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Year in review: Minnesota’s seven biggest media stories of 2021

 For journalism in Minnesota, 2021 turned out to be a much better year than 2020. 

Southwest Connector
Tesha Christensen started the Southwest Connector to cover the South Minneapolis neighborhoods that had been served by the now defunct Southwest Journal.
MinnPost photo by Tom Nehil

Even with COVID-19 still among us, 2021 turned out to be a much better year in Minnesota journalism than 2020, with a lot more positive developments and signs of optimism for the future.

1. The Star Tribune wins a Pulitzer 

The Strib’s ongoing reporting on the 2020 death of George Floyd, with police reporter Libor Jany writing or co-writing three of the five story entries, brought journalism’s highest honor to Minnesota’s largest news-gathering organization. The Pulitzer jury praised the Strib “for its urgent, authoritative and nuanced coverage of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and of the reverberations that followed.” The comprehensive entry included photos and an interactive graphic.

It was the paper’s fourth Pulitzer since the morning Tribune and afternoon Star merged in 1982, and the first since winning two in 2013 — Steve Sack for editorial cartooning, and Brad Schrade, Jeremy Olson and Glenn Howatt for local reporting. 

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The St. Paul Pioneer Press won three Pulitzers from 1986 to 2000. The last, by sportswriter George Dohrmann, exposed academic fraud in the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program that led to NCAA sanctions. 

By the way: The Strib’s reporting team included Jackie Crosby, now a two-time Pulitzer winner. Crosby and Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and News colleague Randall Savage shared a 1985 Pulitzer for Specialized Reporting, making Crosby, then 23, the youngest winner in contest history. Twenty-two-year old photographer Stephanie Welsh of Newhouse News Service beat Crosby’s mark in 1996; Crosby remains the second-youngest winner. 

2. New Jersey firm buys newspapers statewide

So what is CherryRoad Media, and why is it buying up Gannett papers in Minnesota and five other states?

CherryRoad is part of a technology company based in northern New Jersey. Last year it acquired the Cook County News-Herald in Grand Marais, and in July it launched the Rainy Lake Gazette in International Falls shortly after the International Falls Journal folded. More recent acquisitions include the Crookston Daily Times, Granite Falls Advocate-Tribune, Montevideo American News, Redwood Falls Gazette, St. James Plaindealer, Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch and the Tri-County News of Cottonwood.

To those of us in journalism, any owner is better than penny-pinching Gannett, or the vulture hedge fund Alden Global Capital that runs the Pioneer Press. Both companies cut staff and strip their properties to the bone to maximize profits. So far, CherryRoad CEO Jeremy Gulban has said all the right things about the importance of local newspapers.

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“We look forward to supporting the communities our papers serve in every way we can,” he said in a statement to the USA TODAY Network. “There are many exciting initiatives on the horizon with this new endeavor, with much more to look forward to in the months ahead. Please continue to support your local newspapers and journalists. They serve to remind of us of where we have been, as well as where we are headed.”

3. The Strib names its first Black sports columnist

Last year we told you about the Star Tribune’s effort to address its newsroom diversity and improve relations with reporters and editors of color. That included hiring Myron Medcalf as the paper’s first Black Metro columnist and appointing night photo editor Kyndell Harkness as assistant managing editor for diversity and community.

As Harkness noted recently in the Strib, that work is ongoing, but there has been progress. Harkness reports half of recent hires in the newsroom are journalists of color. One is features columnist Laura Yuen, an Asian-American woman hired away from Minnesota Public Radio. 

La Velle E. Neal III
Star Tribune
La Velle E. Neal III
Over in sports, this year Twins beat writer La Velle E. Neal III became that section’s first Black general columnist, breaking up its longtime lineup of middle-aged white men (Patrick Reusse, Dennis Anderson, Jim Souhan and Chip Scoggins). The Strib and Pioneer Press have long lagged many of its peer newspapers in sports columnist diversity, so this helps.  

4. New ventures fill news deserts

Layoffs and newspaper closings dominated media news in 2020, with City Pages and the Southwest Journal among the Twin Cities metro losses. In 2021, new ventures began filling some of the voids. 

Four City Pages alumni launched Racket, an arts and entertainment web site in the cheeky spirit of the pre-Strib-owned CP. Like all good alt-weeklies, Racket mixes serious with silly, and doesn’t hold back. Its recent rankings of local pizza “chains” brought the predictable pushback from readers offended to see their favorites savaged.

And two new entities jumped into the Southwest Journal’s old territory, with contrasting delivery and advertising methods. The online-only, member-supported Southwest Voices launched in September. And earlier this month TMC Publications, which owns the Longfellow Nokomis Messenger and Midway Como Frogtown Monitor, introduced the Southwest Connector, a traditional print product.

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These add to a media landscape that saw the Minnesota Reformer, Sahan Journal, Axios Twin Cities and Eden Prairie Local News join the online mix in the last three years. All do terrific work. More is better.

5. KARE-11 hires first Black sports director

Norman Seawright III
Norman Seawright III
Local television news is another area where diversity lags behind the rest of the country, especially in sports. When Mark Rosen retired in January 2019, WCCO-TV hired Norman Seawright III, who is Black, as a weekend sports anchor after promoting Mike Max to Rosen’s sports director post. Seawright is WCCO’s first Black sports anchor-reporter since Bob Rainey died of colon cancer in 2008. 

KARE-11 did WCCO one better, bringing in Reggie Wilson from WCPO in Cincinnati as sports director when Eric Perkins left the station. Wilson is believed to be the first Black TV sports director in this market. Wilson delivers a more conventional sportscast than the goofy Perkins did, but his breezy style and engaging on-air personality fit well at the KARE-11 anchor desk.  

6. Boyd Huppert diagnosed with cancer

Speaking of KARE-11, the news of Huppert’s blood cancer diagnosis hit his colleagues and viewers hard. Huppert’s “Land of 10,000 Stories” series of Minnesota-based features never disappoints, winning a boatload of local Emmys for its folksy style and corn-free storytelling. My all-time favorite? The one about the truck driver and his ride-along pet duck.

The son of a Wisconsin daily farmer, Huppert, 59, will continue to work from his home in Edina while undergoing chemotherapy. 

7. RIP, Pamela Espeland

Our colleague, a fixture in the Twin Cities arts and entertainment scene, died on Sept. 26. Former MinnPost managing editor Susan Albright’s heartfelt remembrance praised Espeland for “a lively, curious mind and a kind, generous spirit.” Espeland wrote Artscape for a decade. She suffered a stroke at home while preparing for an interview and subsequently died at the hospital. She was 70.

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