Go Down Moses

A recent intercepted email exchange between Monica Moses, executive director of product innovation at the Star Tribune, and Steve Perry, editor of City Pages, provided both a good laugh and good fodder for online discussion of “What the hell are newspapers and why are they seemingly dying?” 

The exchange (posted on The Rake’s media blog) was precipitated by City Pages’ extensive coverage in January of the fire sale of the Strib by its parent company, McClatchy. In particular, Perry laid blame for the Strib’s recent circulation declines squarely at the feet of Moses, who had been the prime mover behind last year’s “redesign” of the Minneapolis daily. To summarize the emails, Moses thought Perry was full of crap, and vice versa.

Reading between the lines of the emails, though, it was possible to see much more than an internecine spat between journalists. (Of course, extending the title “journalist” to Moses would be a stretch, even though her title during the redesign was “deputy managing editor for visuals.”) What became clear was the vast chasm that has grown between today’s corporate-newspaper person and an old-styler like Perry, who operates under the quaint notion that newspapers are something other than a means to deliver demographics to advertisers.

If you need further evidence of the abyss, have a look at the statement McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt made to the Wall Street Journal at the time of the Strib’s redesign in 2005: “The Star Tribune … is about to take the wraps off a redesign that we hope will make it a model for a Twenty-first Century newspaper.” That’s exactly the worldview Moses was defending: A modern “model newspaper” is defined by its design rather than its actual content. And as soon as the reporters who grew up on Watergate realize that, nowadays, their job duty is to “attract eyeballs” rather than “report stories,” they’ll be much happier. That the “model newspaper” is now worth about half of what McClatchy paid for it in 1998 should help to drive the point home, too.

To be fair, though, the paper’s pretty visual presentation, which takes up so much space that used to go to words, is perhaps a logical response to the falling circulation numbers at newspapers nationwide. If you want a newspaper to be more attractive to more people, make it more like the things they are attracted to: the pretty visuals and superficial content of TV and the Internet. (The smart youth-oriented television show Veronica Mars sent up this attitude perfectly a couple of weeks ago. When teen detective Veronica was shown a controversial newspaper story accompanied by slick visuals, her comment was, “Colored ink! It must be true.”)

So, while you are rethinking your newspaper in terms of colored ink, don’t forget to further transfigure your “readers” into “viewers” by shortening all stories. Don’t stop there, though. Where there is some room for words among the illustrations, fifteen-word summaries, and huge section titles, you can add features and columnists who are transparently chosen to appeal to a niche readership—one defined by its age or religion or politics.

The perfect example of the latter two criteria is columnist Katherine Kersten, who is profiled by Brian Lambert in this issue. No honest observer would deny that she was added to the Strib’s lineup as part of a package intended to appeal to political and religious conservatives. (She came on board around the same time several syndicated conservative writers began to appear regularly on the opinion pages.)

The fact that she’s conservative is not remarkable, per se. The fact that she’s so utterly predictable in her “family-values” brand of conservatism, and so consistently trite in her expression of it (her last two columns were about, respectively, the gentle old couple who met at Bible school and founded the Minnesota Family Council, and the evils of pervasive television violence) tells me that Strib editors have as little respect for the intelligence of their conservative readership as they do for the rest of us.

The reporters and editors who create whatever value remains inherent in the Star Tribune are nearly unanimously discouraged. They know the fate that chopped at the hamstrings of the Pioneer Press after its sale also awaits them. The Pioneer Press’ managers professed surprise when so many veteran reporters gladly took the offered buyouts. They clearly underestimated the acrimony they had created. And now it’s happened on the other side of the river, too.

Most reporters and editors believe, perhaps naively, that the essence of a newspaper is the news, not the packaging of the news. Increasingly, this puts them in conflict with their owners, who have no patience for idealistic notions about the crucial role a vigorous press plays in our culture, and no empathy for a work force that actually begs to do its job better.

Maybe what Pruitt really meant when he called the Strib a model newspaper was that it’s a poor excuse for a real one.