Why did Rachel Stassen-Berger leave the Star Tribune?

Over the past 25 years, the common migration in the Twin Cities has been for PiPress reporters to build up enough clips and credibility to move west to the Strib, where both the pay and readership numbers are higher. Sports columnist Patrick Reusse moved across the river. As did political writer Jim Ragsdale. Nick Coleman started with the Strib, shifted back to his hometown, then reversed course and returned to Minneapolis.

So when Rachel Stassen-Berger, the Strib’s sharp-tongued Capitol bureau reporter, announced in late December she was headed back to the Pioneer Press, where she worked prior to joining the Strib, eyebrows arched en masse. Conventional wisdom has it that the PiPress, at least as a business entity, has all but entered hospice care; that anyone who has an option to leave, leaves. No one buys back in, at least no under their own volition, and certainly not someone of Stassen-Berger’s value.

Yet that’s exactly what happened. A month into the current legislative session, Stassen-Berger—savvy, well-sourced, intensely-competitive, and hip to social media to the point where therapy might be in order—filed her first piece from her new (and old) perch, along with her usual torrent of Twitter posts.

Her new boss, Editor Mike Burbach, naturally professes great delight in having her back. “She worked here; we stayed in touch. We had an opening, and we made her an offer,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.”

For her part, Stassen-Berger explains. “Mike, who I’ve known for years and years, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I’m glad I didn’t.”

The opening was largely due to the semi-retirement of Bill Salisbury, another legend at the Capitol — and another example of institutional memory that is uniquely valuable in an intense, sprawling beat like state government. (There are reasons why people like WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler, KSTP-TV’s Tom Hauser and WCCO radio’s Eric Eskola hang on as long as they do. So much of what they know can’t be taught.)

The terms of the deal Burbach and Stassen-Berger struck include her functioning, Burbach says, as “10 percent bureau chief and 90 percent reporter.” What this means in practice, Stassen-Berger says, is that she won’t be responsible for editing colleagues Doug Belden, David Montgomery and Salisbury, “but I’m involved in shaping our coverage, sharpening our focus and getting the most out of our resources.”

Her PiPress team has been given more or less specific areas of coverage. Montgomery, hired from the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, is the staff geek, happily transforming data into digestible stories and graphics. Belden has what Stassen-Berger calls the “sins and vices” beat: legislation pertaining to guns, alcohol, tobacco and pot. “We’re still trying to decide if hemp comes under that banner,” she says.

Her over-arching mission statement, cooked up with Burbach and other editors downtown, is the mostly-vanilla-and-eminently-fungible vow, “To be distinctive. To bring clarity, and establish a point of origin for issues.”

Rachel Stassen-Berger
Pioneer Press/Ben Garvin
Rachel Stassen-Berger

None of which really explains why she left the Star Tribune. When asked for a response to rumors of unhappiness at the Strib, she replies bluntly, “I don’t respond to rumors.”

Pat Lopez, Stassen-Berger’s former boss at the Strib says only, “It’s a personnel matter and a confidentiality thing.”

While Stassen-Berger’s departure was the most conspicuous move, it also punctuates a trend for the Strib at the Capitol, as veteran reporters have moved away to other beats. Such people as Mark Brunswick, Mike Kaszuba, Jennifer Brooks, Pat Doyle and Baird Helgeson are gone, replaced by longtime AP reporter Pat Condon and a new crop: Ricardo Lopez, Abby Simons, and J. Patrick Coolican, with Allison Sherry in DC.

Lopez says there aren’t any specific issues that explains the churn of reporters through the Strib’s capitol office. As Lopez explains it, all is well and good, and she couldn’t be more excited to be working with her new team.

Star Tribune Editor and Senior VP Rene Sanchez echoes Lopez’s view. And though he concedes that the Capitol turnover raises a “reasonable question from people paying close attention” Sanchez says, “I defy anyone to show how our coverage is diminished or weakened by the changes we’ve made.”

He lauds Ricardo Lopez’s weekend piece on the state’s teacher lay-off systems as an example of the new juice running through the Capitol, and points to Condon as a veteran along the lines of Ragsdale. Asked why, given Ragsdale’s well-known health issues, he didn’t make a point of retaining Stassen-Berger, Sanchez says, “It would not be appropriate for me to deconstruct that.”

There is of course no way to prove that the Strib’s “pol-gov coverage” as Sanchez refers to it, has been diminished by the departures of so many established reporters. Condon and the younger turks will likely provide solid coverage.

But since it’s the Strib we’re talking about, the largest and best resourced newsroom covering state government, it seems both fair and reasonable to wonder what an unusually high number of veteran departures does to the paper’s coverage.

Will Stassen-Berger’s jump back to St. Paul cripple the Strib? Not likely. And Sanchez even argues that her presence across the river will make his new team all the better for the competition. And while it is true that worrying and kvetching is as instinctual to reporters as exhaling, the Strib’s situation on a target-rich environment like “pol-gov” bears noting, and watching. 

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Dan Kelly on 02/24/2015 - 12:14 pm.

    Conventional wisdom

    Re: “Conventional wisdom has it that the PiPress, at least as a business entity, has all but entered hospice care; that anyone who has an option to leave, leaves. No one buys back in, at least no [sic] under their own volition, and certainly not someone of Stassen-Berger’s value.”

    So much for conventional wisdom — as usual, the least reliable source in town.

    Dan Kelly
    Editor, Bulletin Board
    St. Paul Pioneer Press
    http://twincities.com/bulletinboard

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/24/2015 - 04:55 pm.

    Newspapers

    I used to love reading the newspapers for their in-depth stories on fascinating subjects. Now they’re such a shadow of their former selves that I won’t even take the Strib if it’s free. (They tried–I refused.) They’re just not worth my time and effort to have around the house, even as fire starters.

  3. Submitted by Fluffy Rabinowitz on 02/24/2015 - 05:50 pm.

    Departure of Capitol Staff

    How many people have taken other internal positions due to the less than professional working atmosphere under Pat Lopez. It is unfortunate the ‘Strib does not have employee’s complete surveys evaluating management on a yearly basis.

    Apparently Guild complaints and going to HR has absolutely no impact on the hostile work environment the Capitol Team is operating under.

    Rachel’s departure, along with Doyle, Brunswick, Kaszuba, Brooks and others is a symptom of wide-spread lack of leadership by Rene Sanchez.

    Glenn Taylor has a mess to clean up.

  4. Submitted by Steven Dornfeld on 02/24/2015 - 07:37 pm.

    A Swing and a Miss

    Brian, I’m happy to see you back writing about the media. But you whiffed on this story. Rachel was badly under-utilized at the Strib, and the editors have to be responsible.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/24/2015 - 10:12 pm.

    The Strib …

    looks like the local headed to hospice. The piece referred to, … “Lopez’s weekend piece on the state’s teacher lay-off systems as an example of the new juice running through the Capitol,”… was not I my mind very complete and therefore informative. Is that what a good piece of journalism is supposed to be ?

  6. Submitted by Scott Kelley on 02/24/2015 - 10:24 pm.

    Not the best start

    If this is your first “media issues” story for MinnPost ( I may have missed others), it falls a bit short of what I had hoped you’d make of the new role.
    This insider story doesn’t resonate with me any more than a story on why one lawyer jumped from one law firm to another. There are a lot more interesting media stories out there that have a bigger impact on your readers.
    Kudos to Mr. Kelly for his comments. Keep the cheap shots for the Glean.

  7. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/25/2015 - 09:40 am.

    Who’s on first or second or back to first…News?

    Remember the games one played as a child or at least I did; one of an earlier timezone… you played it in the alley till dark called the neighbor kids home…this reminds of that time as we wonder…who’s on first rather than second; paper trained journalists with local appeal?

    How sweet it is:Be it either/or news rags, no matter – that tell us little but local, regional news, sometimes in an investigative mode.
    … like the kids game, a game of “Captain may I” and who gets to take a giant step over to the other paper…papers one never reads anymore because worlds beyond our doorstep aren’t covered in depth but too often with standard acceptable conclusions?

    Call it a child’s game here wondering why one reporter played hopscotch back and forth when what is too often titillating fluff or centered on on local and regional; not much more.

    RIP possibly happened some time ago to both local papers sad to say from one cynical reader who goes beyond finding greater news sources… recognizing world press alternatives and weighing the alternate opinions?

    Question is an active verb best used by reporters, readers and the wordsmiths out there still trying to do a good story……

    I may want to eat my words here after reflecting but so much from one who thrives on uncertainties animated by my own mode of limited understanding…

  8. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 02/25/2015 - 12:41 pm.

    About Eric Eskola and WCCO-AM

    Didn’t WCCO and Eric part company some years ago?

  9. Submitted by Ron Rosenbaum on 02/25/2015 - 01:41 pm.

    Rachel Stassen-Berger

    Glad Brian is back covering the media. And think RSB is a terrific political reporter. But was disappointed that the intriguing headline appeared to be false advertising. I assumed when the headline asked why RSB left the Strib and moved to the PiPress, Brian would provide the answer. No such luck. The provocative question still hangs in the air. Anyone know the answer?

  10. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/28/2015 - 12:43 pm.

    Or better one…

    and just as significant?

    Question:Why did the reporter cross the road?

    Answer: To write for the other side?

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