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The best — and the not so good — of the past year in local media

“In the Dark”
APM Reports
“In the Dark”

Five days a week, I scroll through the interwebs reading stories interesting, important or just odd enough to fill the morning Glean here at MinnPost. No doubt there are people out there, maybe even among you, who read far more. My point is only that it feels like a lot to me, and I suspect it’s more than the mythical “average newspaper reader/news consumer.” 

Based on that status, and the fact that I appear to be the only person in town still regularly writing about the business of the media, I offer this review of the highs and lows, the good and not-so-greats of the past year in Minnesota print, TV and radio.

The disclaimer being that in no way was I able to read, see and hear everything. In fact, I put out a call on social media and via e-mail for suggestions and reminders of performances I may have missed.

With that out of the way, let's get to it: 

The very good (and much above average)

Steve Sack, Star Tribune editorial cartoonist
The 2013 Pulitzer-winner took full advantage of the most absurd and ridiculous campaign season in the memory of everyone one alive today. Whenever you thought the Strib’s editorial pages were flailing for a cohesive grip on the metastasizing freak show, Sack drew dagger-like attention to the nut of the insanity at hand.

APM Reports, Minnesota Public Radio
Long in gestation, MPR’s collaborative investigative effort finally debuted in 2016, connecting the local team of reporters and producers with like-minded outlets around the country. The first series out of MPR tilled ground made familiar by the station’s much-lauded “Betrayed by Silence” series on sex abuse cover-ups within the Catholic church. Reporting revelations of abuse and neglect at Mesabi Academy on the Iron Range, reporters Curtis Gilbert and Tom Scheck swung a harsh light on yet another example of children badly mistreated by a bureaucracy charged with protecting them. A separate podcast series, on the Jacob Wetterling disappearance, by Madeleine Baran, called “In the Dark,” was knocked for a loop by premiering at the very moment the case was being resolved. Nevertheless, those who listened were rewarded with significant additional context into why it took authorities 27 years to put the final squeeze on the confessed killer. All in all, APM Reports delivered quality goods. Still, and this may just be a personal thing, I’d like to see them take on someone with both financial and political heft. (The Archdiocese is a piker compared to, say, the state’s medical technology and health insurance industries.)

The hamstrung warriors of the Pioneer Press
The realities of being the second paper in this market are bad enough without the indignities relentlessly forced on the PiPress by its hedge-fund owners. Still, day after day, the place turns out a handful of stories worth reading about life east of the river. In particular, Tad Vezner, Fred Melo, David Montgomery, Rachel Stassen-Berger, Mara Gottfried and Ruben Rosario. They may be chopping up the furniture to stay warm, but they’re still doing good work.

Mike Mullen, City Pages
Since its absorption by the Star Tribune, the one-time alternative weekly seems to have accelerated its embrace of what-to-buy, where-to-eat service journalism, a very crowded street corner to work in this day and age. Mullen, though, maintains the spirit of alt weeklies of yore, freely expressing cathartic levels of righteous indignation, while “traditional” coverage smothers its fire in politesse. Thank you. 

The Strib’s special projects
At first glance, the Strib's long-form (often multi-part) projects can seem daunting, earnest and eat-your-vegetables gray. And yet, each of those projects in 2016 — from Jeff Meitrodt’s examination of the myriad dangers of farm work to Andy Mannix's deep dive into the overuse of solitary confinement in Minnesota prisons — proved a rewarding read. I confess I had to block out special time, and another cup of coffee, to read them, a rare concession in our “just gimme the headlines to my fake news” culture. But I was never disappointed. My time was never wasted. 

WCCO-TV’s Pat & Esme Show, aka “Campaign ’16”
Don’t bother making a note-to-self to catch it this weekend. It’s not on anymore. It was a short-term, fall campaign, grab-a-few-more-ad-dollars addition to ’CCO’s late Sunday news. (In Mark Rosen’s old timeslot.) The half-hour mashed together Kessler, the dean of the state’s Capitol reporters, and the equally-as-veteran-and-far-more-intense Esme Murphy to talk politics and pepper candidates with questions. It was good TV, and occasionally even entertaining. Which, if you want the average Joe and Sally to pay more attention than they do to who is zooming who in St. Paul, is a good thing. 

Paul Walsh of the Strib
Don’t give me that, “Who’s he?” Walsh probably wrote more of the stories you talked about with your spouse, your friends or your cubicle-mates than anyone in town. It’s Walsh’s job to put something together off police scanners and other pipelines to public (and private) mayhem, gross intoxication, jaw-dropping stupidity and all forms of bizarrerie … and do it quickly. I’m certain I’ve linked to more stories in The Glean from Walsh than any other reporter. Not just because they’re weird/funny, but because he lays out the vital details so neatly, usually in 400 words or less.

The coverage of the Wetterling case
Let’s hear it for the pros. Most of the town’s press handled the discovery of Jacob Wetterling’s remains and his killer’s confession with commendable restraint and dignity. Particular notes of recognition go to people like KSTP’s Tom Hauser and Paul McEnroe and WCCO-TV’s Bill Hudson for simply getting the story and getting themselves out of the way of it. (Nods also to their respective bosses, Anne Wittenborg at KSTP and Mike Caputa at ‘CCO for enforcing that restraint.)

Tom Lyden, KMSP-TV
How do I know the Crotchety Geezer thing is really kicking in with me? Because every time I see a “reporter” chirping on about some fabulous new shopping opportunity, I start ranting, “That is not a news story! That is a commercial!” By the starkest of contrasts, a contented smile usually works its way across on my face when I watch Tom Lyden do his thing. The guy knows what the camera is all about and sells the importance of whatever he’s reporting — which is never some new shoe store at MOA. Lyden, now paired with Jeff Baillon in KMSP’s investigative unit, broke the story of Gopher wrestlers selling Xanax as a side gig, along with a dozen other significant hits last year. Highly competitive, unabashedly theatrical (when he feels like it) and just a wee bit opinionated, Lyden continues to be the antithesis of the sterilized Stepford TV reporter.

MinnPost’s own Briana Bierschbach
It’s very un-Minnesotan to flatter one’s own, but a consequence of life at an online publication like MinnPost is that many of us never cross paths. We’re only known to each other by what we write, which, in Bierschbach’s case  — covering the Minnesota Legislature — is both committed and insightful. 

Honorable mentions
Not to diminish them because of their enduring eminence, but Stribbers Patrick Reusse and Jon Tevlin have been so good for so long that another year of quality work doesn't seem extraordinary anymore. Tevlin’s prose is always a pleasure (and OMG, did our mutual late friend, David Carr, gush over the guy). And as for Reusse, there’s clearly a vast reservoir of compulsive energy at work. How else do you explain a guy who’s got some kind of semi-retirement deal going and cranks out so much irresistible copy every week?

And in the realm of, “We’d like to see some improvement here …”

Has anyone heard of a thing called “Wells Fargo”?
The story of an outrageous-but-not-all-that-shocking internal system that foisted all manner of unwanted “products” on the bank’s customers was treated like the significant national story it was by news outlets here in WF’s hometown (the current company took Wells' name and its San Francisco address after a 1998 merger with Minneapolis-based Norwest Corp, but its corporate DNA very much remains that of Norwest) … until it wasn’t. While practically every day there is a new development as reporters elsewhere peel off layers of eye-rolling chicanery, Twin Cities news desks have, well, moved on

Two things about The Current
First, what happened to Brian Oake? In his previous gig at Cities 97, Oake was your go-to jock for an encyclopedic range of news and factoids on music and musicians. These days he works mornings with Jill Riley, and by the sound of their stiff and scripted-sounding interaction, I’m thinking the two work in separate buildings and still have never met. I know MPR is a rule-bound culture, but, come on, spontaneity is not a vice. Thank god for Mary Lucia’s comforting world-weariness in the afternoons. 

Second: Rock the Garden, aka the promo that never ends. Kind of like sports jocks feeding off the next NFL draft 24/7/365, Current hosts are required to relentlessly hype the station’s big summer concert event. Which leads a discerning listener to wonder: If this thing needs this much air time for hyping, maybe it’s not that great an attraction to begin with.

The other side of the Wetterling coverage
As noted above, coverage of the Wetterling case, arguably the biggest story of the year, was generally respectful. Except for, invariably, the occasional TV reporter/anchor who couldn’t resist the impulse to impress us with how deeply the story affected him/her. Overt expressions of empathy and sensitivity is the stuff of morning chat shows; it should be quarantined there.

And finally: CJ vs. Jana’s skinny jeans
A funnier man than me described this incident as, “Two Odd Birds Colliding in Mid-Air.” The Strib’s putative gossip columnist stepped into a social media minefield when, out of deep left field, she took KARE-TV reporter/host Jana Shortal to task for wearing … skinny jeans … while discussing the Wetterling case. Say what? Strib management responded by restructuring CJ’s gossip column into a celebrity Q&A featurette.

I could go on, but I don’t get paid by the inch.

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Comments (5)

I can't believe your praising the Wetterling coverage?

A child is kidnapped and murdered and how many decades later the media resurects and exploits that tragedy for weeks on end and that's a "best" of the media? Certainly the recovery of his poor body and the capture of his murderer were newsworthy, but the all Jacob all the time coverage was a disgusting media spectacle determined to wring every last ounce of dignity out of a murdered child's tragedy. Such blatant exploitation's of tragedy by a media clamoring for attention is a poor example of "exceptional" journalism.

Shame rather than praise is in order here.

But maybe that's just me.

Ed Lotterman

His Sunday column in the PioneerPress on economic issues is top-notch.

I second the Ed Lotterman nomination

His real-world economics column strips away the cant and lets us know how economists view the world -- and he acknowledges the limits of that view.

A big Thank You

Brian, thanks for the work you do to try to keep the media real. We need your services as a media watcher and true-gleaner now more than ever!

Wetterling coverage was journalism at its best

The American Public Media story revealed the dangers of living in counties with poor crime solving tendencies. It uncovered how citizen blogging and research actually solved the crime and explained how this crime changed our perceptions of sex crimes and began registering sexual criminals. Bravo APM and mnpost for nonprofit journalism going where small town journalists cannot. Far from exploiting tragedy, the story explained WHY it happened. That is the difference between sensational crime reporting and actual reporting. This is where nonprofit journalism shines its light. Bravo APM, bravo mnpost.