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Star Tribune hires Lee Schafer as new business columnist

Given his more recent work as a “corporate development guy,” Schafer comes with a few conflicts.

Lee Schafer
Photo by Craig BaresLee Schafer

When the Star Tribune set out to hire a new business columnist, they picked a businessman.

It helped that Lee A. Schafer — who replaces Eric Wieffering in early June — has been a journalist, most recently as a Twin Cities Business columnist and more formidably, as a senior editor at the late, lamented Corporate Report.

Given his more recent work as a “corporate development guy,” Schafer comes with a few conflicts, and so do I. Corporate Report — which covered the business world in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s with a more critical eye than any magazine since — was one of my favorite places to work, and Schafer was one of my favorite people. Funny, sardonic and smart, Schafer can be every bit as good as Wieffering, who was no Chamber of Commerce toady and has since been promoted to the Strib’s managing editor for News.

Still, Schafer comes packaged with paychecks from some of the businesses he might cover. As with Wieffering (who had a far briefer stint on the corporate world between Strib gigs), readers won’t know Schafer’s clients, but business editor Todd Stone has the list.

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Explains Stone, “Lee will not be writing about a client in any way in the next year, a year from when he starts. From that point on, we’ll take it on a case-by-case basis; he will not do a column where there is a clear conflict of interest or a reasonable perception.”

Schafer won’t disclose his roster — “that’s my client’s information to share, not mine” — but he said a few are well-known to local business types. Global consumer-products firm Johnson & Johnson is one, along with locals IntriCon, RTI Electronics and HickoryTech.

Schafer is selling his current firm, Sargent Advisors, and will get rid of “a couple of investments in publicly held companies in our market,” he says.

At Corporate Report, Schafer was among alums including Wieffering, David Carr, Jon Tevlin and the late Terry Fiedler, who edited the mag before going to the Strib business section. The Mac grad was sharp enough to work as director of investment banking for Northland Securities and describes his recent work as, “Working on behalf of a buyer to find an acquisition candidate, joint venture partner, evaluate a new market, technology, or candidate, and potentially help raise capital for growth plan.”

So why take a pay cut for the uncertain world of newspapering?

“I’m in my 50s, got college education salted away, a highly productive spouse [real estate developer Tanya Bell],” Schafer notes, “Business is going well, but I mean gee, David, this is a column, as much fun as you can have at work,” he quips. “I’d have been a fool to turn it down. A daily newspaper column – it’s the biggest deal in this market, now and probably forever. It’s just enormously fun and satisfying.”

As good as Schafer is, his hire does provide another example of journalism who-you-know. I asked Schafer if he thought about applying for the job after Wieffering’s promotion announcement. “Oh gosh, no,” Schafer replies. “Eric called first. He said ‘If you’d think you like to do this, I’ll float your name.’ He made it clear he had no authority to make the hire. He had no involvement after that.”

Schafer said managing editor Rene Sanchez was “very aggressive” in his pursuit, and after lunch with Sanchez and editor Nancy Barnes, “I knew I wanted to do it. The paper has challenges, and they’ve come through a lot, but the leadership is really good.

“I wanted to hear I wasn’t on my own – I’m not like other people who want to be left alone; I’ve always valued an editor, and I want to be engaged in the newsroom.”

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Stone says the Strib conducted a national search — “there were at least 50 candidates, probably less than 100″ — with a few local applicants. I had four main criteria: someone who understood business and the nature of how it works; someone who could translate business into something provocative; someone who could be tough-minded but fair; someone who knew the Twin Cities business community. I went in thinking I was not going to get someone with all four, but Lee fit the bill.”

When I broke news of Schafer’s hiring on Twitter, I heard back immediately from Emma Carew Grovum, a former Strib staffer who noted, “another missed opportunity … to diversify the ranks of those whose work runs w/a photo of their face.”

Stone — who notes the business desk’s reporting and editing ranks includes two African-American and two Asian American reporters — says the Strib made sure it advertised the opening in places heavy with minority journalists. Still, he says, “At the end of the day, the best candidate wins.”