Star Tribune tries to cut octogenarian loose in bankruptcy

No, not that octogenarian.

The Star Tribune is using Chapter 11 to sever ties with 87-year-old Lou Gelfand, the paper’s long-time ombudsman who became a twice-monthly business ethics columnist after settling a 2005 age discrimination claim.

The Tuesday filing states Gelfand’s contract runs through December 2010. The paper seeks to end the deal in September, 15 months early, as part of its financial reorganization. A compensation amount is not listed.

The Strib has not published Gelfand’s column in print or online since January. The settlement’s confidentiality clause puts a lid on details. However, Gelfand’s attorney, Megan Brennan, says to her knowledge, her client still completes assignments.

A judge has not yet ruled on the Strib’s request, which Gelfand can challenge. Brennan says her firm is “aware of the filing and we are reviewing it.”

In 2004, when the then-81-year-old Gelfand lost his “If You Ran the Newspaper” column, he had been ombudsman for 23 years. At the time, the Strib quoted Gelfand saying then-editor Anders Gyllenhaal questioned his accuracy.

Gelfand refused reassignment to a part-time Faith & Values reporting position, explaining, “I’ve never written a story about religion or taken a course in religion.”

Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, said he’d offered Gelfand a “mentoring” role in the ombudsperson’s office. Gelfand was eventually replaced by Pioneer Press senior editor Kate Parry, who took a less adversarial approach to the job. Parry is now a Strib assistant managing editor. The paper abolished the ombudsman’s position in late 2007, citing budget pressures.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 08/28/2009 - 07:37 am.

    Unless I have missed something along the way (which is always possible), I cannot recall any instance where there has even been speculation about Sid being let go. Is he that much of a draw, or are there other factors? Just wondering….

  2. Submitted by David Brauer on 08/28/2009 - 07:54 am.

    Sid’s a draw (though not a Vikes-level draw) plus he’s in sports.

    I’ve never heard ANYTHING about Sid being cast to the fates. (There are probably a few people in the newsroom who wouldn’t mind.) But as you can imagine, he has seniority, and short of a Gelfand-like reassignment, I can’t imagine how they’d pressure him to go. The bad publicity would be considerable, and he is a true (though far from heroic) legend.

  3. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/28/2009 - 08:12 am.

    I can’t believe seniority has anything to do with it at least not past age 65. Is there anything like columnist emeritus?

  4. Submitted by karl anderson on 08/28/2009 - 08:15 am.

    Someone has to break the news to him and sid it is time to retire.

  5. Submitted by John Welsh on 08/28/2009 - 08:35 am.

    I take issue with characterizing Kate Parry’s term as reader advocate as “less adversarial” than Lou Gelfand. The two took entirely different approaches to the job. Gelfand would take one or two reader quibbles and make a column out of it. Parry would look for broader issues of ethics and fairness and put them into context of that week’s newspaper. She took on the paper’s gift policy, columnist Sid Hartman and even then-publisher Par Ridder.

  6. Submitted by David Brauer on 08/28/2009 - 09:29 am.

    John – being an ombudsperson is dangerous work, at least within the profession, as I know from doing something similar outside 425’s walls. You’re always pissing someone off for being too tough or not tough enough.

    I agree that Kate and Lou took different approaches, and in many ways Kate was much more ambitious. She worked out a system to bring reader objections to management meetings. She spent many columns explaining the paper’s operations to readers, which fit her view (as I recall when I interviewed her once) that she need to explain the mechanism not just when there was a crisis or foible.

    On a much-reduced level, I do similar features, so I understand the reasoning. In retrospect, though, Kate’s mix made the job often seem like management’s rep more than reader’s rep. I’m not sure how many readers cared about the paper’s interns, and I can’t see, say, Clark Hoyt doing a piece on the New York Times’ crew. (Watch someone go find that clip.)

    And unless I missed something in the clips, Kate never really “took on” Par Ridder, except as an unavoidable topic.

    Before the settlement was announced (her ombudsman job ended before the Strib’s deal with the PiPress), Kate wrote a column distancing the work-a-day journalists from his alleged actions. While a very worthwhile thing for the troops, it didn’t really blast Ridder’s obvious actions, or their morality.

    It would’ve taken a lot of guts and bureaucratic savvy to get that column past the lawyers, likely an impossible task. But Kate *had* to write about the elephant in the room. She did it in a legit way. But it should accord no honors.

    When McClatchy’s D.C. bureau closed, Kate wrote a piece about how the Strib’s two designated correspondents “opted to stay” with McClatchy. She didn’t mention that both would see pay cuts had they returned to the Strib.

    I do not want to suggest Kate was without sharp elbows. She did do forensics on the paper’s miscues. But in hindsight, I wanted more of a cop on the paper’s content.

    By the way, just this week an ex-Stribber accused me of being too soft on management, so know that what goes around comes around. Life in the foxhole.

  7. Submitted by Paul Posel on 08/28/2009 - 09:47 am.

    Sid is almost 90 years old. He is worth millions (less after investing with Bernie Madoff). It is obvious other people help (really help) put his column together. But he does have a following, mostly earned years ago when he out-worked everyone. The internet, his advancing age and fewer friends in high places have rendered him somewhat useless as a source of information.

    So, why won’t he walk out the door like a gentleman and help save the jobs of a couple of young people before the next round of cuts occur?

    I wish I knew the answer.

  8. Submitted by Tim McNeill on 08/28/2009 - 10:39 am.

    I would see Sid when he came into the ‘CCO building to do Rosen’s show from 1990 to 1997. At that time, he seemed to be worth the trouble to deal with. But, now he is insignificant. I knew his editor and that editors wife who still directs newscasts at the station. That editor had one tough job trying to take his “Chicken crap” from of writing and make “Chicken salad.” Sid is not a writer. At best, Sid is a source! What the Strib should do here is take Sid’s information and have a sports writer credit him for that information. It’s time for Sid to step- down while he still has some relavance to the sports community. Heck, Sid can hardly speak and sounds tired and pointless on his AM radio show in the morning. The Strib could find a way to let Sid move towards the sunset of a decent stint as a sports nut who made a point of being a “close personel friend.” This way, Sid could still have his dignity and pride: the Strb could save their reputation while not creating a PR disaster, and the paper could save money and sports reporting jobs. Sid should only have a role today that reflects reality!! But, the Stib has not figured out what reality is today!!

  9. Submitted by John O'Sullivan on 08/28/2009 - 10:47 am.

    Sid hasn’t walked out the door yet because he sells lots of papers, Paul. Readers closely associate Sid with the Star Tribune sports section and vice versa. I imagine most people who read MinnPost care greatly about the future of the journalism industry, so it doesn’t make sense to me that you’d want the hometown paper’s star reporter to walk out in favor of giving a few no-name rookies some jobs. (I’m speaking as a young, aspiring journalist myself.)

  10. Submitted by none none on 08/28/2009 - 11:11 am.

    John O’Sullivan says:
    Sid hasn’t walked out the door yet because he sells lots of papers, Paul. Readers closely associate Sid with the Star Tribune sports section and vice versa.
    I moved to the Twin Cities nearly 7 years ago and was astonished to see what passed for sports columnists.

    I read Sid for 2 months trying to figure out where the disconnect was.

    I came to the realization that he was simply a poor columnist without any compelling style.

    Unless it’s just your personal opinion, I find your claim about Sid “sells lots of papers”, as rather suspect.

    I’d welcome your sources/citations to your claim that Sid sells papers.

  11. Submitted by Skip on 08/28/2009 - 12:44 pm.

    The ol’ Strib ought retire itself. Don’t reorganize useless chaos…liquidate the whole darn thing.

  12. Submitted by John Reinan on 08/28/2009 - 12:58 pm.

    I agree with everything everyone has said here about Sid, both the good and the bad. How’s that?

    In his younger days, he was a tireless worker and a very, very successful cultivator of high-level sources.

    Sid also knew how things worked in the sports biz — don’t forget, in the ’50s he was general manager of the Mpls Lakers while also employed as a sports columnist!

    But as his old sources (locally and nationally) retire or pass on, the sports business grows ever more complex and legions of Internet reporters and bloggers pop up, Sid is no longer the place to get the inside scoop.

    I was a copy editor at the Strib before I was a reporter there, and I can attest that even 20 years ago, Sid’s column came in more as a collection of notes than as a fully written piece. He dealt in information, not prose. I don’t imagine that situation has improved over the years.

    However, even to this day, Sid’s column consistently ranks as one of the top-read items on the Strib website.

    In fact, as I write this, it’s the No. 1 most-read item of today. Reading Sid is a comfortable habit that obviously many people continue to enjoy.

    Why does he stay? I can’t answer that, of course. I think that if I were financially secure, I’d be happy to retire at the usual age and turn my attention to other things.

    But I think Sid is one of those people who loves what he does and has such an identity from it, that it’s tough to let go.

    I was just a regular reporter with a byline, not a columnist with my picture in the paper. Even so, I enjoyed the minor local celebrity that brought me and it was hard to give up my tiny piece of the limelight when I left the business.

    For someone like Sid, I imagine it must be magnitudes tougher.

  13. Submitted by Alistair MacLean on 08/29/2009 - 09:54 am.

    Sid will die in the chair, at his desk clutching his giant tape recorder. However, his rolodexes will be worth their weight in gold or should be dipped in bronze and placed in the new press box at Target Field.

  14. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/29/2009 - 12:57 pm.

    Is it possible for anybody to be Sid these days? My impression is that in Sid’s hey day, the press as a whole was far less alienated from the sports establishment. Young reporters ran with the athletes, older reporters ran with management. A guy like Sid could hang out in the coach’s office down at the U of M and nobody would think anything about it. Am I correct in thinking that just doesn’t happen anywhere is sports today?

  15. Submitted by Howard Miller on 08/29/2009 - 07:10 pm.

    Perhaps if print media owners did not borrow so much money to buy each other up, concentrating the industry while piling up debt, they’d be able to afford to keep quality journalists like Mr. Gelfand – and Mr. Black, Mr. Grow, etc. – among their writing staff.

    The StarTribune is not as good a paper as it was, and it isn’t getting better by cutting back it’s product more and more.

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