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When a Pioneer Press reporter leaves, they take their job with them

A persistent hiring freeze in St. Paul means when a reporter departs, a beat can disappear.
By David Brauer

At the end of yesterday’s Pioneer Press staff memo naming St. Paul city reporter Jason Hoppin to replace departing statehouse reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger, editor Thom Fladung added words that brought a chill to Capital City hearts: “We will not be replacing Jason in St. Paul.”

Somehow, Stassen-Berger’s decision to seek greener pastures had left the PiPress’s namesake city with one fewer correspondent. Why?

The obvious answer: “We’re not hiring,” Fladung says.

Thanks to a persistent freeze dictated by owner MediaNews Group, the PiPress has not brought anyone aboard for over a year. When reporter Jennifer Bjorhus left for the Strib last winter, the PiPress business desk lost a body. Ditto when north suburban reporter Brady Gervais left earlier this summer. The scenario simply played out again yesterday.

If everyone remained, would the PiPress newsroom be bigger today? Perhaps in this most recent case, though probably not for long. The PiPress had an 11-person round of layoffs in June; Gervais was tacitly counted as the 12th. It might’ve been 13 had Bjorhus stayed. And Stassen-Berger’s departure may make the next cutback one person lighter. The MediaNews scythe has a way of swinging inevitably.

I asked Fladung why the St. Paul city beat was the one taking it on the chin.

“It’s been some time since Jason Hoppin has been able to really focus on St. Paul,” he noted. “For significant parts of 2007-08, we asked him to take a lead role in investigating the aftermath of the 35W bridge collapse. [H]e was at the Capitol while Rachel Stassen-Berger covered the Coleman-Franken election, and he’s been working on a couple of projects since the end of the session.”

In fact, Hoppin told me yesterday he “has something giant in his lap,” a story that will prevent him from assuming his new beat until fall. So in effect, St. Paul lost a beat guy when the bridge fell two years ago. The problem now is that Fladung and the PiPress must figure out how to work those giant projects down another body — in its way, a worse problem.

“Look, we’re not making a lot of easy choices these days,” Fladung says. “If you’ve got one for me, I’d welcome it. But I think we continue to have a good number of talented reporters and editors focused on St. Paul issues. Folks who largely focus on St. Paul issues (or St. Paul-related issues) include Dave Orrick (government and politics), Mara Gottfried (public safety), Doug Belden (schools) and Emily Gurnon (Ramsey County courts).”

“Tad Vezner, our nightside metro reporter, also often focuses on St. Paul-based stories. Recent examples include Tad’s 1A piece on Aug. 5 from a St. Paul neighborhood on National Night Out. And the July 30 1B package on the reopening of Yarusso-Bros. Italian Restaurant. Vezner, an impressively versatile reporter, also has been covering city council meetings now and again, as with the 7/23 1A story on city council passing an ordinance for a registry of same-sex partnerships.

“Additionally, metro columnists Ruben Rosario and Joe Soucheray often write about St. Paul-oriented issues.”

Fladung says his job is to prioritize, and redeploy reporters as big stories demand. All told, I count 54 reporters on the PiPress’ roster — more than double the reporting crew of Minnesota Public Radio (where so many PiPress reporters fled; fortunately, when MediaNews was still allowing them to be replaced).

I’m not trying to wish away a lousy situation, or excuse MediaNews’ bloodthirstiness — folks inside the shop are heartsick over their dwindling ranks, and readers are justifiably peeved they’re getting less.

Still, I count 32 “hard news” reporters still on the masthead, and that’s not chopped liver on the local news scene. It will be even more of a scramble over there than it’s ever been, and the trends stink, but the fact that we lament the loss of reporters such as Stassen-Berger show the PiPress is still worth paying attention to.