Outside the Star Tribune offices Thursday afternoon, one of the few smiles to be found was on the face of Lucy, the newspaper- wielding "Charlie Brown" character rendered in fiberglass. Just behind her, more than 100 Strib employees and their supporters gathered to protest 145 planned cuts at the paper, the work of "21st-century robber barons who believe profits come before the people who work here [and] the people who read this newspaper," as 34-year newsroom veteran Randy Furst put it.
Many in the crowd wore black armbands and held day-glo signs that read "Save the Strib" and "Twin Cities Papers Under Siege," eliciting the occasional flurry of honking by passing cars. The purpose seemed to be two-fold: to rally both workers hit by an unusually emotional week and citizens concerned about the paper's future. An empassioned Furst, taking his turn at the bullhorn, addressed the group, "To the public we say, 'Speak out! They’re wrecking your newspaper.'"
Randy Furst, wearing a black armband, at the Thursday rally.
Many worried about their futures: management has told employees their jobs will change, but don't yet know how, and an "organizational table" is expected to be revealed by management on Friday or Monday, showing the positions that will be available to soon-to-be-reassigned newsroom staff.
The rally was also a show of solidarity for union members. According to Strib retail reporter and Newspaper Guild representative, management has barred union stewards from accompanying its members into meetings with editors on Wednesday. Reporter Rochelle Olson urged the group to stand firm and stick together and, as if to illustrate the us-and-them polarity of the management/worker divide, led the crowd in waving to managers, including managing editor Scott Gillespie, who were visible in windows on the top floors at 425 Portland Avenue.
Recurring themes at the rally were distrust of Avista Capital Partners and deep fear about the quality of news that'll come out of the Star Tribune in the future. Writer Doug Grow, who awaits word about the fate of his metro column, predicts the paper will not be worthy of its readers. "After losing 24 people, you can’t cut an other 50 people and then say, somehow, we’re going to be better," he said, adding that the Twin Cities market demands a paper that is "more than a shopper."
Furst lamented the paper's "shrinking newshole" and, specifically, plans to trim national and international coverage. "We have the luxury of putting a number of reporters into the field to dig and dig," he said. "They cut staff, what does that do? We’re the public watchdog. We have a responsibility. So everybody gets hurt if they clip the tail of the public watchdog."
Grow disagreed with Jim Boyd, outgoing deputy editor of the editorial page, who said in a Minnesota Monitor interview he thought the staff cuts might improve the paper by clearing out "deadwood" in the newsroom.
"We haven’t had strong inspirational leadership at this place for a long, long time, and if there is a ‘deadwood problem,’ it’s a deadwood management problem," he said.
Grow has big questions about Par Ridder, both his leadership abilities and the way he came to be the paper's publisher. "He comes in here under circumstances that we don’t understand. He’s 38 years old. He has no reputation for building anything. And within a few weeks of his entrance into the door, he’s slashing and burning," he said. "Trust is something that’s earned. Leadership is something that’s earned. He’s the publisher, he’s not the leader."
He cites the case of Linda Mack, a part-timer who writes about architecture and design. "We live in a cutting-edge city, in terms of architectecture—projects are being mentioned all over the country, a lot of buildings I’m not too fond of, but they’re getting raves—and we had an expert in architecture. She's going to be given the opportunity to apply for something else. To me, dealing with people that way means they’re trying to run people out of here."
Furst, though, says this isn't the end of things. Encouraged by readers who he says are now starting to pay closer attention, he seems cautiously hopeful.
"This is the beginning. There’s going to be a big fight-back," he said. "We are not going to go quietly into the night."