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The Star Tribune and taxpayer support of the media

Idle thought: If Star Tribune board chair Mike Sweeney is so against MPR getting taxpayer money, will he refuse to sell the Strib’s land for a publicly supported Vikings stadium?

That would send far more taxpayer bucks flowing to the new Strib owners than Bill Kling’s troops received from the Legacy Amendment.

Sweeney writes, not unreasonably: “We have numerous concerns about publicly funded news, but our primary question is how an organization funded by government can objectively report on government.”

Presumably, that goes for land-enriched media orgs reporting on football teams and stadium pushes, too.

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Comments (25)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/23/2009 - 10:13 am.

    “Is this fair to local rock concert producers?”

    Live Nation was the promoter, not the U of M.

  2. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 11/22/2009 - 01:07 pm.

    After the Strib’s serial hatchet-jobbery against Rod Grams and Alan Fine, I honestly don’t think either of them can manage “objective reporting” on anything close to government or politics.

  3. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 11/22/2009 - 01:19 pm.

    To answer your point more directly; there’s a case to be made that the stadium is a public good from which the Strib benefits indirectly. (Don’t get me wrong, I oppose pretty much all subsidies to anything). The subsidies to MPR will be pretty much direct payments that benefit only MPR.

    By the way – without massive government subsidy of the developent of the Internet, the MNPost would be distributed exactly how?

  4. Submitted by Andy Gifford on 11/22/2009 - 01:27 pm.

    Well, David: I suppose the question that needs to be ask/answered is: has the Star Tribune’s coverage of the negotiations to sell that land near the Metrodome, before talks and the market fell apart, been less than forthright.

    Otherwise, this is sheer speculation for speculation’s sake on your part, if you ask me.

  5. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/22/2009 - 01:59 pm.

    Andy –

    You’re actually making my point somewhat.

    Sweeney is strongly implying MPR won’t be objective about government because they get taxpayer bucks, but doesn’t actually give examples of that. So it’s innuendo. I’m just making the point folks can innuendo the Strib right back. Yeah, that kinda sucks, but my goal is a hypocrisy check.

    Mitch – you’re expanding a subsidy continuum toward indirectness, which is a reasonable thing. However, the “indirect” stadium benefit to the Strib is far huger and, I’d argue, not really that indirect. (What’s the price diff on Strib land with or without Vikes deal? At least $10 million, possibly more.)

    Our spiff (and that of all media outlets) from the Internet is puny, in scale and share, compared to that. I’d judge yours a reductio ad absurdum, especially since initial DARPA subsidies have been a non-factor in the web’s spread for years. It’s on par with complaining about the subsidy the Strib gets sending copies or bills via U.S. mail or driving on public roads.

  6. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/22/2009 - 02:30 pm.

    I’m curious about one thing. Is the Strib interested in doing substantially more reporting on outstate? Because if they aren’t, any point about who gets Legacy Fund money is rather moot as far as they are concerned.

    My understanding is that MPR has a lot of measurables that come with this money. If Sweeney wants to make a real case, the free market talk should be replaced with some specifics regarding how the Strib would serve that particular market.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Edman on 11/22/2009 - 03:17 pm.

    Doesn’t Sweeney’s argument equally suggest that the Strib cannot be trusted to cover a whole range of news because of the advertising revenue it takes.

    For example, Denny Hecker purchased huge amounts of ad space. Wouldn’t this disqualify the Strib fairly covering those legal proceedings?

    Glass houses, kettle black, etc…

  8. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/22/2009 - 03:18 pm.

    David Brauer is setting up a strawman over here. How does selling a piece of land contribute to the subsidy of the stadium ? The bucks that the Strib receives is for selling something of value. So if i sell my house to a person receiving a govt. subsidy am i getting that subsidy ? Common Mr. Brauer.

    Look at the cream puff job MPR did about the Allina situation. And u want more proof than that ?

    Let me toss the question to the other side. Show me any great story by MPR that questioned its DFL sponsors on anything substantive.

  9. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/22/2009 - 04:21 pm.

    Raj – c’mon yourself! You saying the Strib land is worth exactly as much with a Vikes stadium as without it? No way; millions of added revenue there from taxpayer stadium gift.

    (I mean, heavens, just because something is *sold* in the process doesn’t mean it can’t be subsidized, too. And by the way, yes, you are subsidized selling a house to subsidized buyer, generally. You’ll likely get a higher price or your house will actually sell, because of the subsidy. That’s $$ to you.)

    Definitely not saying MPR doesn’t have conflicts and encumbrances. But the Strib does too. Taxpayer-subsidized glass houses and all that.

  10. Submitted by Bruce Adomeit on 11/23/2009 - 12:24 am.

    You’re way off base on this issue. Standing to benefit from selling land is different from taking operating cash from the government.
    The Strib cannot recuse itself and ignore the Vikings stadium issue, any more than a certain Minnpost columnist cannot ignore issues that have a tangental relationship to his spouse’s employer. Disclosure is the key. You’re doing an admirable job of airing potential conflicts of interest, and I’m sure you’ll call out the newspaper if you detect any hidden agenda permeating the coverage eminating from 425 Portland Av.

  11. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/23/2009 - 06:39 am.

    Bruce – again, I want to make sure people understand the analogy.

    I’m NOT saying the Strib is in the tank for the Vikes – haven’t detected that at all. (To those who say the Strib features the Vikes too much, I think that’s a biz-journalistic decision unrelated to the stadium issue.) Just as Sweeney cannot say MPR is in the tank for government. In a sense, without a “violation,” he’s casting innuendo, and I’m showing what the shoe on the other foot can feel like.

    You’re right that direct operating support is different that a barely indirect lump sum, but I think it’s a distinction without much of a difference. MPR’s Legacy Fund grant is largely for one-time expenses … only the $400K to set up the Minnesota Today aggregation is operating (which is why I did a column on it), but that’s only a two year appropriation. The millions the Strib could get from a stadium subsidy is far more important to their continued operations, even though it’s not technically operating money.

    You’re right, short of recusal, transparency is the best option. But Sweeney is making it out like this is a one-way street … it’s not. (If he’d acknowledged the Strib’s entanglements, with a bit of humility, I’d have backed off.) And I haven’t even mentioned government-mandated public notices!

  12. Submitted by Adam Minter on 11/23/2009 - 07:01 am.

    I don’t like the analogy. The Legacy Fund money isn’t the sort of funding that the Strib – as a private enterprise – is eligible to receive. On the other hand, NPR, as a non-profit with government receipts could, in principle (not reality, obviously) compete to secure the stadium site. Theoretically, at least, that’s a government-endowed competitive disadvantage for the Strib.

  13. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 11/23/2009 - 07:14 am.


    Far be it from me to jump to David’s defense – I generally come to0 bury rather than praise him 🙂 – but I had to ask you about this one:

    “Show me any great story by MPR that questioned its DFL sponsors on anything substantive.”

    I’m not going to defend Public Radio’s “objectivity”; NPR’s institutional bias is so pervasive I hardly listen to it anymore. But in one example I’m intimately familiar with, I’ve seen MPR’s *news* (as opposed to programming) broadcast the dirt, for example, about Mike Hatch during the “American Bankers” scandal back in 2003 in a way that the Strib and PiPress just wouldn’t. Not that they pushed it *hard*, but they actually covered it.

    Unlike the Strib.

    I think there’s a much better case that the Strib is in the bag for, if not government, at least the currently-ruling party than MPR News at the moment.

  14. Submitted by John Olson on 11/23/2009 - 07:14 am.

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t the land the Metrodome sits on today previously owned by the Strib (or the Cowles family itself, separate from the Strib)?

  15. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/23/2009 - 07:23 am.

    Adam – Not sure I understand what you’re saying. There’s nothing, other than its own ethos, preventing the Strib from lobbying government a la MPR. I don’t think the Strib or for-profits are off-limits from receiving Legacy Funds.

    For-profits gets govt subsidies all the time. See: Vikings, who could well secure the site with government funds.

    John – Yes, the Cowles family was part of a consortium that donated the Dome land in return for development rights around it … which in turn, never did cash-flow!

    By the way, if I recall correctly, reporters (including our own Jay Weiner, and perhaps Doug Grow, and definitely some staff still at the Strib) took out an ad in their own paper calling their employer out on conflict-of interest. Ah, the good old days!

  16. Submitted by John Olson on 11/23/2009 - 07:37 am.

    I seem to recall a few column inches from a guy named Klobuchar too. It would be interesting to get their individual (or collective) thoughts on the matter then–and now.

  17. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 11/23/2009 - 08:49 am.

    Interesting discussion…

    Two things

    Ceteris paribus, I’d prefer to see for-profits do the news. A strong paper in St. Paul and one in Minneapolis would be ideal. Why for-profit? For taxes to support all the non-profits! At the point where this is uneconomic, the MinnPost and MPR seem to be good places to do the job.

    The business of becoming uneconomic, though, bothers me. Not to pick on MPR, but they are a good example. They already have bully podium and can basically subsidize their news operation in a way that the Strib/PP cannot and essentially drive them out of business. Another example, since I have a one-track mind, of this is the House That Bob Built (TCF Stadium). With this publicly subsidized stadium the U is apparently going into the rock concert business. Is this fair to local rock concert producers? Is this in the U’s mission? And where will the money go? Who decided?

    It seems to me that there ought to be more to a non-profit than just making sure that they don’t actually make a profit…

  18. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/23/2009 - 10:31 am.

    Can we leave aside the “Nonprofits will destroy us all!” rhetoric and examine the issue that is really at hand?

    MPR obtained funding from the state to do increase coverage of outstate Minnesota. What we know is that the money is coming from the Legacy Fund. What we don’t know is if this is in the form of a grant, which is to say that there was a public process that included a Request for Proposals (RFP), or as a contract for services. It’s been alleged that the process was a closed one, but it is possible to issue an RFP in a way that isn’t as open as it should be.

    From MinnPost’s perspective, we need to know if there was an open process or not to judge whether there is good reason to complain. The details of how open the process was might be very important, since there is often a lot of grey area.

    From the Strib’s perspective, their relative size actually works against their argument. For their position of dominance in the Twin Cities, the relative lack of coverage outstate overall demonstrates the need for some kind of support for someone else to do it. If the Strib was interested in this kind of reporting, they would have done it a long time ago.

    Sweeney’s beef was a much more general one, of course. But the timing of the rant and inclusion of the Legacy Fund shows that this has, at the very least, pushed him over the edge. Is there a more general case that can be made against any kind of taxpayer subsidy for MPR?

    The short answer is that most of the money MPR gets is nothing new, and the new part is for something the Strib is clearly disinterested in. The handling of the “Future of News” conference may have rankled Sweeney, and that’s a different story altogether – a tale of elitism that would require a more revolutionary bent to resonate well. My hunch is that Sweeney has no appetite for revolution and is only using the broader argument to make the case for his own bottom line.

    MinnPost might have a good argument here, but I haven’t heard it with enough detail to be sure. Sweeney has all the resources he needs to keep MPR in check, far more than the $2.65M in Legacy Funds. His tirade against it rings a lot more like fear than morality, a lot more like GM circa 1974 than a reputable argument.

    Appeals to “fairness” and populism don’t have to cross the line into demagoguery, but when a good chunk of the arguments being offered are clearly based on self interest any good reader can tell what’s up. There is a case to be made against MPR, and in this particular instance there may be an excellent story of intrigue and insider dealing. Call me a cynic, but I haven’t heard either one yet in a convincing way.

  19. Submitted by Adam Platt on 11/23/2009 - 10:50 am.

    Am I the only one who found Sweeney’s poke at MPR ironic in that the ST had just had numerous financial obligations discharged by the court in a bankruptcy hearing? It’s not a conflict of interest, but it’s in effect a subsidy. And if, as David suspects, the debt remains too high, they’ll do it again in a year or two.

    On the larger issue, I think we are coming close to an era where a more nuanced sense of conflict is going to be required because simply too many news organizations are going to have to muddy the waters in all sorts of ways to stay solvent. MPR’s savvy tactics will end up being a model for news organizations, and I say that neither endorsing it or denouncing it.

    And I don’t know whether that’s a bad thing entirely.

  20. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 11/23/2009 - 11:05 am.

    I would just like to point out that only about 8% of MPR’s operating revenue is received from Governmental agencies. “Revenue from broadcasting activities” (which I take to mean ad revenue) is 22% of operating revenue. Wouldn’t that make MPR more beholden to advertisers than the government? I guess my point is that it’s not like we’re talking 1980s ITAR-TASS, here.

    In addition, it’s nice to hear radio that consists of news and intelligent discussion rather than rantings, manipulation and name calling. Both libs and cons being guilty of the aforementioned.

  21. Submitted by Jeff Cagle on 11/23/2009 - 01:20 pm.

    Some of you need to stop with the bias arguments. You’re beginning to sound like the birthers and others in the health care debate screaming, “death panels.” I enjoy MPR as much as I enjoy PBS. It’s informative and accurate – which is why people (yes, regular people like you and I) continue to donate money to keep their operations going.

  22. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/23/2009 - 02:20 pm.

    If the Strib wants to sell land to the Vikings for a stadium that’s their business, I see no reason for the taxpayers to get involved either way. Comparing enormous and lopsided stadium subsidies of any kind to tax support for MPR gets us nowhere, why are we even discussing this?

    As far as it goes almost every major media outlet in the country is heavily invested in pro sports. The Strib devotes as much and some days more space to sports than it does actual news (sport almost never rises above the level of trivia). What would local news outlets do without the Vikings? spend more time talking about the weather? To the extent that the Vikings provide content the Strib has a vested interest in seeing them stay here and by extension seeing stadiums get built. Are the investors who own the Strib going to dump actual money of any kind in any way into a stadium? Are you insane? Why do you think all these stadiums are publicly subsidized to begin with?

    Forget the Vikings and their stadium, the issue supposedly raised is one of independence. Well corporate media is anything but independent as this very website demonstrates every day. I think programs like Frontline, Bill Moyers, Independent Lens, etc. demonstrate that public radio and tv can be more independent than corporate media in this country, and the BBC is certainly as independent as any US news outlet.

    As far as I’m concerned if the private sector can’t figure out a way to provide news, then the public as to step in. We need news, it’s that simple, without it the very concept of democracy become incoherent. The private sector has been collapsing for decades, whatever. For instance the day the lawsuit against Pawlenty’s unallotment was filed I don’t think a single local TV station covered it, at least not at 10:00, I didn’t see and I actually watched that day. It should have been impossible to miss. If that’s my alternative to tax subsidized news… tax me baby, do it now.

  23. Submitted by Steve Brandt on 11/24/2009 - 02:34 pm.

    David: I think the flaw in your argument is that the offer for the Strib land came from the developer heading the team, not the public.

  24. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/24/2009 - 02:41 pm.

    Steve –

    Depending on what land was purchased, and its purpose, I’d argue the Vikes amount to a pass-through agent between taxpayers and newspaper.

    Obviously, team kicking in some dough for a stadium project, but not most.

    I do understand the argument that if Zygi buys the land directly, and then uses it as bargaining chip with stadium commission, you can argue Strib $ private not public. But I think that’s too cramped a reading of the big picture

  25. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/25/2009 - 08:19 am.


    Talk about lack of independence, on the Strib page today there a story about Ziggy taking his stadium case to the “people”. If you click on the link it takes you to some kind of Vikings website, I’m not sure it’s even Strib content. It’s says at the top but it appears to be nothing more than a Viking booster site. What funny, is I couldn’t find the story about Ziggy when I went there, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to find it but it strikes me as bad form to have a link that doesn’t actually take you to the headline story. That may be good for the Vikings, but it doesn’t bode well for people trying to read the Strib.

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