But, the Star & Sickle crowd must be asking, will that affect the paper's editorial stance?
"You'll be pleasantly surprised that it won’t change a hell of a lot," he said.
Avista Capital Partners, the Star Tribune's new owner, seems driven by financial goals and not ideology, so he expects a minimum of meddling -- unlike its previous owner. McClatchy didn't approve of the Star Tribune's outspoken editorials, he said, mainly because they "hated any kind of nail sticking up" and felt the editorials were harming the company financially. So they instituted what editorial page staffers jokingly call the "codpiece" — the "conservative of the day."
"They ordained that we would have a conservative of the day. I’ve got to tell you, you run out of good ones real quick," he said. "You’ve got Steve Chapman, whom I really like, who’s a libertarian and a good guy. So you didn’t mind running him, but you kind of held your nose when you ran Mona Charon or Debra Saunders. I mean, good grief. Jonah Goldberg? Finally, we were able to get rid of that bugger. That’s my point: Avista is much less of a micromanaging outfit than McClatchy was."
In a wide-ranging interview with Minnesota Monitor, he discussed the bright side of the buyouts (whether newsroom "deadwood" will leave), his assessment of insatiable Wall Street investors as journalism's "worst enemy," and his hopes for a Star Tribune that's nonprofit, community owned, and -- above all -- reinvigorated.
How do you think staff reductions will affect the editorial page? Will its voice change?
[Some people] say, the paper’s “going to go conservative.” I don’t think anyone realizes the pressure we got to do that from McClatchy. That’s all gone away. I don’t think these people [Avista Capital Partners] have an ideological agenda at all. They want to make money. They’re not all that familiar with newspapers – aside from Par [Ridder, the paper's publisher]. I don’t see the voice of the paper changing in its worldview. I think there will be pressures upon production that’ll make it less likely that people will be able to go out into the community. The reason I got into international affairs is that it’s something I could do from my desk and still edit other people's copy and control the budget and go to unending management meetings so that others could be free to be out in the community.
The downsizing announcement on Monday focused on more local reporting — the “local, local” approach editors talk about — but isn’t management cutting some of the very people who could pull that off?
We have a pretty intense local focus already, if you look at what Lori Sturdevant and Dave Hage write. And Steve Berg. Steve’s impact on the built community and livability in Minnesota has been tremendous, I think. That’s very local. Then you learn tricks. The last few editorials I wrote about Iraq, I always pegged them with the Democrats in the Minnesota delegation: “Stay with Pelosi. Don’t desert her. The facts are with you.” And I got in my licks on Iraq by writing about Minnesota Democrats. So there are ways to do it.
I don't think there’ll be any more [reports about] Darfur or U.N. kinds of things. There used to be international reporting that I didn’t like, where someone from the Star Tribune would go to Russian and be certain to go to every 3M plant in sight and then write about that. I think Russia is inherently interesting as a subject in itself and you shouldn’t have to bend the twigs too hard to find the local angle. There will be less reporting from Russia. In our heyday we had a pretty healthy travel budget, and it went away, but not because of Avista. It was McClatchy.
And, it was McClatchy who ordained that we have our “codpiece” – our “conservative of the day.”
Was that your term or theirs?
We called it that. When they took us over from Cowles, they pledged that they would not interfere with editorial voice. But they hated it. They hated that we were way out front on Iraq. I don’t even think it was ideological. If I’d been [Fox News' Sean] Hannity and writing from that perspective, they’d have hated that, too. Because they hated any kind of nail sticking up. They didn’t want to be reading about you in Romenesko. And they thought we were hurting the paper financially, so they ordained that we would have a conservative of the day.
I’ve got to tell you, you run out of good ones real quick. You’ve got Steve Chapman, whom I really like, who’s a libertarian and a good guy. So you didn’t mind running him, but you kind of held your nose when you ran Mona Charon or Debra Saunders. I mean good grief. Jonah Goldberg? Finally, we were able to get rid of that bugger.
That’s my point: Avista is much less of a micromanaging outfit than McClatchy was.
But what about Par Ridder? People have accused him of “conservatizing,” if you will, the Pioneer Press editorial page.
I think partly that was marketing, partly it was being not the Star Tribune – finding a niche that wasn’t taken and was attractive. I don’t think it was ideological. It was, “How can we be different from the Star Tribune.” I haven’t had that much interaction with Par, but I don’t get the impression he has an ideological axe to grind… I don’t think being vocal on local issues will be a problem. We’ve been really vocal this legislative session on what should happen to St. Paul, and it hasn’t caused us any problems. They haven’t tamped down on us. I think people will have to work harder and quicker, there will be less energy to enterprise projects – I’m speaking about the editorial pages now. But I think, if the right people stay, you'll be pleasantly surprised that it won’t change a hell of a lot.
Is there an upside to the downsizing?
Possibly. I don’t want this to reflect on anyone specifically, but there was a fair amount of deadwood in that newsroom. The question is whether the deadwood goes away and the really good wood stays. [Avista has] been very explicit with all managers: do not express anything that could be taken as coercive one way or the other to anybody. That leaves it a little bit in flux. I notice they found some ways. They told Lileks to report to be a general assignment reporter. Well, that was kind of an invitation to go away, I think. But I heard Doug Grow will stay. You know what? This could be really good. Doug Grow is a real professional. He’s a good reporter and getting him involved again in a lot of reporting could be really good for the newspaper. Who knows? If the right people leave and the right people stay, you could see a reinvigorated newspaper.
It’s nice to hear a positive perspective for a change, especially when trends in the industry aren’t looking so good.
They aren't. We’re still getting through absorbing the body blows we took between 2000 and 2006. One nobody really recognized is how much the Do-Not-Call [directory] hurt. I think, in recognition of the public-service component of daily journalism, there ought to be an exemption for newspapers – even though we all hate those calls. It has really put a crimp in the circulation sales. Then help-wanted advertising at regional newspapers went away to the Internet, and it’s not going to come back.
We started out in 2001 at a profit rate of around 31 percent, and I’m told it’s below 20 now. The question no one is asking is: Is there a stabilization rate above zero that we can anticipate – maybe it’s 10 or 12 percent rate of return — that we can be satisfied with? Can we recognize that we’ll never get back to 30 percent? Everbody seems to assume that the trend line continues 'til it drops below black, and I’m not sure that’s a given. I’m not a newspaper economist, but I really would love to know if anybody thinks that trend line inevitably dips into the red or whether it might stabilize at a lower rate of return – and can Wall Street – the worst enemy we ever had – be satisfied with that.
What I would love to see happen would be for Avista take some cost out, sell all the property around the Star Tribune to [Vikings owner Zygi] Wilf or to the Metropolitan Sports Committee, and then turn around and sell the Star Tribune to some kind of community foundation here that would make it a bit like the St. Petersburg Times.
Nonprofits are businesses, but they’re a little bit insulated from Wall Street and they can then plow the profits back into making the product better. I think that St. Petersburg Times model would help newspapers a lot. Perhaps there could be some kind of legislation encouraging that or giving some special tax breaks, in recognition that newspapers have always been these two-headed beasts, part private company but part public service. As long as we were family owned, there was not a real contradiction between those two, but now that we’re completely exposed to Wall Street, the community service aspect is getting short shrift.
[Crossposted at Minnesota Monitor.]