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Reporter Pat Lopez becomes new Star Tribune political editor

The Strib promotes one of its own while rethinking how it has covered government.
By David Brauer

Hat tip to Politics in Minnesota’s Sarah Janecek for today’s media scoop: Pat Lopez, the paper’s chief political correspondent, will take over Doug Tice’s old job as politics/government editor. Tice moved to the editorial page staff last month.

According to Janecek, “The rest of the top-notch political coverage team remains: Kevin Diaz and intern Eric Roper in Washington, and Mark Brunswick, Kevin Duchschere, Pat Doyle and Mike Kaszuba.”

Strib managing editor Rene Sanchez says Lopez’s slot will be filled, meaning the political team won’t shrink. The newest posting says applicants can be internal or external. Given journalism carnage nationwide, even a bankrupt paper should be flooded with applicants.

Lopez’s ascension — which occurred the same day the Supreme Court released its recount verdict — comes at an opportune time. While the political crew is understandably exhausted after a seemingly endless election season, the paper has some repositioning to do as 2010 approaches.

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Sanchez and Lopez say they plan to further emphasize original reporting. You often hear that these days, but it’s the right way to go. The Strib can’t be the paper of record anymore, and shouldn’t even try. It will be a good sign if we see more wire service pieces in the Strib about workaday Capitol happenings — as long as that frees the staff to unearth unique facts.

While it is secondary to great reportage, the Strib’s virtual absence from the social-media conversation is also holding its staff back.

MPR and the Pioneer Press have only helped their public profile via the tart (yet apolitical) blogging of Tom Scheck, Bob Collins and Rachel Stassen-Berger. Believe me, I understand the horror of dumping blogging on an already-scrambling reporter, but journalism’s goal is to tell people what things mean, and a well-constructed social-media presence can be one of the most efficient ways to do that.

It’s a cliche that news is becoming more of a conversation, but it’s also true, and the Strib should be able to walk (report) and chew gum (explain, provoke, discuss). And it needs to show its favorite pudding flavor isn’t tapicoa.

Heck, take the tartest tweets or posts as the foundation of a brisk Sunday roundup — the Strib hasn’t had one of those in years. With news columnists de-emphasizing politics, it’s even more needed, even if ideology must be eschewed.

While we’re at it, the Strib needs to blow up some long-teetering efforts.

Begin with the Big Question, which was a draw when Eric Black and Tice were batting large ideas back and forth. Both chin-strokers are gone from the newsroom, and BQ has become a zombie, occasionally staggering to life when a staffer dumps in a random post. The questions are no longer big, and time has fatally weakened the brand. Shoot it in the head. Now.

Likewise, Politically Connected — a branding exercise in advance of the 2008 campaign — hasn’t become a real go-to destination. However the Strib chooses to corral its online political coverage (I’m no visionary here), it needs to give it more verve, imagination and identity. Personality does not compromise great reporting; knowing some of these reporters behind-the-scenes, I’d love to see that reflected.

I know partisans will want me to scream louder that the Strib should call b.s. on the other side, but I guess my honest explanation is that I don’t mind neutrality-worshipping fact gatherers in our increasingly opinionated midst.

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Unlike Tice, who came from conservative column-writing, Lopez’s politics are traditionally opaque; though she votes, she won’t even tell her kids which arrows she connects.

I’m a cards-on-the-table guy who never wanted to spend the energy hiding my opinions, but there are unquestionably strategic advantages in guarding your hand. It doesn’t mean a great reporter can’t speak plainly, or engage with the audience (the non-frothing segmment, anyway) to the benefit of both. That’s the person I’d hire.

Encouragingly, Lopez says she plans to “re-evaluate all these things to see what’s the most effective.” With a governor’s race, unallotment’s real-world impacts and a Pawlenty presidential bid lurking right around the corner, it’s never been more necessary.