An Open Letter to Nancy Barnes

Dear Nancy,

Good interview in Sunday’s paper (Opinion Exchange, page 2).  Your answers to Kate Parry’s questions were thoughtful and encouraging, and good responses to the many questions people have about the future direction of our local paper, The Star Tribune.  I only hope they weren’t overly optimistic.

Of all the executive editors the paper has had over the past 10 to 15 years, I’m thinking that you may be among the best qualified to bring a clear-eyed view of the business, as well as the profession of journalism. 

From a journalistic point of view, for example, I was delighted to hear that you have an interest in local news.  We’ve lived through some jarring years of goofiness – strange, sometimes hilarious titles for editors and plenty of amorphous beat assignments, the kind that allowed reporters to slide into a tenured professor mode, allowing them to largely avoid the day-to-day machinations of government, our schools, the university system and the business community.  So the hint that you may be moving the franchise in a more traditional direction is heartening.  I was also interested in your thoughts about multi-media coverage, which acknowledges that up-and-coming generations simply don’t read newspapers – and probably never will.

It’s when we get to the business side of the equation that I worry.  Your MBA notwithstanding, I’m not sure I’m ready to buy the view that the Star Tribune’s new owners are Swell Business Guys who need a “thriving, healthy and growing paper” in order to make money. Private equity firms can, but don’t always make money that way.  The moniker often applied to their line of work is: “strip it, flip it.”  And there’s enough spoor pointing to that scenario to be worrisome.   

First, if nothing else, the Strib is a paper that generates a great deal of free cash flow, important here because FCF services debt, and if there’s one thing private equity firms are all about, it’s debt – and making those monthly mortgage payments.  With interest rates edging up, and circulation and ad revenues (particularly classifieds) edging down, I worry mightily that all the lofty talk about a strong and growing newspaper will end up being just that – talk.  It brings to mind a story, however apocryphal, about a particularly penurious owner of the Worthington Daily Globe who, some years back, reportedly took to monitoring toilet paper use in the johns.

I also worry about things like news hole. The paper feels skinnier and skinnier – especially the business section, a preserve near and dear to my heart.  Couple that with a design style that occasionally eats up half to two-thirds of a cover with some silly graphic, and it means that stories, particularly enterprise stories, are both shorter and rarer. Now clip back on your staff a bit – whether through voluntary buyouts or forced layoffs.  Oh, and also require the reporters left to feed the web on a 24-7 basis, generate video, audio, cell phone alerts or whatever, and suddenly a serious, responsible newspaper becomes ever so much Styrofoam packing for ad content.

I wouldn’t be so worried about all this if we weren’t already facing a severely weakened Pioneer Press, a situation that places even more of a burden on the Star Tribune to set a high standard for coverage, commentary and, when necessary, combativeness.

All this brings to mind a column Garrison Keillor wrote many years ago, pulling for Bill Clinton when he first took office. As he wrote then, I feel like the outfielder on a little league baseball team on a hot July afternoon, crouched in position as the pitcher winds up. “Hum-babe, easy out, you can get ‘em, just three pitches. Hum-babe.”  I’m rootin’ for you, Nancy, and all those other people in that newsroom who will be trying to pull this off.  But I can’t help but worry that we have David Ortiz at the plate here.


One thought on “An Open Letter to Nancy Barnes

  1. jmaustin says:

    PS – Nancy, if I can piggyback on Tony’s excellent cautionary warning, my one bit of advice to you is to help the newsroom disconnect WHAT they do – gather news, provide analysis, context and watch the public’s interest – from HOW they communicate your work product to your audience – particularly the nostalgia we have for pressing ink into paper. My kids still need the former and view the latter with the same feelings they have for illuminated books from the Middle Ages: it’s interesting that people used to do stuff like that.

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