ramsey County had them in three-ring binders,” Bjorhus says. “I asked the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office to count them, and when I started collecting numbers — this was late 2005 or early 2006 — it became clear those numbers had risen dramatically. ‘Uneasy Street’ was a result of that ‘Oh, wow’ moment.”

One of the first steps was mapping the data. “It was extremely revealing — everybody had a blob of dots; they were peppered throughout the metro area,” she remembers. “It wasn’t just north Minneapolis.”

From there, came two-plus years of stories foreshadowing the greatest financial disaster of our time.

Bjorhus — who is seven months pregnant, and had planned a six-month leave that will now be shortened — insists her Minneapolis move wasn’t because of problems with the PiPress.

“I think the world of Thom Fladung,” she says. “And it’s not out of any fear that the Pioneer Press is dying. One of my colleagues, outdoor writer Chris Niskanen, summed it up; he said, ‘Sometimes, you just need to look out a new window.”

Strib managing editor Rene Sanchez insists he takes no special joy in swiping one of the competition’s front-line players.

“We just saw an opportunity to get a really talented reporter who can help us deliver high-impact journalism,” he says. “We really want to focus on accountability journalism, and have as many reporters as we can get to get those stories into the paper and online.”

Bjorhus’ duties aren’t completely written in stone yet; she starts Oct. 13. However, it sounds like she’ll have one of those sweet slots like reporters Chris Serres and Jon Tevlin, who can disappear for an investigation or chase a hot breaking story until it cools.

Bjorhus’ arrival is a bit of headsnapper because, as Sanchez notes, “It’s fair to say we haven’t hired a lot of reporters lately.”

There’s been enough recent newsroom churn that Bjorhus can slip into an open slot; Minneapolis reporter Terry Collins left recently for AP’s San Francisco bureau, and higher-ed reporter Jeff Shelman will depart soon for an Augsburg College position.

Her hire doesn’t portend something as wonderful as a budget increase, but it apparently didn’t draw an evil eye from the cost-cutters. (Still, Strib staffing is at best a zero-sum game right now, so what current role goes unfilled? Sanchez couldn’t say, likening the situation to “musical chairs where the music never stops.”)

The news isn’t so happy for Fladung — who, Bjorhus says, told the PiPress business staff her position won’t be filled, at least through year’s end. That can’t help the mood of a small staff that already has to pick its spots against the competition. 

In recent years, the PiPress has hired a buch of talented young reporters, but you wonder if Fladung will get the chance; Dec. 31 is the also last day the PiPress newsroom is contractually protected against layoffs.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Sally Rolczynski on 10/05/2008 - 09:45 pm.

    Brauer,

    Did the StarTribune not hire you for something? What is this wierd obsession you have with them?

    Ratings for our blessed WCCOTV, KARE11 and KSTP fell 15% this year (in addition to the 14% decline the year before). Why? Because I don’t have to watch them anymore to get the weather. I get sports, weather and ‘comedy’ (they call them news reports) from the web. I don’t need them anymore.

    Your buddy over at MplsSt.Paul Magazine – Mr. Lambert – just saw another circulation decline for the third year in a row. Who needs a glossy magazine (expensive to produce) when I get everything off their website? How long do you think he will last?

    Face it. It is a battle of traditional media vs. new media. Not newspapers vs the internet. Newspapers are the first in promises to be a rocky road for ALL traditonal media.

    Try being a little more balanced. Oh, and I checked the number of people hitting your website. Around 200,000. The StarTribune had 6 million last month. Someone must be interested in newspapers.

    Good luck. I give you until early 2009 before Joel Kramer realizes he is financing a lame duck.

  2. Submitted by David Brauer on 10/06/2008 - 07:01 am.

    Sally –

    It’s paradoxical to note all those Strib web hits and then wonder why I write about them a lot. They remain the region’s top (though far from only) news source, and as a media reporter, they’re tops on my beat.

    The future isn’t promised to anyone, including MinnPost, but that’s not really the point: we’re not out to be a Strib replacement even if the Media Fairy tapped us with her magic wand.

    It’s important to cover the financial and journalistic goings-on of the paper that produces more stories than anyone – print, TV or the web – so I’ll continue doing that.

    As you note, the technology is disruptive, and that affects everyone, but because the newspaper is the most valuable local source of local info, that’s where most of my attention will be.

    As I’ve said many times before, I might be the only person who’s never applied for, or been much interested in, a job at the Strib, so find another hobby horse – that one’s broken.

    But hey, thanks for reading. Another hit in the MP column.

  3. Submitted by Sally Rolczynski on 10/06/2008 - 07:57 am.

    Sir,

    I was in the media buying business for 22 years before I retired last May.

    You are not being truthful.

    I have not seen one article on the rapid decline of circulation numbers for local magazines – MplsSt.Paul magazine. When you appear in Lamberts column in what appears to be a chummy relationship, you lose credibility.

    When you ignore the rapid decline in ratings of local news stations – also a large contibutor of news in our community – you lose credibility. I have many friends there who are worried about their jobs.

    When you announce a ‘partnership’ with ECM newspapers (a direct competitor of the StarTribune) – but ignore the financials difficulties for them do to a rapid decline in auto and homes sales (their bread and butter) – you lose credibility.

    My intent is to let you know when you are being dishonest.

    Try being a bit more objective, and focusing on ALL MEDIA in this market (I know you will come back with your articles on Sun newspapers but they too are a competitor of ECM).

    Joel Kramer should be ashamed of your reporting.

  4. Submitted by David Brauer on 10/06/2008 - 09:33 am.

    Sally – the Sun newspaper stories explicitly mentioned ECM’s revenue decline (and disclosed MinnPost’s partnership). However, the Sun’s trouble is worse, given they are in default of lending agreements and the privately owned ECM is not.

    Frankly, one reason I haven’t done more on TV news rating declines is that Lambert has been all over that story, so I’m focusing on areas (daily papers) where I have more interest and insight.

    (I’ve written a lot about TV journalism over the months, just not on the exact topics you’d like me to.)

    As for the monthlies’ circ declines, it’s a valid topic for a column, though in general I think they’re peripheral to my hard news focus, given their publishing frequency and small hole devoted to news. But I do remember talking to Tom Bartel about this after the Rake folded.

    However, you’ll find – if you turn off the “dishonesty” klaxon – that if you a suggest an idea to me, I might just do it. Have special insight on monthly sales declines or ECM? I’m always looking for good sources and good insights, and rarely shy away from valid tips.

    And by the way, I make no pretense to objectivity. I write about what I care about, and make no apologies for caring about daily papers above all. I think that reflects their place in the firmament.

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