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Star Tribune’s Pulitzer-winning managing editor settles in after Seattle loss

Suki Dardarian has been on a Pulitzer-winning team in Seattle, and now she steps into new editor Rene Sanchez’s old spot at the Strib.

New managing editor Suki Dardarian says, her “Job No. 1” will involve public service journalism.
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband

There’s probably no such thing as the “perfect resume,” but in print journalism, new Star Tribune managing editor Suki Dardarian’s comes close.

Over a career spanning three and a half decades, Dardarian has been a reporter at a small daily, then edited a mid-size metro, finally graduating to a managing editor slot at The Seattle Times, one of the country’s most respected regional papers.

Dardarian has national leadership cred, as former president of the Associated Press Media Editors. She’s earned a Pulitzer, as leader of a team covering a high-profile crime story.

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s a she — in an industry that values diversity, newsrooms still tend to be top-heavy with male management (which is why last week’s firing of editor Jill Abramson by The New York Times has aroused such ire). 

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If there’s anything Dardarian lacks, it’s regional diversity; until this year, her entire career had been spent within a 50-mile radius of downtown Seattle. Perhaps that’s why, when long-time Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman announced last July that he was leaving, Dardarian was not promoted to fill his slot.

That nod went instead to Dardarian’s fellow managing editor Kathy Best, who has a similar resume but has also worked on the east coast and in the Midwest.

At the time of that announcement, Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen named Dardarian to a newly created position: “director of audience development and innovation,” in charge of new products and programs aimed at building the newspaper’s print and digital audiences.

It was an important job, reporting directly to the publisher, but it was outside the mainstream of newsroom management, and a few months later, there was little surprise when Dardarian announced her departure to become senior managing editor at the Strib.

“When I heard she was going to Minnesota, I surmised that she had not been terribly happy” about losing out on the Times executive editor slot, said Mark Harden, who worked with Dardarian at two newspapers and is now news director at the Denver Business Journal.

Though Dardarian is 57, an age when other editors might welcome a sinecure, “she’s extremely competitive,” Harden says.

What happened in Seattle

Within the Times, there was a lot of speculation about why Best got the job, and what Dardarian would do next; one Times editor, requesting anonymity, noted that “Suki had a core group of loyalists in the newsroom, particularly among managers and some of the younger producers at”

Publisher Blethen faced a win-win situation, the editor said, with “two people in the newsroom at the top of their game who’d both won Pulitzer prizes. And Kathy Best is an incredibly strong journalist who says and does all the right things.” 

Publicly, Dardarian never let on, but her unhappiness become more or less official at the going-away announcement, said Susan Kelleher, a reporter at the Times’ Pacific Northwest magazine: “Kathy Best got all choked up, recalling how ‘Suki had every reason to hate me, but instead did everything she could to help me’ take over as editor.”

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Dardarian’s move makes sense for more than professional reasons. She and her husband, political columnist Pete Callaghan, have recently become empty nesters; their twin daughters are beginning to establish careers of their own (Anna is an intern at Outside magazine in New Mexico, Blair is studying physical therapy at Columbia University in New York).

Callaghan, who has spent three decades at the Tacoma News Tribune, is staying behind in the Northwest for now, but says he’s “eventually” ready for a mid-career sabbatical.

In addition, Dardarian should feel more or less at home in Minneapolis, a city that has much in common with Seattle, says Jacqui Banaszynski, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism who has worked at both the Star Tribune and the Times. 

“Washington [state] may be as much like Minnesota, politically and demographically, as any other two places” in different regions, Banasyznski says, and have been ever since James J. Hill built his Great Northern Railroad from one city to the other. “It isn’t like she’s parachuting into Texas.”

Politics in Minnesota and Washington state is dominated by the gulf between liberal cities and “huge rural areas where people tend to vote differently,” Banaszynski adds. “I think this will be a very smooth, quick entry for her.”

Harden met Dardarian when they were both just out of college and serving as daily reporters at the Everett Herald, just north of Seattle.

“The Herald used to have byline files — hanging folders where they put your clips. Occasionally, she and I would weigh our byline files after everyone else had gone home … a little contest to see who was working harder.

“It was all in good fun, but if one of us had a bigger file one month, I can almost guarantee that the other had a bigger file the following month.”

In the 1990s, Harden worked with Dardarian again in Tacoma, which is to Seattle what St. Paul is to Minneapolis. This time, Harden outranked Dardarian; he was News Tribune deputy metro editor and she was an assistant metro editor. But “I could tell that she was going to be rising in the organization fairly soon,” he says. “I wanted to rise myself and, as much as I like her, I didn’t want to be going toe-to-toe with her.”

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Harden left to become city editor at the Denver Post; Dardarian wound up being named one of two “senior team leaders” — the equivalent of managing editor — in Tacoma. She joined the Seattle Times in 2000 as an assistant metro editor, rising through the ranks to eventually become one of that newspaper’s two managing editors.

Job 1: public service journalism

At the Star Tribune, Dardarian (see accompanying interview) says, her “Job No. 1” will involve public service journalism:

“Watchdog journalism, good community coverage, arts coverage … shining a light on institutions in the community, and helping the community find its way as it’s going through all the changes that Minneapolis and the Twin Cities are seeing.”

That’s not very specific, she admits, but then, her arrival wasn’t really expected to set off any sort of immediate or revolutionary change. For one thing, she’s reporting to editor Rene Sanchez, who was already managing editor when former newsroom leader Nancy Barnes announced her departure last year for the Houston Chronicle.

Inside the Star Tribune, Banaszynski says, reporters and editors are already experiencing the same “charm offensive” Dardarian employed when she arrived at the Seattle Times.

“She’s really good at connecting with people personally … she was able to talk about baseball … peoples’ kids, than I ever was. She was just really good at that stuff, knowing who people were personally.”

Banaszynksi particularly recalls the “raucous conversations (Dardarian had) with women in the newsroom about where they got their shoes.”

As a newsroom supervisor, Dardarian is remarkably approachable and easy to work with, says Becky Bisbee, the Seattle Times business editor.

“She’s demanding, but it helps that she has this ability to articulate her vision. Some editors say, ‘I don’t really like this,’ and you say, ‘OK, what don’t you like about it?’ She would always be able to give you direction, to say, ‘This isn’t working for me, if we could approach this from a different angle, it might have more impact.’”

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Dardarian also has a gentle but firm way of saying “no” to ideas she doesn’t like, Bisbee noted: “She wouldn’t say, ‘that’s the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard,’ even though she might think so, but just, ‘why don’t you noodle that some more?’”