Strib Stress: Meditating on a Newspaper Sale

Yesterday's Minnesota Monitor column:

A reporter's job is a tough one any day -- the Sisyphean churn of deadlines, the public scrutiny, the pace -- but those working in the Star Tribune newsroom can add another layer to the stress: on Monday, the paper's sale to Avista Capital Partners, a company known more for standards of investing than journalism, is expected to go through. So, who can blame veteran reporter Randy Furst for needing a special trick to keep his professional and personal ducks in a row?

Possibly the paper’s management.

On the morning of February 20, Furst set out at around 10 for a familiar ritual. He found an empty conference room on the second floor at 425 Portland Avenue, found a chair he hoped would be out of eyeshot of those passing by the room's window, leaned back, and took a breath. Some days these meditations would mean Furst counting back from 100 to 1. Others, he'd reflect on a passage from literature that, he said, "will get me closer to my higher power." He always has his PDA, and he ends up jotting down thoughts and a to-do list for the day.

"I'm a senior reporter here, and I need to try to get real clarity about what I need to do on a given day," he said. "It makes me a better journalist."

But on that Tuesday morning, his ritual was cut short. A woman Furst didn't recognize interrupted him and told him, "There's a meeting going on and you'll have to leave."

He did, thinking nothing of it, and ended up back at his desk digging into a story. In early afternoon, he was told by a newsroom manager that there was an “important” 2:30 p.m. meeting he needed to be at. “Make sure you've got a union representative with you,” he was told, because the meeting might result in disciplinary action.

At the 2:30 meeting, with two representatives of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild in tow, he sat slackjawed as management grilled him. "They told me I'd been spotted by a senior member of management of the company with my ear against the wall, listening to what was going on in another conference room. It was a real shocker," he said. "Did I know who was meeting in the next room, they asked. I told them I didn't, and I didn't care, because I was there to meditate. They told me the top executives in the company were there and they were meeting with some major people from New York."

When word got around the newsroom that Furst, who has worked for the paper since 1973, was being questioned as a spy, there was disbelief. "The whole thing is bizarre," said Chris Serres, a Star Tribune reporter. "Initially we thought it was a joke that he'd been accused of eavesdropping. Randy is probably the most respected journalist at the Star Tribune."

But then the anger came: one reporter, upon hearing the allegation, punched a wall and nearly broke his hand, Serres said. "The newsroom is a cauldron. There's already a high degree of tension over the sale."

Management’s recent announcement that it won’t fill positions vacated by staffers who take contract buyouts didn’t help. There's a clause in the paper's Newspaper Guild contract that states that in the event of a sale to an outside buyer, Guild members can choose to resign and receive two weeks of pay for every year worked, with a 40-week cap. According to Serres, who is vice chair of the paper's Guild unit, between 15 and 30 employees are expected to take buyouts. On Monday, staffers can start submitting letters of resignation; Friday is the last day to do so.

On Monday of this week, management told Furst they believed he wasn't eavesdropping and that he had a strong reputation for honesty. His employee file would have no mention of the accusation.

Serres sounded relieved. "Had they pursued this investigation, the newsroom would've erupted. The union doesn't need a battle like this," he added. "We want to focus on the work ahead, and we don't need ridiculous distractions to get in the way."

Fallout from the sale tops the union’s to-do list. A key task will be monitoring workloads to make sure employees don’t burn out from covering jobs once done by those who take buyouts.

Layoffs are another worry. He fears staff cuts will affect the quality of the Star Tribune's journalism -- and it's long-term viability. Those at risk for layoffs, he said, are reporters without seniority. "Layoffs will hit younger people hardest," he said, the same people who tend to eager and educated on the new online journalism practices touted by management. Low in seniority, too, he added, are minority reporters who are representing traditionally under-represented populations.

"You'll get a monolithic point of view that doesn't represent the community," he said.

Over the next week, as McClatchy hands the keys over to Avista, and some of the friends Furst has made over 34 years at the paper decide to say so long, one senior reporter will likely be scoping out empty conference rooms where he can breathe deeply and pin down invading thoughts in a PDA. Perhaps he won’t be the only one. Stribbers following Furst’s path might heed the joking advice of a newsroom colleague: make sure the adjacent rooms are empty -- and be sure to bring along a Guild representative.

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