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‘We need to listen more to the community’: A Q&A with new Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian

In February, the Star Tribune announced that Dardarian, currently the No. 2 leader in the newsroom, will succeed outgoing Editor Rene Sanchez.

Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian: “I’m committed to holding the powerful accountable, and illuminating the challenges and successes of this community.”
Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian: “I’m committed to holding the powerful accountable, and illuminating the challenges and successes of this community.”
Star Tribune

In February, the Star Tribune announced that Suki Dardarian, currently the No. 2 leader in the newsroom, will succeed outgoing top editor Rene Sanchez in April. Sanchez is returning to New Orleans, his hometown, to become executive editor of the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate newspaper and website. 

Dardarian (rhymes with “barbarian”) joined the Strib in 2014 as senior managing editor and vice president after a long career as a reporter and editor for various newspapers in Washington state. Strib officials credit her with leading the paper’s digital, local news and public service efforts. In 2021, the Strib surpassed 100,000 digital-only subscriptions — one of only six U.S. newspapers to exceed six figures — and won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of George Floyd’s murder and the aftermath. Among U.S. papers, the Strib ranks seventh in daily print circulation (107,946) and fifth on Sunday (204,246). 

Dardarian, 65, lives in downtown Minneapolis with her husband, MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan. She spoke with MinnPost by telephone for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. (Disclosure: My wife, Rachel Blount, works for the Star Tribune.)

MinnPost: At the University of Washington, you double-majored in communications and political science. How has that helped you as a journalist? 

Suki Dardarian: Context. I think the best journalists provide the best context for why something is happening, or when something has happened, or how it is happening. That’s an expectation, I think, of our audience, to try to explain what’s going on in the world, not simply report what has happened.

Libor Jany, the police reporter who has been serving this community so well for so many years and was on duty the night George Floyd was killed, says, “I want to help people make sense of the world.” I appreciate that.  

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MP: During your 14 years as a senior editor at the Seattle Times, you supervised some major stories and projects, including Pulitzer Prize winners for breaking news and investigative reporting. How did that prepare you for the job you’re about to assume here?

SD: Everywhere I worked, I was able to work with journalists who challenged each other, who pushed each other, and showed ambition in their quest to serve their audience. The Seattle Times was no different. Some phenomenal reporters and editors, driven by wanting to tell the truth. I think that passion fueled our journalism in a way where we were all able to rise up. That ambition was infectious. We would push each other to do better, to dig deeper, to tell the story with more power. It was a fabulous place to learn from my colleagues. But as I say, every step of the way in my career, I have been so lucky to work with phenomenal journalists.

MP: Where do you think the Strib has made the biggest strides under you and editor Rene Sanchez?

SD: I think on a couple of key fronts. Clearly on the journalism front. We have a team of journalists that can perform at a significantly high level to produce phenomenal journalism. It has been through a process of working together on one story, then coming back together to work on another story. Everybody has this sense of, ‘How can we do better by our journalism and our community with this story? How can we have even more impact with this next story?’ I think that’s been the result of superb communication and collaboration.

The other front is, thinking about our audience more as we do our stories. What does this community need? What does it want? How can we help them? We built this amazing election guide we published right before the election this fall. It was one of our most popular pieces for engagement last year. Because people cared about what was going on in the election (and) they didn’t fully understand it, they needed help. Our goal was to help them with our coverage (by) thinking on behalf of our audience. 

I think we have more to do. We need to listen more to the community. We need to listen in more places in our community. I think it will prove to inspire even better journalism in the future.

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MP: What is a newsroom under your leadership going to look like?

SD: It’s been under my leadership and partnership with Rene, so it’s not going to become a completely different news organization. I think we’ve grown and transformed since I got here, and I think we’ll continue to do that, serving this community with the best journalism we can in the best way across multiple platforms. 

Does that mean things might look different or feel different, or there might be stories you haven’t seen before? Yeah. I hope so. But that’s part of the quest to get better. I’m committed to holding the powerful accountable, and illuminating the challenges and successes of this community. I’m also committed to trying to speak to the soul of this community. Those things are important to me. Integrity and our commitment to our core values, that’s not going to change.

Some of the best ideas come from the folks in the trenches doing the reporting and storytelling. I’m going to spend more time talking and listening to the folks in the newsroom about things we should do differently. I’m open. I hope we come up with new ideas, but new ideas aren’t just the domain of the editor. The best ones are the product of the team of people in the newsroom and the creative minds we all get to work with.

MP: Two years ago, Black reporters and editors came to you and Rene with a list of problems in the newsroom they wanted addressed. They cited issues with hiring, promoting and retaining non-white talent, and providing a more welcoming and supportive atmosphere. What do you remember about those conversations, and what still needs to be done?

SD: A group of folks came forward and met with Rene and me, and eventually (publisher) Mike Klingensmith and others, and helped us understand what life was life in the newsroom for people of color. They were extremely powerful conversations. We also talked about what needed to happen, what needed to change. 

We needed to restructure how things operated in the newsroom, from how people are recruited to how we hire to how often we’re giving people reviews to how we’re talking about next steps and development plans for reporters to having more people of color making more decisions in the newsroom to encouraging everybody in the newsroom to get involved in the choices we were making and to move the newsroom forward. 

I credit Kyndell Harkness, our assistant managing editor for diversity and community. She has helped channel all of this conversation into some real action. She has helped assemble and empower people in the newsroom to take on some of these issues in committee form and just-do-it form. We have seen some great results from that. We had one of our reporters, Megan Ryan, pretty much organize and carry out a job fair for young journalists at the Star Tribune, all virtual. She’s amazing. She worked with (television critic) Neal Justin. 

What we’ve been able to do with Kyndell’s help is to tap into the passion and the energy that exists in the room, not just for the journalism but to make the newsroom a better place to work for everybody, and we all feel like we’re a part of driving the journalism forward. We had some really wonderful conversations around style and coverage, and we’ve encouraged people to speak up if they think something doesn’t feel right.

Kyndell also created these pop-up community advisory boards. She recruited people from the community to commit to reading our paper online or in print for a period of time. Then she pulled them together in Zoom, and we listened to them talk about what they read and what they heard and what they thought. That, for me, was extremely powerful, hearing how good, smart people in our community read a story and came away feeling like they weren’t seen, or like some key element had been ignored. We also came away with a lot of good story ideas and approaches to story. All of us who participated learned a great deal, and it’s something we’re going to build on. 

We’re not done by any means, but we have plans to build on all of those efforts this year. I feel like we’re a better version of ourselves today than we were a couple of years ago.

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MP: This is all really interesting, because I talk to people who feel like the Star Tribune doesn’t represent them. When you pick up a Sunday paper and the Home section features some mansion in Minnetonka, and you pick up the Taste section on Thursday and there’s a story about a chef at a high-end restaurant most people can’t afford to go to, I can see where people of a certain economic background feel like the paper doesn’t speak to them.

SD: Exactly. I think there’s a renewed effort to think about who we’re writing for and who we want to reach. That also means, who are we hiring? Who’s in the room? Who is going to help us do that? I’m very proud to say we’ve hired a number of wonderful journalists in the last year or so, and many of them are people of color. 

One of the questions people ask is, how are you able to do all this? One of the answers is,  because we’re owned by a family that believes in investment in journalism. The phenomenal support we’ve had from (owner) Glen Taylor and Mike Klingensmith has set us apart from a lot of newspapers in America. It’s not lost on us that this is a gift, and we don’t want to miss the opportunity to do the best we can with this gift.

MP: Getting back to journalists of color, you’re losing two really good ones — Libor Jany to the Los Angeles Times and Chao Xiong to the Sahan Journal. How do you go about replacing them?

SD: Libor’s and Chao’s departures will be a huge loss for us — and significant gains, respectively, for the LA Times and Sahan Journal (with whom the Strib is beginning a partnership). They are both veteran Stribbers, key members of our Metro staff and at the very heart of our reporting on George Floyd’s murder, policing, protests, the trials. They are top-notch journalists, bringing head and heart to everything they do. 

We have a very strong cadre of reporters on our Metro team, and our commitment to that coverage remains steadfast. We will fill behind them. We have been restructuring our recruiting and hiring process to improve how we look for and vet strong, diverse candidate pools. That is bearing great fruit around the room, with a number of strong hires. I would add that Libor and Chao have shown the kind of ambitious work that can be done here, and that in itself helps attract strong candidates.

MP: You live downtown. A local radio host recently described downtown Minneapolis as a “hellhole.” What’s it look like to you?

SD: It’s not a hellhole. When we moved here. we moved to the North Loop, and more recently moved into the Mill District. We’re committed to downtown. It’s a great neighborhood. There are parks and restaurants and transit. Getting to the theater or a game, or even getting down to the river and going for a run, makes this such a fabulous place to live.

During COVID and during the civil unrest, there have been challenges, but there have been challenges in other neighborhoods, too. It’s not a hellhole. I’ve actually been so excited because the last few weeks I’ve been going to the office a couple of days a week. The skyways are starting to fill up. You see more restaurants with a line outside them waiting to get lunch. There are more people on the street. And there are all these buildings going up. Hotels are being built and rebuilt. It’s still a vibrant place to live. I’m really excited for spring, because I think this could be a really good moment for downtown.

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