Newsflash: Strib Capitalists Care About Capital

Some shocking news coming out of the Star Tribune:

Capitalists Own The Paper

Capitalists Don’t Care if They Sell Newspapers, Underwear or, Some of Them, Their Grandmothers (see Enron)

Capitalists Have Learned to Say They Care About Customers and the Community, Even When Their Priorities Numbers One through Fourteen are Accumulating More Dough

Employees of Capitalists Have All the Security of Arctic Glaciers Under the Bush Presidency — And Even Unions Don’t Help Much

It’s sad watching the Star Tribune shrink away, with good people leaving, some of those who still have jobs feeling shell shock and survivor guilt, and editors working hard to believe they can still put out a good paper. Across the river, the Pioneer Press has been bleeding people and quality for years. But there shouldn’t be much surprise in these two newsrooms. The days when owners cared about their communities and felt a public trust are long gone.

In truth, most newspaper owners in the good old days had a greater allegiance to their community than to quality journalism. A healthy newspaper helped a community grow and stay healthy, so the owner of the hardware store and the owner of the paper could make money. The newspaper owner was more interested in boosterism than in hard-hitting investigative reporting. I once worked for an independent owner who owned the Owatonna and Mankato papers. He cared about the community first (and how its health could keep him wealthy), seemed to me, and good journalism second. But he cared.

He sold the papers decades ago to Dow Jones, which owns The Wall Street Journal. The papers have since been sold again, and the non-local priorities of the distant owners don’t rank the communities nearly as high as the profit margins.

The Star Tribune has been bought by corporate speculators. Sure, they’ve got a good journalist who sits near the front door of the speculators’ office to make people feel better when they walk in, but their priorities are the same as the people who sell us deodorant.

The culprit here is unrestrained, Gilded Age capitalism. It has only one god and there shall be no other gods before this: MORE MONEY. For capitalists. Employees and the community, the two other major stakeholders in corporations, sit way at the back of the bus.

Yes, the Star Tribune has been slow to adapt to a changing media landscape. It’s tried some smart things and some dumb things — too often it seems leaders there have been rearranging the deck chairs of design and nomenclature rather than putting out more damn good journalism that matters to local readers. I worked at this paper, and one of its predecessors, The Minneapolis Star, and I’ve seen a lot of change in the papers, some brilliant, some idiotic. But the biggest and most damaging change is when ownership moves out of town and capital trumps community.

What the editors are trying to do now sounds a little like what we tried to do at the old Star before it was killed — while still profitable — in 1982. We tried to make the paper a daily magazine, putting out lively stories about how things that matter in Minnesotans’ lives were happening and changing. We almost got laughed out of town by our colleagues down the hall and across the river — and we made some mistakes, getting too detached from the streets and too far into our own heads, or other parts of our anatomies. But it was a good idea, and what goes around might come around.

The people at the Strib can still put out a good paper. More of it’s going to have to be online, more of it’s going to have to be fast-paced and useful, and it’s going to have to have more attitude and hit us where we live more. I heard one scary thing recently — John Reinan’s stories about trends and change that affect our lives were thought “too trendy” and too light by some of his colleagues. Yikes. There are some folks at the paper who’ve been there too long and aren’t keeping up — I thought Reinan’s stories illuminated life and they made me think and smile. (Reinan left the paper before this most recent bloodletting to join Fast Horse, a consumer marketing firm started by my buddy Jorg Pierach.) The paper needs more young, eager Reinans and just enough old farts like me to keep a sense of Minnesota culture and history in the mix — something to mark change against.

I’ve got a lot of friends at the paper, and I wish them well. And for those of us who left — let’s start an online paper and do it right. Start an electronic paper that cares about community, kicks some ass, covers this town like a pretty snowfall and doesn’t just serve the golden calf.

— Bruce Benidt

22 thoughts on “Newsflash: Strib Capitalists Care About Capital

  1. Schlep says:

    The Star Tribune’s demise is 80% self-inflicted. When half the market doesn’t trust it to be accurate or unbiased, the paper has nothing to blame except itself.

  2. jloveland says:

    Is Schlep’s explanation — perceived liberal bias — really what is causing all of the financial troubles at newspapers? Or is it something else?

    Lots of theories out there. Busier people don’t read as much. More disenranchised, disconnected citizens don’t dig into public issues as often or as deeply. Increased competition from new media, including the avialability of the exact same product on-line for free. Bruce’s theory: Poorer quality product as a result of Wall Street-driven belt-tightening. Or, from the new generation of consumers, Beevus’s explanation: “Reading sucks, heh heh, heh heh.”

    I don’t know the business side of journalism well enough to answer the question. The liberal boogeyman paranoia is part of it, but I suspect it’s more complicated than that. Can someone ‘splain it to me?

  3. Benidt,

    About that online paper to “do it right” and “kick some ass”: If you’re looking for a bitchy, funny columnist who never really did his time in real journalism, sign me up. Hopefully my time spent in PR won’t cause phrases like “the leader in online journalism” to creep into my writing.

  4. Becky says:

    Newspapers and other news media should be required to be not for profit, just like healthcare in Minnesota. Reporters and publishers and editors should be beholden to no one but the public good. The first task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And you can’t do that and mind the people’s business if you are sent monthly earnings reports and limited in what you can and should say both by the desire not to offend any potential advertisers, investors and stockholders and the lack of staff to do the work.

    Idealistic? Maybe. But isn’t that why most of us (including those of us who have since sold our souls to communications/PR) got into reporting?

  5. Jeff says:

    The demise of newspapers — even though it is happening later than a lot of predictions — is complicated, I think. But at the same time, from personal experience, it’s simple. There is a generation coming up for whom newspapers mean nothing (some of the “why” is easy to figure out, some is the complicated part). When I was a kid growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I couldn’t wait for the evening Gazette to be delivered… it was always a pretty mediocre paper but it was where you got the news (or, in my case then, the sports). As I got a little older, I came to depend on the newspaper Iowa used to depend upon, the Register… which was a great paper then. And I still read all the papers I can get my hands on. My kids? They NEVER read a paper… they are both smart, well-informed, opinionated… but it doesn’t come from a newspaper. If the Star Trib or Pioneer Press, or even the New York Times, went out of business tomorrow, it would mean nothing to them. For them, print is too slow and there is too much in there they don’t care about. They don’t think reading sucks, but reading newspapers does. And they are obviously not alone. This development and debate means something to us “old farts” — it means nothing to my kids.

  6. Joe, there’s a more-frightening explanation, maybe.
    We’re becoming a nation of idiots.
    Too much time spent on American Idol, Hollywood starlets, pro sports, video games, watching people watch paint dry on YouTube, whatever your version of popcorn and cotton candy is.
    When newspaper readership was high, there were fewer other places to put your free time. People read newspapers, and most people knew who their senator was and what state they lived in.
    Now, fewer people read newspapers, and the common conversational currency is not politics or issues but Sanjaya and Lindsey Lohan.
    I don’t mean to be more of a misanthrope than usual, but I think Americans’ brains are turning into slush these days because so many of us are using them on drivel. That’s a choice we’re making, and it’s a bad one for democracy.

  7. Jeff, where do your smart kids get their news?
    Is their source any less professional than the Cedar Rapids or Minneapolis journalists, or the New York Times? Are they getting opinionated “news” — like the crap I write here on this blog, or are they getting pretty-well -nformed journalistic news?
    The rap is that kids are getting their news from blogs and websites that aren’t as accurate as newspapers (another discussion is how real is the world newspapers present?). If your kids are getting online news that’s good, solid, informed — then I’m relieved and don’t care if newspapers die.

  8. Jeff says:

    We are becoming a nation of idiots, there is simply no way around it. (Although I was appalled recently when mentioning the death of Kurt Vonnegut and a 45-year-old colleague, said, “Who?”) I simply do not understand the discussion in print or online about American Idol, for example — especially how it dominates so many local radio drive-time programs. Is there nothing better to talk about??? (If I was interested I would have watched and wouldn’t need you to tell me about it.) But who knows… I remember when the Batman TV was all the rage, and we didn’t think it was the end of the world. I dunno… but it does seem worse now.

    That said, some of it is you have to take the bad with the good. My daughter, who knows a lot more about politics than the vast majority of 18-year-olds, can’t wait to devour People magazine every week. I tell her: who cares about anything of this stuff these people are doing? But my point is that she is curious about lots of things, and loves to take in information, some of it serious and important, and some of it not. My kids get their news from some opinionated sites, and some from “traditional” news sites (CNN, etc.) They seem to manage it because I think they have a sense of when to be a little skeptical. But more importantly, we TALK about the stuff — which is probably the key. We have conversations and debates and arguments…. not as much as I’d like to, but enough. It’s amazing how absolutely sure an 18-year-old can be about certain things and their own opinions… but how that can change (sometimes)when you have the opportunity to talk and present various points of view. (Of course, they should be most skeptical about what their old man spews…)

  9. Norman Paperman says:

    The current situation is simply complicated: how the Star Tribune got into this situation is simple, how it gets out of this situation is complicated.

    Simple: you made the decision to give your product away online. For free. What’s the value if I can get it for free online? For free? Just because your advertisers can do it doesn’t mean it’s smart for you to do it.

    Complicated: how do you now go back and create a product (or a buzz about your product) that people are willing to pay for? Boxing does it. Millions of people pay to see “dream fights” that they can’t see anywhere else. How do you find the “dream stories” that people can’t get anywhere else? Find them and the people will come back–and so will the advertisers.

    You have (had?) the staff. You have the connections. You have the talent. Get out there and cover this town like a fire raging through Hinckley (or Chicago, for that matter). Burn bridges. Burn (what’s left of) your advertisers. Hell, burn the company for which I work. Write the stories readers can’t get anywhere else, and we’ll all pay to read what you’ve written. (Cover the Columbia Heights City Council meeting from last Thursday, what’s on TV Monday night or recycled news releases from Denny Hecker, and we won’t, by the way.) And when you do start covering stories with a John Wayne swagger, we’ll come back with our $0.50 a day (even online!)–and your advertisers will come back, too.

    You can do it, but you have to stop crying, whining and rallying. By the way, the black armband thing is a bit silly. Did Lillie Suburban or the Sun papers wear black armbands when the Star Tribune invaded their territory? Not likely.

    Buck up, for Christ’s sake.

  10. GH says:

    Disruption in longstanding, comfy media practices has always made consumers of “old” media (usually the “old” people like me) feel like the world is becoming one of idiots. It happened with the penny press in the 1830s, yellow journalism in the 1890s, the spike in sensationalism in the 1920s. Not to mention television.

    Popular interest in what elites consider crap is as old as time. Pick your century, pick your medium — most people have prefered the funny, trivial, escapist or silly to exchanging in vigorous public policy debates. The fall of the media landscape we happened to grow up with has nothing to do with that.

    Might it be that newspapering is just not the single, divine mechanism for Universal Truth we aficiandos like to think it is? Might it simply be something that worked remarkably well for a while within its era and the available technology?

    I’ll miss the newspaper when it goes. But I’ll take the promise of today’s awkwardly adolescent electronic media over the the limitations and power concentrations of newspapers of any era, any day — hands down.

  11. Nobody says:

    My 16 year old son – I’d call him semi-knowledgeable – has a T-shirt that reads: “I get all my news from the back of t-shirts” and then on the back, VOILA! The Daily Show. Bingo! And sometimes jon Stewart asks tougher questions than anyone.

    Locally, he is tuned in to his community by its actions, ie: the Mayor coming to South HS and not taking questions. The friend of a friend killed by the river’s edge. Asking the cop at school for a ride home because gangbangers were stalking him over a perceived slight (before the murder, fyi) and how the school explained that the couldn’t help him off school grounds. Maybe if the kids wrote the news (and not just about prom dresses), they’d read the news.

  12. Chainsaw Al Dunlap says:

    The Strib’s management reminds me of Amish famers directing a rocket launch at Mission Control.

    The people, skills and infrastructure that made the Strib viable for decades has no relation to what it needs today, or tomorrow. It’s so obvious what the Avisa Capital folks need to do – clean house.

  13. Lurker says:

    “…their priorities are the same as the people who sell us deodorant.”

    But newspapers don’t care if we smell or sweat. P&G gives a damn and sells a good product! I’m a Degree guy myself.

    Where are kids turning for their news? My 16 year old daughter, when asked via a text message from me to her, listed the following: CNN.com, StarTribune.com (and print edition), local TV newscasts, AIMToday (thanks AOL), radio, and Rolling Stone, Time and Entertainment Weekly magazines.

    Sign me up for the online gig. I’ll bring my Rolodex!

  14. jl says:

    Though I’m one of those dinosaurs who gets my a.m. endorphins from the weight of a large hunk of paper in my hands, I don’t much care if others get their news on papyrus, plasma, PC or a palm pilot. And I don’t care if they mix in some Wife Swap, National Enquirer, pro wrestling or worse. Nothing wrong with a little escapism.

    However, I do worry about what seems like more folks getting all or most of their information from sources that have no pretense of being objective, such as commentary blogs, advocacy websites, “fake news” comedy, and talk radio. I’m all for consuming commentary and public affairs oriented entertainment. It helps you make sense of the news. But at some point a healthy democracy requires that we hear a reasonable representation of both sides of arguments, and you don’t get that from an exclusive diet of one-sided commentary.

    As much as people complain about mainstream media not being objective — and it’s far from perfect — you are still much more likely to hear an honest attempt at both sides of the argument from those sources than you are through a series of self-affirming halleluiah choruses. If we lose paper news delivery devices, well survive. But if we lose mass consumption of two-sided argument, I’m worried.

  15. GH says:

    But why?

    “Two-sided” reporting is relatively new within our democracy — hitting the scene about 1920. Some might argue it ended about 1990, or even sooner, some might argue it never existed in the first place. In any case, two-thirds of American history has happened in the absence of today’s concept of press objectivity — including a lot of the nation’s most shining democratic moments. Outside of these times, the reigning press have been relentlessly to mildly partisan.

    If you want to see incendiary, loaded, one-sided reporting, do some microfilm time in the 1870s. Yowza. Heck — Lincoln owed his very presidency to a handful of newspaper editors — one of the democracy’s favorite sons made by a very undemocratic, partisan press.

    I think there are abundant reasons to worry about the future of the democracy. But the withering of the 20th century news reporting construct isn’t one of them in my book.

  16. Tim says:

    Too many of you have been deluded into believing that Strib offers to “two-sided” coverage. The market sees it – and is punishing the paper with a mass exodous of readers.

  17. John Reinan says:

    Readers aren’t really leaving. Sure, some are — circ has been falling the last couple of years, and that’s worrisome. But 350,000 people still buy the paper every day, and more than 500,000 on Sunday. And most estimates are that nearly as many again read the dead tree version without buying a copy.

    Plus, much of the readership decline can be accounted for not by customer response to the so-called “liberal bias” (when anyone utters that tired phrase, I immediately write them off in my mind as a mouth-breathing idiot), but by the do-not-call rules that restrict telemarketing.

    What’s hurting is that advertisers are leaving for online. That’s at the heart of the Strib’s troubles, not circulation. Classified ads, auto ads, real estate ads — all going away, the three great cash cows that support the entire infrastructure. A few months ago, Edina Realty bought full-page ads in the paper to announce that they wouldn’t be advertising in the paper any more.

  18. Curtis says:

    Ha! That’s a great publicity stunt. I’m sure everyone at the paper is talking about it.

    I swear. As a longtime moderate democrat, reading this blog makes me feel like a hardcore republican. When did capitalism become a bad thing?

    I wish we could concentrate on what happens when most daily newspapers fold and the impact it will have on our not-so-important pay checks. Blogs, social networking, alternative and emerging media can be just as informative. Let the old frat house die, guys. Journalism lives. We just don’t need ink on our fingers to be informed.

    Hey Austin, where’s your dinosaur speech when we need it?

  19. Rupert Murdoch says:

    Curtis is right. The Star Tribune is the General Motors of media. They’re trying to prop up a failed legacy model using bricks & mortar, Big Labor wages, olde media executives, bloated pension obligatons, and partisan journalism.

    None of it works in this market.

  20. Curtis, I know I’m tedious on capitalism. It’s a great theory — it’s supposed to work for everyone. I don’t have a better solution, And I benefit greatly from capitalism. It’s just leaving too many people behind and serving the already wealthy too well.
    But I cash my checks from my corporate clients, so what does that make me?

  21. Curtis says:

    Thanks, Bruce. I feel like a dem again.

    Interestingly enough, I heard a great story on MPR (BBC at night) about scientific funding. The British host was slamming this poor scientist about how he gets his funding and how it could possibly be profitable. The scientist went on to say how it’s rare in other countries, but in the US private citizens fund scientific research and nonprofit organizations across board. Although we all know this isn’t entirely true, it is a feather in the cap of capitalism.

    Oh, and that makes you a profitable business. Certainly not a bad thing. 

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