New Star Tribune board chair: Pay up or we shut up

It’s Star Tribune Bankruptcy Emergence Day, and to celebrate, new board chairman Michael T. P. Sweeney lays it on the line in a letter to readers:

Primarily, the challenge is finding new ways to finance the quality journalism that you have come to expect of us. Ultimately, you get to decide what information you want, how you want to receive it and at what price. The debate about the future of newspapers is really a debate about what you, as readers, are willing to support. It is incumbent upon us to provide the content you value, distributed through the media you prefer.

I’m afraid that if you left it up to many readers, this would mean lots of Brett Favre stories delivered to cell phones for free — though for once, I’m not the most cynical guy in the room. That would be City Pages’ Kevin Hoffman, with an entertaining takedown of Sweeney’s brand of Meeting Bingo.

Still, it’s hard to argue with this particular part of the board chair’s missive.

Had Sweeney been a bit blunter, he’d simply say that in the coming months, you’re likely to see higher prices for “the content you value” — including the paper and new or walled-off digital content such as Access Vikings.

Now, readers can rightly complain they’ve seen less of such content in recent years, so why should they pay more? This is the death spiral affecting modern newspapering, and so far, the responses have not been revolutionary.

Sweeney refers to the role the Strib plays “in the democratic and social processes of our community.” While Favre probably represents the latter, in the former case, the paper deserves credit for what might be called (not unkindly) a retro response during bankruptcy: hiring an investigative editor, a top-notch political reporter (plus a second hire any day now), creating a military beat and reviving the nonprofits beat that has been vacant since Bob Franklin left the newspaper.

At the same time, the guts of the newsroom, its copy editors, were ravaged, along with the paper’s designers and other non-bylined journalists. As noted earlier today, the editorial board rendered more cautious during the Avista years can’t get to endorsements in interesting races.

There are still over 200 of the best journalists in town at the paper, who cover events with a speed, depth and precision that is too often taken for granted. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of coverage you can get elsewhere, too few apple carts upset, too little societal change fomented.

There’s no doubt in my mind that newspapering’s advertising retrenchment is permanent, and readers must pick up more of the tab. If Sweeney will commit to a more aggressive, less hidebound, less corporate product, my wallet, for one, will follow.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by karl anderson on 09/28/2009 - 11:03 am.

    I am confused with your analysis.

    What is happening to the newspaper industry will effect Minnpost. What revolutionary revenue stream do you, HuffingtonPost, TheDailyBeast, etc. have that the Strib, NYTimes, etc don’t have?

    Secondly, many of these ‘alternatives’ are losing money. Social network advertising on Facebook? Twitter? They are all losing money.

    So where does this leave us?

    Assume the NYTimes, Strib, etc go away, and you, Twitter, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, etc go away because they cannot secure financing what exactly will provide us real (not Glenn Beck News) each day?

  2. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/28/2009 - 12:13 pm.

    Simply put, we have a higher percentage of member financing and foundation support. The latter, for the moment, isn’t really available to papers.

    Our cost structure is also lower. That’s not necessarily sustainable, or good for journalism writ large, but it is an advantage.

    I don’t buy the paradigm that if newspapers die, news sites die. The community would be much poorer for it, in my opinion, but the opposite is more likely true.

  3. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 09/28/2009 - 01:00 pm.

    MinnPost has done some great innovating. That’s really what’s been lacking at the Strib.

    It’s simply not enough to say, “Our customers need to pay more,” or even, “More of our customers need to pay.”

    Any business which chooses either of those as a growth strategy will fail, and quickly. That may sound strange, but you cannot force a customer to pay more or even pay anything. All you can do is make sure you provide a product that your potential customer wants and then price it properly.

    What the Strib management has yet to realize is that, when your customer has lots of choices, you either have to do something no one else is doing or be better/cheaper than everyone else.

    And it doesn’t hurt to hire a marketing genius or two.

  4. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 09/28/2009 - 06:11 pm.

    Death spiral is the perfect word for what will come from paywalls. Newspapers have always been free. Historically the price of a newspaper has reflected the cost of printing and distributing it. The content was paid for by advertisers. The internet has radically lowered the cost of delivering news.

    Newspapers are the victim of their own very bad business decisions, complicated by owners selling their newspapers to business folks who don’t know the first thing about the industry.

    Newspapers that have not changed ownership or taken on debt have done quite well. I hope many of them survive the coming shake out.

    As for the debt-ridden losers? New news media like MinnPost will expand and grow to meet the need. It’s not like we’re losing any journalists or editors — just the parasites with briefcases.

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