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Document: New publisher must keep undoing Star Tribune's 'strongly liberal' image

Soon — could be today, probably next month — the Star Tribune will name a new publisher to replace the departing Chris Harte. Just what is the Strib looking for?

I don't have a name — yet — but some rather large clues emerged in a document that recently fell into my lap. Prepared by the global search firm SpencerStuart, the seven-page job description lays out in the bluntest terms possible what the new “Chief Executive Officer and Publisher” is expected to do.

Before I get to the good stuff — which will come in at least two parts today — some important caveats.

Though I received the document from a source I trust, and verified that the listed authors work for SpencerStuart, I have not been able to confirm the document’s authenticity with the search firm or the Strib.

Newspaper spokesman Ben Taylor is out of the office in surgery (best wishes); his assistant didn’t know if this unavailability represented a company-wide “no comment.” A SpencerStuart spokesman, who asked not to be named, stated his firm’s longstanding policy is to neither confirm nor deny due to contractual confidentiality.

The other thing to know is that the document is several months old. (I’m being a bit vague to protect my source.) However, it was crafted well after the Strib filed for bankruptcy in mid-January.

Given that Chapter 11 has been marked by agreement between management and creditors (the soon-to-be owners), and the creditor roster hasn't changed, the document's ethos likely has some staying power. However, it’s entirely possible that some requirements have changed in the intervening months.

The good stuff
My favorite part of the document is not exactly a secret, but it’s never been stated so bluntly:

“A unique challenge is continuing management’s successful efforts to change the widespread image of the Star Tribune from a strongly liberal paper to a strictly non-partisan news source and a more moderate and less strident editorial page voice.”

It’s fun to consider how one defines “success.” Tellingly, Strib leaders were willing to shuck adjectives like “strong” for “more moderate” and “less strident.” The editorial page is arguably less strident — and less interesting, given its unwillingness to take risky stands on all but a few issues.

I suppose it’s more moderate, too — though let the historical record show the “old” editorial staff often angered liberals by crusading against business property taxes and for development subsidies and stadia of nearly every stripe. (I’m looking over my virtual shoulder at ex-editorial boss Susan Albright, now one of my MinnPost editors.)

Believe it or not, I have some sympathy for my ultra-conservative readers who viewed the “Red Star” as the lefty equivalent of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

(Personally, I think there’s no comparison between the Journal’s intellectual dishonesty and the Strib’s prior "sins," but go with me here.)

If the Journal announced today it was making the page “more moderate” and “less strident,” many of my liberal buddies muttering about the Strib shift would be shouting, “It’s about time!”

Business-side benefits?
Publishers and owners get to have ideologies, and promote them on the editorial side. Personally, I’ve always believed the Strib’s move is, as much as anything, a reflection of Chris Harte, as I wrote two years ago. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming the new owners — for now, global financiers with no community ties — feel the same way, or no way at all.

But here’s the thing: My thesis, business-wise, is that you'll never convince those who hated you to buy you, and you'll only alienate your core, who can leave you.

Judging from circ figures and ad revenues, there’s zero evidence that the Strib’s turn toward the right has helped the bottom line. I know the Strib lusts after the allegedly purple suburbs, but its financials have simply not outperformed the industry. You could posit such drops would’ve been worse if things hadn’t changed — but that would be a faith-based argument, not an evidence-based one.

(If the Strib has market research to back up its position shift, I’d love to see it. And ad reps past or present: Did the image change make it easier to close sales?)

The news side
Like the editorial page, the newsroom is populated with talented, honest professionals, whose biggest handicap is too little oomph from their diligent reporting.

I have publicly complimented management’s commitment to investigations and dirt-digging. One hopes for more stories like the Gang Strike force series, especially when it comes to jive-talking or wishy-washy politicians.

Among other heartening developments: New columnist Jon Tevlin finding his voice and wading more into politics, which he pointedly eschewed early on. And while new hire Rachel Stassen-Berger won’t be the first no-nonsense political reporter at 425 Portland, she’s tough as nails and seldom pulls punches.

Still, there are lingering embarrassments like 2008's “no politics before an election” columnists memo, which arguably harmed the paper’s reputation more than any amorphous “image” change benefitted.

And as with editorials, it’s a little hard to see the marketplace benefit from the news-side strategy. Note that the SpencerStuart paragraph speaks to “perceptions.” Honestly, do you know anyone who believed that the Strib was a “strongly liberal paper” now views it as a “strictly non-partisan news source?”

I tend to travel in immoderate social and social-media circles, and my experience is that righties who hated the Strib still hate it, while lefties who tolerated it are now depressed by it. To moderates out there: are you digging it more?

Anyway, here’s the executive-search paragraph I would have loved to read:

“A unique challenge is overcoming the widespread image of the paper as cautious and punch-pulling. While our news side cannot be driven by ideology, we should have faith in our integrity and fact-gathering and not worry where the ideological chips fall. In a competitive new-media environment, authenticity and plain speaking matter more. Likewise, our editorial page should eschew false balance and consistently challenge readers with strong and often unconventional conclusions. To do otherwise risks being ignored, which is fatal to the survival of the company you will lead.”

Coming next: finances and leadership.

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Comments (17)

As a moderate . . . sure, I'm liking it more. I think Randy Furst has done a very good job on the Strike Force scandal -- by far the best in the local MSM. (Compare it to Rosario's kissy-face interview with Jindra over at the PiPress, and it looks even better.)

Yeah, they miss a lot of the stuff I'm interested in -- if anybody there has even read all of the basic public docs on the Strike Force scandal, even Furst, I'd be surprised. (Heimerl's 2008 report, say, which shows that the Task Farce clowns weren't much interested in seizing stuff that they couldn't give to relatives or use themselves -- look at the drug seizures. Sheesh. I know the report is only available to somebody with a web browser and access to the public MN lege website...)

But they've been doing a somewhat less sucky job, overall, than they used to, in many respects.

So... just as WCCO AM was turned from an amusing, entertaining, fact-based, moderate-to-liberal voice into a boring, strident conservative voice after being bought out by CBS a few years back (and suffered tremendous ratings drops because of it), so the STRIB is to be turned into a mouthpiece for it's owners rather than responding authentically to it's readers.

This is what has happened to our MSM nationwide, including the big networks. If all the new owners of the STRIB succeed in doing is continuing to alienate their traditionally moderate-to-liberal reader base by becoming more conservative (at the very time the nation is becoming MORE liberal), essentially competing with the SPP for the same audience, the state of Minnesota will be impoverished and the STRIB will continue to shrink.

Who knows, after a couple more bankruptcies just like the current one, caused by idiot investors who borrowed way to much money to buy it and only wanted to use it as a mouthpiece, when it's down to almost nothing and can be bought for fire sale prices, some local investors with a reasonable amount of integrity will buy it and begin to rebuild it into an authentic Minnesota voice.

But if this is what the current owners are looking to do with the STRIB, it's just going to keep going down, down, down, and if it disappears under these circumstances, none of us will care. We can only hope it completely, totally (and deservedly) bankrupts its owners in the process.

A couple of years ago I was on the Strib - calling them the Strib of the red telephone - for being a conduit for Morrill Hall propaganda. What appeared on the editorial page was sometimes suspiciously close to public announcements at the U to believe this was coincidence. I also caught them using a phrase from some of the U's pr documents that could not have been coincidental.

Lately however the Strib does not hesitate in calling the U on intransigence on light rail, foot dragging on conflict of interest, and a host of other issues. They ferreted out the scandal that was the co-chair of the U's med school conflict of interest policy chair's own violation of present policies. And they have given plenty of attention to Medtronic/U of M consulting problems. Hard to accuse them lately of pulling punches for the U.

Why is it so hard for liberals to understand: conservatives don't want a right-wing slant to news. We want objective reporting. Papers such as the StarTribune and New York Times have shown in inability to do such reporting. Liberal writers have continually shown that they can't pull back and see a story from all view points. They just can't They're human. It's just the way it is.

Isn't this whole "non-partisan" thing really related to the editorial page and not the reporting? The fact is that readers often don't understand that there's a difference.

Opinion reporting can be pretty enlightening, but it's also archaic when one considers you can go to blogs or policy for the same informed views and know that no rich publisher was meddling.

In a time when conservative media seems to be low on fact, i.e. death panels, birthers, weapons of mass destruction, to name a few, moving a thinly supported slightly liberal newspaper that direction makes me think it wants to remove all actual journalist with "infotainment" writers and leave the whole news part to the bloggers it fired during the first bankruptcy. This is not a move that would have me buying any more papers.

I can't call myself a moderate. I'm an unabashed and unashamed liberal. I don't know where you get your opinion that "liberal writers . . . can't pull back from a story, etc." I didn't think that was an issue particular to liberals.
But one thing I do agree on is that in my opinion the newspapers and TV--WCCO in particular, but all of them--don't have much news. WCCO used to be a good news station. Now it is a hash of personal stories, crashes, shootings, and such significant news that a suspect is in custody. As for Good question--most of the questions asked are trivial, of no interest to me, and few have any bearing on my life. The death of Ted Kennedy does, at least indirectly. So do the stories about Iraq and Afghanistan.
Oh, well, there's always PBS news and most especially Friday's lineup of news and comments including Bill Moyers' Journal.

Why can't the conservatives understand that what looks like them to be unbiased reporting, has a decidedly conservative bias?

Specifically, for conservatives, if a story focuses, in any way, on how a situation involving the exercise of power and the use of money by those who have both, effects in unnecessarily or even unconsciously negative ways, those who have neither, or even the planet itself, it tends to anger them and they discard it, out of hand, as a "liberal" perspective.

For my conservative friends, money and power, the acquisition of them, and the freedom to use them in any way they see fit, with no allowable interference, are the only things that truly matter (as sometimes evidenced even by a couple of well-known MPR commentators).

Those of us accused of being liberal, do not disagree with those pursuits, EXCEPT where they get in the way of other people with less money and power exercising their own constitutional rights, with the ability of regular folks to earn a living and procure the necessities of life for themselves or their families, or threaten to damage us all by damaging the planet and it's ecosystems.

My conservative friends tend to be stubbornly blind, to the point of being resentful, at having to take into account how what they do affects others.

I want my news sources to be about EVERYBODY, and how what's happening affects EVERYBODY who shares this state with me. My conservative friends only seem to want their news sources to be about THEMSELVES and those who agree with them.

Actually, I think (per Mr. Collins' remarks) that there's an all-too-common belief that the "non-partisan thing" is dominant everywhere except the editorial pages. I find that, despite an occasional progressive or liberal stance on the editorial pages, the Strib has a VERY conservative bias in what it selects for its "news" pages.
What it covers at all, what it leaves in, and what it leaves out, show it to be a much more conservative paper than it was 8 years ago, when we subscribed.
And yes, I regard myself as liberal, and am dismayed that I have to turn to the internet (often foreign sources) more & more to get information (facts, not just points of view) that go beyond those in the New York Times--especially on foreign affairs, and, lately, health care systems.

Wake up Minnesota. The Star Tribune is not that liberal. The op-ep pages are filled with the like of William Kristol, George Will and that gawdawful Kathryn Kersten.

But what is incessant is any time a right-wing nut doesn't like something in the paper, they blame the on the "liberal Star Tribune." Even some of its Neanderthal columnists refer to it with vague Communist monikers.

The report is correct. What the Star Tribune has to fight is its "perception" that it is overtly liberal.

And, finally, as I point out often: The progressive mind and mindset is always dominant and successful. Humankind does not move forward by looking back. Without progressive thinking over the last 500 years, women would be chattel, slavery would exist, most people would have hand-to-mouth existences, half of all babies would die, all the wealth would be concentrated in a few families, we would have kings, we wouldn't have basic human rights, and the church would tell us when to wake up and when to go to bed.

My biggest beef with the Strib's "slant" in recent years is that it's seemingly trying to be all things to all parts of the metro. Instead of a yin to the PiPress' yang, or vice versa, it's taken upon itself to be the sole proprietor of all things Twin Cities (yes, I'm aware of the 'Newspaper of the Twin Cities' moniker).

Damn the liberal-sidedness notion (which was mostly only prominent in its editorials). It's no coincidence, economics aside, that the paper was doing better when it was being intellectually honest.

AHA, you have discovered proof of what I suspected was going on under the Harte regime. I could care less about the political tilt of a newspaper, and I suspect most other Strib readers share the same view. But newspaper consultants have to earn their living, and picking on perceived liberal bias in the news media is a sure way of pleasing publishers wondering why readership is declining (because they are dying off, IMO).

So how do we attract the younger generation of readers? Why, of course, by feeding them the same sort of conservative arguments they used to hear from their father over the dinner table.

David, your fantasy recommendation paragraph was far too sensible to be of interest to any self-respecting media company. Also, coming from a local writer, rather than a global consulting firm, it would have saved them a lot of money, another minus. Not to mention, you do not live more than 100 miles away.

As one of Joel Rosenberg's fellow moderates, albeit one 180° removed from Mr. Rosenberg's usual "moderate" views, I also liked Randy Furst's coverage of the shamefully scandalous Metro Gang Strike Force debacle.

Quality drives good news, and any new publisher who finds Katherine Kersten's byline to have merit will lose my respect immediately.

And if the new publisher wants to win my heart completely, a detailed exposé on how daily newspapers exploit newspaper carriers in defiance of independent contractor laws would be very good reading indeed.

Who's managing the managers? If on the financial side they are not outperforming the benchmarks of other newspapers why are they being kept on ad infinitum?

Check out the Strib's columnist count: Business and Lifestyle, 10 each; sports, 9; entertainment, 8; opinion 1.

To a formerly serious newspaper reader — from Village Voice to WSJ — that is what signals doom.

Let's be honest. Amy Goodman's Democracy Now is often more critical of Obama than FOX news is and rightly so. The main difference is FOX uses irrelevant, partisan, ad hominem attacks and hires dozens of clowns to repeat their talking points twenty-four hours a day. Can we really say FOX is more objective because they claim to be fair and balanced and hire a political opponent or two?

The greatest sin in journalism is not having a slant, but failing to disclose. Everyone has a slant by mere definition of having your own experiences and being human. Claiming to be fair and balanced is a violation of the pact with your readership. In stock market articles, every journalist must disclose any stock positions they own, but political reporters aren't required to confess campaign contributions. Clearly, the only advantage to breaching the readers' trust in this way is to sell infotainment as news and to not offend potential advertisers. Like a politician in November, if a newspaper talks out both sides of its mouth, it can hope to win support from both sides.