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Pioneer Press editor Mike Burbach remains involved in editorials

At big-city newspapers, editorial pages are generally separate from the neutrality-proclaiming newsroom. But at the St. Paul Pioneer Press the newsroom’s top editor is also on the editorial board.

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.”

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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. 

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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.