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Nick Coleman: MPR’s exit interview

Deposed Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman sat down for an interview with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer.

Deposed Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman sat down for an interview with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer. Their 17-minute discussion provides a thoughtful manifesto on what it means to write such pieces.

I’ve withheld judgment on Coleman’s replacements, Jon Tevlin and Gail Rosenblum, because I know the gig is tough and requires some settling in — both for the writers, and for readers accustomed to a different style. But Coleman’s take, partially transcribed below, is a jumping off point for my early thoughts.

MPR’s Bob Collins has a “Cliffs Notes” version of the segment here, You can also listen to the interview here:

MPR’s Cathy Wurzer asked Coleman about his column-writing goal:

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Well, there’s so many different ways to write a column, there are many different ways to approach it, but I was taught by the Catholic nuns on West Seventh and Randolph that you’re supposed to make a difference. Writing is supposed to make a differnce.

It’s a gift if you have it, they gave it to me, and I sort of adopted their sensibilities, too, which is you write about people and their real concerns and their real issues. You try to tackle their common interests with a common touch and find the common purpose. I guess these days this kind of makes me some kind of dinosaur, but I actually think newspapers are supposed to make a difference.

… A lot of it is just keeping up with the rush of current events, but also sometimes it’s to give, I think the license of a column — if one still exists — is that you can use it as a way to provide insight into what is happening to people in common, everyday occurrences, why it’s happening.

And you know sometimes really the job is to point the finger at people, powerful people especially, who may not be exactly speaking candidly or even honestly about what is happening in our culture and in our community.

This is my big problem with the columnists so far: powerful people have had it really easy. We might disagree about who deserves the whack, but except for a stray Ponzi schemer, the “co” in columnists has stood for “conscientious objector” when it comes to judgment-making.

I get that not every column should be about politics, or be a takedown. I don’t need phony tub-thumping or forced verdicts, and columnists should be allowed to write the three words that strike terror into talk radio hosts: I’m not sure.

But right now, such license is being wasted! I admire Gail Rosenblum’s writing, but when she does a piece on peanut-allergic kids trapped in tin can at 30,000 feet, forced to break out epinephrine syringes because Northwest Airlines coddles Georgia’s goober industry, I want to know what she thinks. Otherwise, it’s just a feature story with the writer’s picture.

Coleman continues:

I don’t understand why media don’t want to make a difference. And you can’t do that in a partisan way, and you can’t do that in a subterfuge kind of a way. You need to be open, but you have to be able and willing to address and tackle the real issues of the day.

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You know, this debate has happened in media after the Iraq War began. A lot of media people have asked, well, why did we just do all this “he said, she said, the government says, this other expert says” and we never questioned, we never independently asserted, our own brain power on this and looked at what was really at stake and what was really happening.

And that was an interesting discussion but seems to have gone nowhere.

And a lot of media, especially the parts of the industry just trying to hold on right now, are trying very hard not to get anybody upset or mad. And are trying not to be accused of getting anyone upset.

And I don’t think it’s just a printing press for making money or losing money. There’s supposed to be some kind of higher calling to be in this business, or you might as well be doing something else that has shorter hours and better benefits.

Nick didn’t say it, but you don’t have to squint between the lines to hear him calling out the Star Tribune. He’s referencing not just outrage-free columnists but the outrage-light editorial page, where truly provocative callouts have become an endangered species.

But don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Perhaps it’s my own sail-trimming, but there are plenty of good journalists throughout the Strib who produce stories that get people mad about the right things. Yes, the paper has sadly sanded down its bully pulpit, but I think they’re more committed to hard news these days than under ex-editor Anders Gyllenhaal, who hired Coleman.

Nick concludes with his take on taking flak, why management kowtows to an angry few, and the goodbye he didn’t say in print:

I think people right now are afraid of speaking up and speaking out. … It’s really a crazy environment, unfortunately, where we have fewer people willing to stand up then that makes them easier targets because there are only so many heads sticking up above the ground.

That’s very intimidating. It’s very intimidating and a lot of people can’t handle it. It’s not easy. You have get a stuff skin and develop an indifference to being called … I can’t even tell you on this microphone, the kind of things, the comments on my column.

I would go to the people in charge and say why is this word being used next to my name. And they’d go, “well that’s supposed to be filtered out.” But you have to spell it right, and of course, a lot of these commenters don’t know how to spell nasty words correctly.

It’s an intimidating environment, I think it’s a somewhat degraded media environment right now. As we get quicker, and we have more technology, more reach, more resources in some ways to tell stories, we seem to be getting less willing to actually tell them meaningfully because someone might object.

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And the ones who might object and call you those dirty words misspelled on your website have an impact way out of proportion to those many readers.

Now, all the ones who call me names, by the way, know I’m gone, and they’ve been doing a dance on my grave for a month or more. It’s only the decent subscribers who paid for the paper for many years or decades and who liked my column and wanted to read it, and wonder where it is, they’re the ones who’ve been calling up and emailing me saying, “I hope you’re on vacation.”

So I’m sorry I wasn’t able to say to them, “Yes, I’m on vacation; could be permanent.”