This Sunday, readers of the Star Tribune will see something the state’s largest newspaper has never had since its founding as the Minneapolis Tribune in 1867 — a Black face in the local news columnist space.
That face belongs to ESPN college basketball writer and radio personality Myron Medcalf, 37, a Strib alumnus who left the paper in 2011. Medcalf returns as a twice-a-month Sunday contributor, given what Strib Editor Rene Sanchez calls “a blank canvas” and no restrictions on topics.
A combination of events, beginning with the death of George Floyd in police custody last May, finally moved Sanchez to address the paper’s most glaring blind spot — a lack of diversity among its leading voices. In an area with a growing immigrant population of color, opinion at the Strib has long been driven by faces as white as the paper it’s printed on.
Other than retired gossip columnist Cheryl (C.J.) Johnson, who is Black, the Strib hasn’t had a person of color write a regular, several-times-a-week column in any section. That put the Strib decades behind other major metros, including the Pioneer Press, which made Puerto Rican-born Ruben Rosario a news-side columnist in 1997. Rosario, a New Yorker, wrote with distinction until retiring earlier this year. (For what it’s worth, MinnPost also has no Black columnists.)
The Diversity Solutions Document presented to Strib management by non-white newsroom employees in July didn’t specifically demand a Black columnist, but it requested more diverse hiring. The Milwaukee Journal (now the Journal Sentinel) made the late Eugene Kane its first Black local columnist in 1994. What took the Strib so long?
“There’s no easy answer for that,” Sanchez said. “Let’s be frank: As an institution, it hasn’t been the absolute highest priority. We’ve had at times a revolving door of columnists.
“The factors that led to Myron hadn’t come together in prior years for lots of reasons — who’s on the radar, budget, things like that. But there’s no good excuse. It’s overdue. It’s bugged me for a while, and I was tired of it bugging me.”
Sanchez brings a different philosophy on column writing than some news executives. He prefers thoughtful columns backed by real reporting, instead of lightly-researched opinions dashed off in 45 minutes on the way to the golf course. “We don’t want columnists to be just an extension of talk radio and people screaming at each other,” Sanchez said.
“We ask our columnists to get out there and tell a story, but tell a story with a point of view and report it. Show things, don’t just say things. That’s the heart of the kind of column that should, and credibly can, exist in a news section. Myron understands that. And, frankly, I want someone who knows this community well and can speak broadly to our readership, not just a narrow constituency of our readership.”
Medcalf returns with ESPN’s blessing; he’s still under contract to the Worldwide Leader. Born and raised in Milwaukee, where Kane became his journalism hero, Medcalf moved to Minnesota to attend Minnesota State in 2001 and never left. He interned at the Strib in the summer of 2005 before then-Editor Anders Gyllenhaal hired him full-time to cover night cops and general assignment. From there, Medcalf moved to the St. Paul bureau before shifting to sports in 2007, covering University of Minnesota basketball for four years until ESPN beckoned. He continued living in the Twin Cities, raising three daughters while jetting all over the country to cover games and write features.
But lately, with Floyd’s death, something nagged at Medcalf. He thought of his father, Melvin, who rose from the assembly line to plant manager at Ball Corp. in Milwaukee. Melvin Medcalf and his wife, Barbara, a schoolteacher for 40 years, raised seven kids, two adopted after the death of a relative. All seven graduated from college, five with advanced degrees. Medcalf said his parents represented what was possible.
“The last six months have made me reevaluate kind of everything,” Medcalf said. “I think a lot of people are in the same boat. For me, I was disappointed in myself in what I had done to help, or what I hadn’t done. I’ve always felt this responsibility as an African-American male.
“My dad was a pretty visible guy in our circles in Milwaukee. He was involved. I always thought that was important. My dad would sometimes remark, `I’m the only Black parent at those school board meetings and all these different things,’ but he always would talk about how important that was. It might only be you, but if it is you, it’s because you’re in a position to do that, and you need to do it. For me, I was like, I’m not doing enough.”
Then Sanchez called. He knew Medcalf from the Strib and respected his work. They started talking, multiple conversations over several months.
Medcalf’s extensive sports background didn’t bother Sanchez, a former sportswriter. Sanchez listened to a podcast where Medcalf described taking his daughters to where Floyd was killed, at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. It resonated with Sanchez like a spoken column from the perspective of a Black father. (You can pick up Medcalf’s story at the 25:20 mark.)
“I would argue that sports reporters are some of the most versatile journalists in the country,” Sanchez said. “I have a lot of faith in Myron’s crossover ability. I don’t have an iota of concern about that.”
Medcalf plans his first column to explain why he accepted the role and why it matters to him. He feels some pressure, not only as the Strib’s first Black local columnist, but coming from sports to take it on.
He plans to start slowly, going out in the community, talking to people, establishing the credibility he needs to tell stories with a viewpoint people want to read. That’s how Eugene Kane earned the trust of readers in Milwaukee. Especially a certain impressionable kid who saw a Black face in the newspaper and aspired to be the next.
“Some of the early columns that you’ll see, honestly, will be what you might see from a brand-new columnist who didn’t live here, who’s coming into the city for the first time and getting to know people,” Medcalf said. “I think it’s important to establish that this is everyone else’s column, too. If it’s just me telling you my two cents, then it’s just a Facebook page. I think it has to be more than that.”