If a Newspaper Falls in the Forest

Lost in the loud wailing heard in our little journalistic glade over the clear-cutting of staff at the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press is any serious discussion about what’s being severed: Is it actually worth the efforts of the journalistic tree huggers? To some, the answer is a stentorian “No.”

I got an email the other day from one constant Strib critic who posed this question regarding the recently announced halving of the paper’s editorial board: “Can’t seven idiots do the job just as well as twelve idiots?” After the initial involuntary chuckle, however, the answer to this also has to be “No.”

Journalists are an odd, and rare, lot. The best of them care nothing for their social standing in the community, and think even less about their position in the market. It’s not that they don’t like to have friends and customers as much as the next person, it’s just that the best of them realize that sometimes having friends or being considerate of what the market wants is antithetical to what they do.

The guy who sent me the email cited above is a former Republican operative, and so of course regards most newspapers as adversaries. His comment, however risible, portrays the fundamental disconnect between a good newspaper and about half of its audience on any given day. That’s because most newspaper types, at least the ones I know, don’t exist to produce demographically or politically correct stories to fit around the expensive ads that have traditionally paid for expensive enterprise journalism. They exist to tell the truth as they see it. That means that, alongside the news of the latest murder in North Minneapolis or misguided liberal social initiative, we’re occasionally going to get unpleasant revelations about just the sort of advertisers that newspapers have counted on. We’re also going to be treated to unflattering accounts of how Minnesota business moguls have backdated their stock options, or of how Minnesota doctors have accepted what amounts to bribes from drug companies.

Some of these stories are easier than others to do. Some, like the options and drug company stories, are almost never done by local papers any more. They’re too expensive and too risky. They require employees from the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times to come to Minnesota and do them for us (as was the case with the aforementioned two stories).

My memory isn’t perfect, but the last “enterprise” story of this nature done by the Star Tribune was the series done almost three years ago by Strib reporters Ron Nixon (now at the New York Times), Dee DePass, and Terry Collins. It related, in several parts, how “instant loan” companies were ripping off their low-income clients, and how several local and reputable banks were skirting state usury laws by backing these loan sharks in suits.

Three years ago this story got plenty of space in the Strib, and it should have won the Premack Award, the most prestigious statewide journalism prize. Instead, that year the Premack went to another Strib story about how globalization was providing opportunities for Minnesota business. (The five-member Premack panel that year included two Republican politicians. Guess which way they voted.) The globalization story had a constituency, and that constituency was willing to exert its influence in its support. The constituency of the loan story was a lot of Minnesotans who take home around two hundred dollars a week after taxes and check cashing fees and don’t have votes on the Premack committee, or any other committees, for that matter.

Newspapers have always been a business. It’s just that until recently they’ve usually been family businesses with close ties to the community they serve. There was a sense of pride in the unique service the daily paper provided. But along with that, there was also a virtual guarantee that the paper could make money, no matter how many advertisers or readers it angered, because it provided an indispensable source of information. That information was the bridge between advertisers and readers.

Those days are gone. It’s not only because classified ads have migrated to the web, or that we no longer have locally owned anchor advertising clients like Dayton’s department store to support the newspapers. It’s also because prospective readers have thousands of choices for ways to spend their time, and thousands of media to cater to their narrowly defined political preference or demographic categories. Those targeted media are more than willing to suck up the advertising dollars that used to go by default to newspapers.

This, of course, means that newspapers—the “people’s media”—are dying, while a new “luxury” magazine springs up every few months. Four luxury titles have launched in the Twin Cities just this year. Unless the newspapers find some way to fertilize their own orchard with advertisers and readers who are willing to pay the true price for difficult journalism, the pruning of journalists will continue unabated.






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