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‘I write to understand’: a Q&A with Bluestem Prairie’s Sally Jo Sorensen

Unlike bloggers who have little patience for the grunt work, Sorensen’s sprawling posts are chock full of statistics, documents and nutty things public servants have said elsewhere.

Sally Jo Sorensen: "I personally don’t think I have much impact on anything. I scrape by. I have fun."
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert

It’s easy to caricature the borderless, bottomless world of alternative media. We have, out there beyond the cautious, respectful, modulated world of professional journalists a universe of advocates for every imaginable cause, candidate, product and service.

Arguing from perspectives that range from the spectral to the empirical, and occasionally with a combination of both, the creatures of this unregulated universe post and opine with wildly varying respect for facts. They soldier on with only minimal chance of achieving fame and almost none of financial gain. Whether on blogs, via Twitter, Reddit, Facebook or the latest app­ du­ jour, it’s a lonely existence that rarely registers credibility with the tier of “real” journalists.

But out in a modest house in tiny Maynard, Minnesota, Sally Jo Sorensen is an exception to several of the common perceptions. She isn’t getting rich off her 10-year-­old blog, ​“Bluestem Prairie.”​ But where the vast majority of partisan bloggers — and she is certainly that — have little to no patience for the tedious grunt work of applying facts to their indictments of simple­minded/cynical/prevaricating lawmakers and wannabe government leaders, Sorensen’s sprawling posts are chock full of links to reported stories, government documents and statistics, as well as the stuff that is usually most damning: nutty things the public servant in question has said elsewhere.

There’s a funny dog­-with-­a-­bone quality to her pursuit of people like GOP state Reps. Glenn Gruenhagen and Steve “The Draz” Drazkowski, former Sen. Mike Parry and perennial candidate Jim Hagedorn.

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Point being: ​She works at it. She is unique set of eyes watching the landscape of Greater Minnesota, and rarely does a day go by without a feature­-length post punctuated with a dozen references to supporting material. Anecdotally, her aggressively liberal partisanship is a disqualifier for stature among some professional reporters, people for whom “both sides are equally to blame” is both conventional wisdom and safe harbor from criticism. Not that she cares all that much.

What bothers her a lot more, she says, are reporters who crib her research without giving her credit. Then there’s the state DFL, which she says has a pattern of tapping work she’s done for their communications machinery.

(DFL chair Ken Martin emphatically denies the charge his team lifts and strips material from Sorensen. “I like Sally,” he said. “She works hard. But she acts like she’s the only one who does this kind of opposition research. And where appropriate, we have given her credit for stories she’s written.” To which Sally responds, “They’ve never given me attribution.”)

An actual in-­person conversation with Sally Jo, as she prefers to be called, is an exercise in stream-of-consciousness. Topic A leads seamlessly to Topics B, C, H, and Q before circling back to A. Over her years, she’s supported herself by doing research for a range of organizations. Those experiences and her frankly remarkable memory for detail co­mingle and interweave with a density that requires acute attention. At one point early on in our meeting she said, “We’re not having a linear conversation here, so get used to it.”

Describing herself as, “a woman of certain age,” because she doesn’t want to give trolls any “fodder for post­-menopausal madness jokes,” she says she has never been married. “But I was engaged once. And I do like men.”

Born in Mankato, she grew up in St. Peter, attended Hamline for a year before dropping out and moving to Philadelphia and starting up again at the University of Pennsylvania. She got her Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas and did a year teaching at Iowa State. before shifting to what was then Southwest Missouri State. She moved back to Minnesota in 1996 and caught on ­­ briefly ­­ as a staffer for the DFL Senate Caucus. She’s since taught at St. Cloud State and at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson, where she also wrote a column on environmental issues for the Hutchinson Leader.

She is by any definition, a character. She’s combative and competitive in ways suited for the blogosphere, where adversaries are many and friends come and go with each new post.

We talked over lunch at Duffy’s Good Time Saloon in Montevideo. As we settled in, I mentioned a piece I was working on involving the University of Minnesota’s tight control of access to employees and documents, some of it related to the Athletic Department’s Norwood Teague scandal.

“Some part of that underscores the problem with access journalists,” she said of the episode. “Well, they can deny me access all they want. But if I can get the documents, I’ve got a story. But I run into trouble all the time. The Governor’s office has taken me off their access list.”

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MinnPost:​ Really?​ Dayton’s office?

SJS: ​Yeah, when they first got there they were really good about getting bloggers on their [communications] list. But suddenly, I was off. I asked everyone how I can get back on this list. I mean, it’s mainly in side offices. But what I’m saying is that although it bothers me, it doesn’t stop me because I don’t really do that kind of work. So what I’ve found is if I piss people off and I lose access, it doesn’t mean that much to me. I don’t rely on human services that much. I rely on tips somewhat. But being taken off some office’s list of who they’ll talk to isn’t as important to me.”

MP:​ The dual track thing, of access and accountability reporting interests me a lot. The mainstream regard for access reporting is that it is a paramount virtue. You don’t stay in the job if you can’t deliver the “who,” “what,” “where.” But the accountability side, which requires explaining “how” and “why” is less critical. Stories will run without those elements, but not with the first group.

SJS:​ Well, I look at the whole thing from this distance. The running joke is that I’m out here in my own private ​Alamut​. I’m one of the assassins out in the middle of nowhere trying to keep people accountable. But that whole metaphor falls apart because it really is a lot of Orientalist bullshit. It’s based on a lot of Western transits of Islam. But there are certain things about it that ring true.

MP:​ Before we get too far into this, I’m curious, how do describe what you do? How do you describe yourself?

SJS: ​Well, “independent investigative blogger,” I guess? That doesn’t sound like a very confident thing, does it? But it is what I do. Most of my income comes from donations from readers. I have a few clients. People who hire me to do research. But most of it is from readers, a lot of who are in rural areas like me and send me tips to things going on near them. So it’s maybe a form of “independent enterprise journalism.” I follow things that interest me. But I don’t call myself a journalist because I don’t follow some of the rules. Like if I’m ripping into someone, I don’t necessarily call them. On the other hand, I never publish anything I think might be defamatory and I don’t really go into people’s personal lives, because, who cares? Although I do get lots of tips on that kind of thing. I mean, I get people tipping me that so-and-­so is having an affair, or that someone else is secretly gay. And it’s usually along the lines that, “These people are ‘family values Republicans,’ and it’s so hypocritical.” Or if it’s about a liberal it’s that, “They’re such a bunch of hippie reprobates.” But all that is just an agenda they have for their talking points. But really, [she laughs] I just don’t care. I’m of the, “Unless it affects public policy, I’m not interested.”

For example though, the affair [Michael] Brodkorb and [Amy] Koch had affected public policy, because of the stories coming out of the Senate. There was one Greg Pratt had in City Pages where a Senator went anonymous and talked about the bullying that Brodkorb was doing and how he exceeded his job and started impinging on certificates of election. In that case it seemed to be related to the affair. But other than that you can go back and see I rarely write about that stuff.

MP: ​Because it’s so pulpy?

SJS: ​No. Because ​there’s so much out there that’s all about emotion. Emotion seems to be a companion to the storytelling campaigns you get from a lot of non­profit groups. You know, you tell stories about the minimum wage, or you tell stories about workers needing sick leave, or stories about the evil government coming to take your land. And it’s all the same thing. It comes from public relations. As a person who has a creative writing background, I find it kind of annoying because it sort of devalues storytelling. Because it’s ​not storytelling, it’s really just re­branding. It’s public relations. And this causes conflict sometime with non­profit groups and the DFL, because I resist their messaging. I’m not there to do that. Some of the messages are honest and good. But some of it is so dishonest I have to make the decision, “Do I expose the dishonesty in this and sink the cause?” I don’t know. Maybe I’m becoming more of a journalist. Because as I go on I’m getting more to the point where I’m in favor of exposing everyone’s lies. What bothers me, I guess, with the people who are pushing this [emotional] stuff is that they don’t really have much respect for their audience, nor do they have much respect for me.

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MP:​ Do you have any training as a journalist? Or are you entirely self­-taught?

SJS:​ Well, I had my junior and senior year with Sally Burdick at St. Peter High. She was a wonderful teacher. She was as hard­ass a journalism teacher as you could get, especially for a paper with the pretty unfortunate name of “The Peter Patter.” Which since we were all young and virginal, most of us anyway, we didn’t know what that meant. It got some laughs though when I went to Hamline and worked for “The Oracle.” But Sally clued us in pretty well to the “Five Ws” and using documents and interviewing. I did some freelance writing in Philadelphia for the City Paper, which just went down. Then I did creative non­fiction in grad school at the University of Arkansas. It was a class a bunch of us wanted taught, and it wasn’t all this touchy­-feely memoir crap. We had the late ​Bill Harrison​, who was a terrific writer and another real hard­ass. I also worked there as publicist for the University of Arkansas Press. That’s where I learned a lot about dealing with the publicity industry.

MP:​ Did you ever attempt to get a full-­time job with the mainstream press?

SJS: ​No. My training was in creative writing and I had worked as an academic.

MP: ​Did you ever ​want to get that kind of job?

SJS:​ Well, I’m not sure I’m qualified. When I first started blogging I didn’t pay much attention to journalists. But as time went on I got to know some of them, some really talented young journalists. Like Greg Pratt, who I mentioned, who is now with the Chicago Tribune, and Andy Mannix [formerly with MinnPost now with the Star Tribune] and Nick Pinto [now with the Village Voice]. People like that seem qualified to be journalists, you know what I mean?

MP:​ Do you have generally good interaction with reporters here in Minnesota?

SJS: ​Well, some, sure. I met Rachel [Stassen­-Berger of the PiPress] through the Freelance Writers Union while I was writing a column for the Hutchinson Leader back in the ‘90s. I’ve gotten to know Briana [Bierschbach of MinnPost], who is a terrific writer. So I think so. Others though get really … dismissive. For a while I let it bother me. You know, something they said on Twitter. But now I just say, “whatever.”

MP: ​You’ve said the state DFL has not been exactly fair about how they treat your work.

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SJS: ​Well, the DFL does that a lot. Sending out things based on reporting I’ve done, but stripping off the attribution. I’ve contacted them to complain about it, telling them, “Look, this isn’t about ego. This isn’t about emotion. This is about intellectual property, and best social media practices.” And Ken [Martin, State DFL chairman] wrote back once and said, “Well sometimes we may have strategic objectives.” But the thing is, I need readers and when you take my story and strip off the attribution, you take my readership away.

[See above for Martin’s response.]

I had that experience recently when I reported about the Seventh District’s GOP’s Facebook page​, which was saying all these crazy things, like how George Soros was a Nazi and warning people not to eat cilantro because Mexicans relieved themselves in the fields. And it happened again when​ I wrote about [First District GOP candidate Jim] Hagedorn​. 

But reporters are generally really good about attribution. Because it’s not an ego thing, or Sally Jo being a crazy lady. It’s just best practices. I mean, I’m not a fan of Michael Brodkorb. But if he breaks something, I give him credit for it. It’s just something I do. Jennifer Brooks at the Star Tribune is someone who is very good about crediting me for something I’ve written. I don’t want this to come off as a whine about how badly I’m treated. But all I’m saying is that if you follow best practices, it’s what you do. You don’t pretend you’re the one who found this, when you read it somewhere else.

MP: ​As an unapologetic partisan, how do you police yourself? I mean, it’s a tricky thing. You may have your focus primarily on Republicans and conservatives, with an occasional Democrat for good measure. But you do want the reader to perceive you as being fair, at least in the context that if someone says crazy things and does crazy things it is fair to point it out? 

SJS:​ Well, it became clear to me that I had to stop caucusing with the DFL in 2011. I guess that’s policing? I actually was an alternate to the state central committee. But about then a group of liberal bloggers approached Ken Martin about some kind of coordinated blogging activity. And then Ken, who I’ve known for a while and is a good guy, called me looking for support to be chairman and mentions this. I of course hadn’t been told anything about it. I don’t think the other bloggers wanted me to be a part of it. So all I could say is, “Ken, what are you talking about?” But the idea was that the DFL would come up with these little grants and “Bluestem” would then act as this amplifier/auxiliary blog and I was supposed to repeat party messages, down to using the same silly catch­phrases. It was one thing to wonder why I would want to write something like that, but then there’s the question of who would want to read it?

[In Martin’s version, the blogger consortium idea came in the wake of him cutting off a program by the previous chairman that paid bloggers, an arrangement that included Sally Jo. Sally Jo she was given a $2,000 contract to create a set of rules for such a consortium, but that it never got off the ground and she only received $1,000.]

MP: ​I don’t want to blow too much smoke your way, but reading some of these other bloggers, no one else is doing anything like the work you do. There’s no comparison in the amount of sourcing.

SJS: ​Well, I personally don’t think I have much impact on anything. I scrape by. I have fun. I don’t have people telling me what to do, or if they do, I don’t have to listen. That’s a real temperamental disability, I think.

MP: ​Do you do much phone work? Or do you prefer Twitter and e­mail for contact?

SJS: ​I prefer e­mail and looking at records. I do all my background work before I call anyone. But I guess I’m calling more, because of the nature of the stories now. Because, while I’m not a journalist in the normal sense, I feel journalistic ethics require to me to call to find out what is actually going on. On the other hand, if it’s just my opinion, which a lot of it is, I don’t bother.

MP: ​Let me​ ask you this, the Legislature is under pretty constant criticism these days for paying too little attention to out-­state issues. What’s your opinion of the attention Twin Cities media pays to out­state? Are they any better?

SJS: ​Well, it’s too much access. It’s too much of what’s fed to them by lobbyists. It’s what Tom Scheck [at MPR] calls “Big Rural.” You get the DFL and this law firm they’re paying lots of money to and a few mayors from around the state and, you know, that’s it: “Big Rural.” That’s out­state coverage.

MP:​ In my experience, the average person’s eyes glaze over at the mention of the influence of lobbyists. It’s a world they don’t understand and would rather pretend doesn’t exist.

SJS: ​Well, that’s why I write about it a lot. But the media for the most part doesn’t challenge the narrative that lobbyists present to them. I mean, the reporting is metro-­based. That’s understood. But that’s not a good excuse to simply buy these narratives, like what I call The Pastoral Narrative, the happy, peaceful good life on the land. The average person out here that I know feels very alienated and not listened­ to, and they feel the legislature and media doesn’t care what they think.

MP: ​And do you have any thoughts about TV, since all the Twin Cities stations play out here?

SJS: ​Oh my god, I was so happy you wrote that thing about WCCO and that “Going to the Lake” bit. It’s so silly. But I watch. I switch around in the morning looking for news. But the worst is WCCO. Do they really think anyone cares about this stuff? It’s like watching somebody’s junior high kids. When I hear Jason DeRusha talking about tearing dandelions out of his yard I want to say, “You [bleeping] bee killer!” All I want is the news. I was helping the Unicorn Riot people last fall. One of them is a friend of mine. And I was watching coverage for them during the Black Lives Matter Fourth Precinct protest. It wasn’t good. But TV, I look at it and I wonder who their audience is? I don’t think it’s me. It’s like talk radio. I’m just not interested.

MP: ​And MPR?

SJS: ​Well, I’m looking forward to Tom Scheck’s investigative thing. I have high hopes for that. Who knows where they go with it? But I think they pull back their horns on things, like for example, this World’s Fair idea and the bullet train [between Rochester and the Twin Cities]. There should be more skeptical coverage there. And in terms of enterprise journalism, I think there should be more attention paid to clean government. There’s still this kind of Minnesota Nice attitude floating around that nothing bad or nefarious ever happens here. I hope MPR pursues that sort of thing, the casual corruption everyone accepts.

MP: ​What was the inspiration to start a blog?

SJS: ​Well, it was back in 2006, and a friend was working for Tim Walz and I was doing some guest blogging with some other people. And there was a lot of attention on Patty Wetterling and Coleen Rowley, neither of whom I thought were particularly interesting candidates. So I was looking at other people, and I noticed Gil Gutknecht would often say one thing in one place and something else entirely in another place. But since there was no major media following it, no one noticed. So I thought I’ll just write about that race. Which is what I did. And it just kept on from there. It wasn’t like I had any special access to Walz though. Because a woman from one of these national Democratic coordinating groups talked to me and went back and told a group of DFLers, one of whom happened to be a friend of mine, that I was “evil and dangerous.” (Laughs). So I got very little cooperation from the DFL. Basically, there’s very little respect for what I do. 

MP: ​Alot of that comes with the journalism territory. The point isn’t necessarily to make friends.

SJS: Right. And I’m not here as an exercise in self­-esteem. It’s to know my material. I write because I want to share with an audience what’s going on and my understanding of it. So I don’t write to message. I write to understand.