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!”
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.