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Walking the talk: Star Tribune hires investigations editor

The Strib loudly touts its commitment to digging, but hasn’t had a full-time editor with experience to bring system-changers together. Next month, they will.
By David Brauer

For months, Strib editor Nancy Barnes has trumpeted her commitment to investigations, redeploying reporters to the paper’s I-Team and adding the much-touted Whistleblower unit. But one thing hasn’t kept up: management.

Since Pulitzer winner Chris Ison fled the Anders Gyllenhaal regime for a U job in mid-2004, investigators haven’t been led by someone specializing in the practice. Instead, duties have fallen to editors with other responsibilities or specialties.

That changes next month, when former Twin Cities Reader intern Jeffrey Meitrodt returns in glory to oversee the I-Team and Whistleblower. Since leaving David Carr’s Finishing School for Digging and Drinking (I’m a fellow graduate), Meitrodt has racked up a nifty resume in some scummy swamps: pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, and Rod Blagojevich’s Illinois.

As the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Special Projects editor for 10 years, Meitrodt helped uncover incestuous riverboat pilot licensing, debunked a CNN report that all but accused hospital workers of murder during Katrina, and exposed shady minority business contracting. As a Chicago Tribune statehouse correspondent, he was first byline on a team that definitively established Blago’s “pay-to-play” government contracting more than a year before the nation got wise.

Strib managing editor Rene Sanchez calls Meitrodt “the real deal, a full-tilt investigations guy. He’s a native of the state, he went to the U, his parents and sister still live here, and he’s spent a long time leading successful projects. So he comes to this task with a lot of familiarity.”

I realize org chart news might not stir readers’ tinglies, but it’s a critical step to unleashing head-knocking coverage. Sanchez acknowledges the Strib’s recent system has been non-optimal.

Meitrodt is peeling duties away from assistant managing editor Kate Parry, who already had plenty on her plate overseeing political and health care reportage. Business investigators Chris Serres and Jennifer Bjorhus will still report to assistant managing editor Eric Wieffering. Meitrodt’s roster includes Tony Kennedy, Paul McEnroe, David Shaffer, Pam Louwagie, computer-assisted reporting guru Glenn Howatt and Whistleblowers James Shiffer and Lora Pabst — a pretty nice list.

“I still can’t believe the number of bodies we have,” exults Meitrodt during a house-hunting layover. “At the Times-Picayune, I was the only person permanently assigned to the I-Team. Jesus, with this many horses, we should do amazing stuff.”

That’s an appropriate bar for a paper with Barnes’ stated ambition. She’s talked the talk, and is committed to the kind of proprietary enterprise reporting readers will seek out and keep paying for. As I’ve written before, the paper is friendlier to hard news than it was in Gyllenhaal’s day, and between investigative and beat diggers, regularly produces solid short- and medium-term enterprise.

However, I’ve been underwhelmed by some of the recent cymbal-crashers; a recent series on an internal police investigation, while a great read, was too much old news and not enough system-changer. The Strib often shades toward explainers, rather than applecart-upenders.

Sanchez insists the paper is “not just talking the talk” and aspires to “really big-deal investigative stories” that spur unavoidable real-world reform. Meitrodt — who will have to pull this off in a less-scandal-rich environment than New Orleans or Chicago — says Barnes and Sanchez have made those marching orders clear. He’ll report directly to them.

The Strib and Meitrodt first danced before he took the Tribune job, toward the tail end of the Gyllenhaal regime. The Strib never pulled the trigger on the position, complicated no doubt by finances. But the recent departure of three newsroom staffers — Minneapolis Schools reporter Patrice Relerford (for grad school), data wrangler John Stefany (for the private sector), and politics editor Doug Tice (for the editorial page) — created room for Meitrodt’s hire.

While I have every expectation Meitrodt will be great, his hiring does show it’s a who-you-know business, too. Sanchez says Meitrodt hit his radar screen after his name appeared in a November 2008 Carr New York Times media column on struggling newspapers jettisoning top talent.

(“Seniority had nothing to do with it, the quality of the work had nothing to do with it,” Meitrodt says. “The editors thought they had too much boring state government coverage, so they just cut positions. If you were sitting in the chair, you were out. Nobody had a chance to compete for other beats.”)

Sanchez said after reading Carr’s column, he asked Shiffer (who had met Meitrodt months earlier at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference) to “find this guy — today. He did. I called him up, and that’s what started the conversation.”

While Sanchez refers to his new investigations editor as a “full-time maestro,” Meitrodt is Minnesota humble, a good thing going into a newsroom where some talented long-timers have felt shunted aside by cocky out-of-towners.

“I’m not going to be the investigative guru who oversees everything at the newspaper,” he says. “At the Times-Picayune, one of my strengths was reaching into the newsroom, finding investigative ideas, and teaming folks up with an investigative reporter. That’s how we got the minority hiring story. I don’t care where the good ideas come from.”

That’s the right move, albeit tougher in a paper where everyone has to do more with less. If Meitrodt can help break down turf wars and office politics and spread the glory appropriately, he may deserve that guru title after all. No pressure.