Pioneer Press editor Mike Burbach remains involved in editorials

Mike Burbach
Mike Burbach

At big-city newspapers, editorial pages are generally separate from the neutrality-proclaiming newsroom. But at the St. Paul Pioneer Press — which has forcefully supported GOP positions during Minnesota’s shutdown — the newsroom’s top editor is also on the editorial board. 

The unusual situation has existed since April, when opinion page editor Mike Burbach succeeded editor Thom Fladung, yet kept a semblance of his former job. Asked when a replacement might be hired, spokeswoman Pat Effenberger says, “No decisions have been made about permanent changes of any kind.”

Thus, Burbach continues to craft the paper’s political positions while supervising the paper’s political editors and reporters.

Effenberger — herself an editorial board member — says, “Mike Burbach is necessarily less involved than before assuming the top editor position but, as a practical matter, is still involved in decisions about what goes on the opinion pages. Beside involvement with subjects and points of view, Mike does some editing, but writes only a little.”

One reason papers separate functions is to give the newsroom plausible deniability when opinionators take sides. It’s a strategy that mollifies almost no one. 

Minnesota Public Radio commentary editor and former Star Tribune editorial board member Eric Ringham says of St. Paul’s move, “The worst damage may be to readers’ perceptions.” 

He explains, “Readers already have a hard time comprehending the distinction between news and editorial, even on a good day at a newspaper with a high and unbreachable wall between the two departments. Editors protest that they are independent; many readers simply don’t believe them. The Pioneer Press is making the editors’ protestations even less believable. That’s a bad thing.”

In a sense, the Pioneer Press is becoming a smaller-town paper — more like, say, the Mankato Free Press. There, publisher Jim Santori’s editorial board includes himself and four editors, including the paper’s top editor, Joe Spear.

“Nobody gives us grief on the separation,” Santori states. “They all think we’re too liberal (mostly) or too conservative (rarely) anyway.”

Anyway, he argues against hiding opinions: “Objectivity is a myth. We’re all biased. We just need to recognize it going in and strive for fairness, logic and common sense.”

I know what he means. When I edited a couple of Minneapolis community papers, I was the editorial board, in the guise of an editor’s column. I’ve always figured it was better to let people know if I had an opinion, rather than trying to obscure it.  It didn’t reduce my commitment to fairness — and in a transparency kind of way, allowed readers to fully see where the boss was coming from.

Pioneer Press

Santori says ed-board members recuse themselves when they have a specific interest at stake. For example, he is on the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and steps away when that is a topic.

A reader would be forgiven for thinking business interests shouldn’t be involved at all, though publishers — who are ultimately responsible for the paper making money — regularly sit on editorial boards. 

In a way, the PiPress editorial board goes beyond Mankato’s mixing. Half of its members — publisher Guy Gilmore and Effenberger, who is the PiPress’s p.r. person — come from the business side. 

In the name of a collective “institutional voice,” editorial boards often operate with an omertà the Mafia would envy, refusing to discuss their internal debates. Therefore, there’s often no way to know whether the journalists were stomped by the business side.

Ultimately, Ringham says, the newsroom editor’s distance from editorials may not matter that much.

“The right journalist, with the right boundaries and a strong sense of professionalism, can make it work. But it can all be undone by a heavy-handed publisher or by unprincipled corporate control. If the newspaper’s business interests are dictating either news coverage or editorial philosophy, all the ethics in the world won’t help.

“And if those interests are in control, it doesn’t matter whether news and editorial have one editor or two.”

The St. Paul paper’s editorial keening will remain a subject of debate and its internal debate a source of mystery, but the key question is whether reporting has bent to editorial-page will.

The early conclusion from four close observers is no. I checked in with three Pioneer Press newsroom troops who I’d consider tripwires for editorial interference. The only complaint I heard was that the PiPress might again be cutting staff again by not replacing Burbach.

(The paper is down four senior editors in four months, including the editorial page editor. The PiPress contract forbids union layoffs for the rest of the year, but managers are not in the union.)

For an outsider’s perspective, I queried a DFL operative whose job it is to work the media (and work them over as need be). This person says the PiPress’s shutdown coverage has been fair, and could not detect any change since Fladung stood apart from the editorializing.

Will that mollify critics when a PiPress story is perceived to move in lockstep with editorial stances? It won’t, and it shouldn’t. Readers should ask if coverage is factual and responsible, and journalists should be willing to explain their thinking. In the case of the Pioneer Press, they will have one fewer traditional defense to use.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Diane Clare on 07/19/2011 - 10:03 am.

    It is truly amazing the amount of opinion seen across the board in what is suppose to be recounting of news. Many journalists are guilty of not owning their own opinions.

  2. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 07/19/2011 - 12:33 pm.

    Maybe Minnpost should take note and separate its content into editorial and news. Does Minnpost have an editorial board? Who are the board members? What are the members political leanings?

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/19/2011 - 04:48 pm.

    I have had no problem with Pioneer Press news coverage. I have in fact relied upon it for information. What I do find interesting is that the editorial page often contradicts their own newspaper’s beat coverage on specific, easily verifiable facts. Facts on which the news coverage is right, and which the editorial page gets wrong.

  4. Submitted by James Blum on 07/19/2011 - 05:01 pm.

    Maybe it’s the cynical view, but I don’t think most people today believe there is much standing between editorial and news at most papers, including the PiPress. Frankly, I’ve never understood why papers have editorials written by their employees – they haven’t really established their bona fides in the same way that people experienced in their fields have (for example, Michael Pollan on food production, or Austan Goolsbee on economic issues). In the rare cases I actually read a newspaper’s own editorial opinion columns, I take them with a huge dollop of salt for that very reason. In particular, unsigned editorials are kind of ridiculous – I understand the paper is making an editorial board statement, but it relies on the full faith and credit of the editorial board, and again you have the problem described in my first sentence – who believes they haven’t been influenced by business concerns?

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/19/2011 - 05:21 pm.

    Oh come on, Don Shelby was unbiased!! He carried on the Paul Harvey tradition.

    I forgot, Paul at least called it “news and comment.”

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/20/2011 - 07:20 am.

    I think people worry too much about bias, particularly because they define bias in such broad terms, that the charge becomes inescapable. Every decision a reporter makes about what to report, in the order he reports it, reflects a value decision. Every decision about how to cover a story and what prominence that story is to be given reflects a decision by an editor about what’s important. And if I know what any given person thinks is important, I have a pretty good idea what that person’s politics are, at least in objective terms. Only God is without perspective.

  7. Submitted by Hal Davis on 07/20/2011 - 05:37 pm.

    ==(Hiram Foster #3): Pioneer Press … editorial page often contradicts their own newspaper’s beat coverage on specific, easily verifiable facts. Facts on which the news coverage is right, and which the editorial page gets wrong.==

    Any examples come to mind?

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/21/2011 - 06:36 am.

    As I recall, the editorial page was wrong on state revenues, and their annual increases, among other things. Their figures contradicted a news story published in the same newspaper by their capitol beat reporter, Bill Salisbury. Basically, what they did is take Republican talking points, and misinterpret them. Republican talking points issues were very carefully and intricately constructed. They could be misleading, but they were very rarely outright wrong. But as they were passed along, by the PiPress and others, the nuances, the words of art, that made the tp’s technically correct were often left out, which made the versions of them, as stated secondhand, incorrect. This happened a lot with the PiPress.

    What happened a lot during the budget discussion was a confusion between revenue and spending. Because the numbers were the same, people seemed to think that the concepts of spending and earning are interchangeable, which of course, they are not.

  9. Submitted by David Willard on 09/02/2011 - 10:42 pm.

    Almost every baby boomer journalist with an agenda was weened on “All the President’s Men” and objectivity went out the window. Now, and for the last thirty years, reporters want to “make a difference.” That means reporting with a bias. if you want to advocate, advocate. Don’t piss on my head and tell me it’s raining. Nobody knew Cronkite was a Liberal until he was retired for a decade. now we get to hear how much this or that reporter distrusts Christians or Conservatives more. no wonder this medium is dying and no wonder MinnPost is headed down that trail while ON A NEW frontier. Quite the trailblazers. i guess Air America blazed it first.

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