Meet the New Readers' Rep. — Same as the Old

RYBAK: Oh gosh, that Nancy Barnes. How does the girl do it? She’s editor of the Star Tribune and still found time these past two weeks to write a Sunday column filling us in on all the neat goings-on at the paper, just like the old readers’ reps used to do.

Why, last week she introduced to some of the nice people still on her staff. Like Paul McEnroe, who has been there for almost 30 years.

And then this Sunday, that thoughtful Nancy took us up on our suggestion of a month ago (because we try to be caring, helpful Scouts here at Slaughter Central) and printed all the names and phone numbers of the Strib’s assistant managing editors so that readers with questions could call them directly. She mentioned that maybe a lot of readers were mad that she didn’t do that earlier. Nancy also wrote about another reporter, Pam Louwagie, and said Pam’s story was just so neat, it was her very favorite of the day.

I guess Nancy was so excited about Paul McEnroe, Pam Louwagie and all those other swell, talented people she works with that she just plain forgot the other big news that happened in the Star Tribune yesterday. That would be the fact that there was no weekly TV guide. Why? Because Nancy Barnes killed it off. I guess maybe she didn’t think anyone would notice.

It was funny, though, because they did. They noticed so much that the paper had to bring in extra news assistants on Monday to answer all the phone calls that poured in from the angry readers. Uh, oh.

Well, at least Nancy was smart enough to print the phone number of the new Features editor, Christine Ledbetter, because the readers sure liked calling her, too—so much that they crashed her voicemail.

But gee, Nancy is so darn busy in that important job of hers that I don’t think we can blame her. But, you know, I think she probably could use the help of a new readers’ rep.

Brian, tell our nice readers what we found.

LAMBERT: I’ll get to that in just a minute. But first, I can tell you from personal experience that as much as you hear readers complain about crazed, whiny liberals and boring Minnetonka city council stories nothing … NOTHING … sets them off like when you mess with the weekly TV guide. Basically, you order up 50 more rent-a-cops just to protect you from irate senior citizens.

But I have to get something off my chest. As an avid newspaper reader, I’m finding that Sunday mornings aren’t nearly as much fun anymore. Not long ago I’d heft the Strib off the doorstep, toss aside the ads, the news and the sports, and dig right into my favorite column, "The Readers’ Representative." Damn, it was always good stuff.

It’s weird, but after 15 years at a daily newspaper, I actually miss hearing first-hand the way self-criticism is transformed into self-congratulation, the way thick, dense curtains fall over assurances of transparency, the way anyone and everyone higher up the company ladder was not only always right, but right and brave. And especially I missed the way a big, high-profile newspaper company could save a bundle on PR flackery by having a compliant middle-manager wallpaper over the corpses hanging in the living room.

But you know what, Deborah? Now I just miss the Readers’ Rep. Back in early October the kids in Strib management decided that, gosh, they were just so committed to giving us the latest health news — not so much news about dark, complicated stuff like the ways local health insurance billionaires have gamed the cost of medical care and with it our collective stress level, but rather the importance of eating vegetables and getting annual exams — that they "reassigned" the old Readers’ Rep to the health section and replaced her with—well–nobody and everybody.

As you say, the last two Sundays have featured columns by the Strib’s current top editor, Nancy Barnes. In the first one, I enjoyed her display of camaraderie with veterans like Paul McEnroe. I like the way she called him "Mac," just like she does when they bowl together every Tuesday and Thursday night, I’m guessing. Then this week she gave out numbers that’ll supposedly connect you to an editor somewhere in the building (maybe) every time you get pissed off at Nick Coleman, or want to give Katherine Kersten a wet kiss or point out that someone, maybe one of the new (and cheaper) hires on the suburban team managed to re-locate Stillwater to the banks of the Mississippi in the morning’s East Metro edition.

I don’t like this Barnes-itorial Valentine thing. It isn’t as appealing to me. Obviously the last Readers’ Rep wasn’t actually "representing" readers as much as she was taking bullets for her paymasters, in particular the now beached Par Ridder. And it wasn’t like Mr. Ridder’s myriad problems — a near complete lack of awareness of business ethics being just one — were ever addressed by her. But that was part of the fun. The denial. The sheer spectacle of the Readers’ Rep avoiding the elephant in the room and the frenetic patter of her happy feet scurrying back and forth in search of any vantage point from which to laud the wisdom and bravery of her colleagues was pretty damned amusing. You could read her and think to yourself, "Goddammit, I may have to spend eight hours in a cubicle working for psychotic nerds, but at least I don’t have to sign my name to that!"

So what we have to tell folks is that, here at the Slaughter, we too wondered about whatever happened to all those letters to the editor about young Par’s ethics problems, and all those calls to the Readers’ Rep asking when she was going to say something about the fiasco, other than, you know, how hard she and other editors were working to report great news in a great paper for a great community. So, we started poking around. We looked into the whereabouts of all those questions and, quite frankly, what we found shocked us.

We were aware of the various jobs and departments the new Strib — your local, local, hyper-local paper — has outsourced to India, not to mention the way young Par whacked those sweet old ladies who used to answer the telephones. But after scouring the phone logs, we were stunned to see an extended, expensive series of calls between the Star Tribune and a pay phone at a roadhouse called the Dry Dock Bar in Chaffey, Wisconsin.

That’s right. Wis-f**kin’-consin.

Home of cheeseheads, the world’s sickest serial killers and turpentine-swilling bear baiters. WTF?

One call connected us to a gentleman–we’ll call him “Randy”– who confirmed to our satisfaction that for beer money he in fact took over for the Strib’s exhausted Readers’ Rep last summer, about the time Par was taking a dive over in Ramsey County Court. She was strung out and mumbling in the hallways. It seems Randy actually "ghost dictated" the column for months, right up until it was killed off completely. He had some credentials, too: Apparently he was good at handling complaints for the septic company he works at, and his brother built a deer stand for a Strib sales guy hunting up north last fall. Moreover, he said he’d happily do it all again. "That was easy money," he told us. "You ain’t seen pissed until you got a guy with six inches of shit backed up in his basement."

This time, though, he demanded enough cash up front for a hunting license and a differential flush for his ’89 F-250. We tapped the Rake hedge fund account and called it a deal. We told Randy to get back to work ASAP. Here’s his first report.

Question: Hi. I’m wondering when you’re going to say anything about the behavior of your publisher, Mr. Ridder? The way I always thought it was supposed to go, a big city newspaper like yours was in the business of digging up dirt on politicians and business scoundrels, uncovering people ripping off the system and making life tougher for the average guy. T
hen after you reported it, you were supposed to analyze and comment the hell out of it, and then your editorial department was supposed to write a few tut-tutting pieces wondering what in the name of Enron the world was coming to when crass punks like this end up in positions of such influence? But, I gotta tell you, other than the usual perfunctory who, what and where stories, I haven’t read any editorials or anything else really from you. What gives? I mean, if I can’t trust you to be completely candid about the dirt in your own house, why should I trust you to be honest about the dirt in anyone else’s?

Randy, Your Readers’ Rep: Look dude, I don’t know what you do for a living, but where I come from there isn’t much upside to ripping the boss. Mr. Ridder had a pretty bad summer. You want to pile on, go ahead. But I got a trailer payment, two ATV payments, a bass boat and alimony to cover. I ain’t kickin’ him while he’s down.

What’s more, the last time I checked, this whole thing boiled down to the opinion of one guy — some judge in St. Paul — against the opinion of a bunch of other guys, namely Mr. Ridder and his lawyers. More importantly, this is an ongoing legal matter. Which means, if I have to spell it out for you, that I can’t say anything until it gets all resolved out, and that’ll only happen when that Dean Singleton guy in Colorado gets handed a fat ass check to shut up and go away. Then, at that point, the whole thing will switch from an ongoing legal matter to "old news" and something we’re "putting behind us" as we "move forward."


And as for tut-tutting from the editorial department, well, we’re a little under-gunned right now. One little downside to Mr. Ridder’s courageous "right-sizing" campaign, (i.e. "Less for you, but more for Avista Capital Partners"), is that we’ve thinned out about two-thirds of the deadwood up there, and the two who are left have been pretty busy re-thinking their brave but well, you know, hysterical editorials calling for a reliable funding process for roads and bridges. They’ve been told to look for something that doesn’t raise taxes on any of the Avista Capital Partners team or those lawyers at Powerline.

Question: I am a big, big fan of Katherine Kersten. I can’t tell you how overdue the Red Star was in getting someone in there who understands regular Minnesotans, people who change their own oil, play snowmobile poker, don’t buy all the liberal claptrap about melting glaciers and practice small animal taxidermy in their basements. People like me have had it with these rich, elitist, ivory tower pricks like Nick Coleman constantly taking pot shots at hard-working guys like Carl Pohlad and Bill Cooper. So thanks for Katherine. She is a breath of fresh air.

But as I read her story titled, "Pariahs on Campus", the one where all these clean cut kids are getting beat over the heads with leftover hippie liberal bullshit about habeas corpses, mal-distribution of wealth (whatever that means) and French ticklers, I kept thinking about that Bethany Dorobiala kid Katherine mentioned. I know her, and I think Katherine’s story would have been a lot stronger if she had mentioned that Bethany is no run of the mill kid. She’s the goddam chairman of Minnesota College Republicans! I mean, come on. Bethany’s one smart little lady. She’s hip to all the liberal tricks. You might even say she is on "high alert" for their crap. I think saying right out front that Bethany was a big cheese with every kid who still loves freedom would have been a knock-out punch for that story. So where are your editors? How come someone didn’t get that kind of important detail in Katherine’s story?

Randy, Your Readers’ Rep: You make many excellent points. It goes without saying that Katherine, as the only person on our staff that anyone north of 694 can relate to, has a special mission, namely to point out the shocking conflicts of interest and bias … in liberal professors and kids. But in the case of straight-ahead, unbiased kids like Bethany, pointing out details like her titles in some campus club is kind of irrelevant isn’t it? I mean, what else? Do readers need to know if she prefers Pepsi or Coke?

In fairness to Katherine, who works so very very hard drawing readers’ attention to the often murky terroristic links between the Flying Imams, anarchist bicycle groups and public schools, there’s only so much of her to go around. We agree though that she is a jewel. Kind of like that bracelet I won for my wife out of that machine down at Hole in the Wall in Danbury.

Question: I hear odd rumors all the time. But this latest one seems pretty unfair. It says that your new editor, what’s her name, Lacey Barnes? wants to blow this frozen popstand and get back on track with an actual newspaper company, and that she’s decided her ticket out of Avista Cap … I mean, Minnesota, is winning a Pulitzer for your coverage of the bridge collapse. I’ve read a lot of your stories and they’re pretty good. But I don’t think they are exactly the New Orleans Times-Picayune covering Katrina. You know what I mean? Don’t you think you need a blockbuster? If so, can you hint at anything that might be in the pipeline?

Randy, Your Readers’ Rep: Our very courageous editor’s name is Nancy Barnes, and she has not said anything directly to the staff about being pissed off at the McClatchy gang for leaving her marooned in Minnesota while Anders Gyllenhaal is catting around Coconut Grove in Miami. I know I couldn’t blame her if she was a little PO’d. I mean, try finding a decent mojito up here, and by "up here" I mean Minneapolis, not Superior. What’s with all that syrup crap? Besides, as she’s said before, she hates that people here look at her funny when she runs around in her favorite summer short-shorts.

As for possible Pulitzers, we fully expect that several of our bravest, hardest-working teams will be major contenders for next year’s awards. The team that handles Sid Hartman should be in the running for his series of exclusives with Zygi Wilf, and the courageous editors shaping Kneel Justin’s new Monday media columns, especially the one where he got Frank Vascellaro to break his long, self-imposed silence will also be given serious consideration.

As far as our bridge coverage goes, we’re working courageously and tenaciously digging for the smoking gun. Obviously we’d love nothing more than for someone out there in the public to come forward with a grainy cellphone photo, or, hell, rank hearsay showing a tax and spend liberal with 10 sticks of dynamite and a plunger next to the bridge last August. But even if it’s just video of Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau jumping up and down on the overloaded bridge deck, we’ll take it. After that the awards will take care of themselves.

(A favor though, if I could. If you or anyone you know is down in Miami this winter and spot something for sale on the Intracoastal, maybe Fisher or Star Island, please don’t hesitate to drop Nancy a note, at Thanks.)

Question: I’m 83 years old. Where in hell is the TV Weekly, and what is this cable crap you’re always talking about?

Randy, Your Readers’ Rep: Our editors made two brave and courageous decisons. One, they killed, I mean they "right-sized" the TV Weekly, and two, they didn’t say anything about it. Cable is a kind of sweater. Up here we go with the dish.

If you have questions for Randy, the Star Tribune’s Readers’ Rep, please feel free to submit them here at Lambert & Rybak to the Slaughter. (E-mail addresses are visible next to this blog. We’ll make sure they’re passed on … before the big Sunday All You Can Drink NASCAR Happy Hour.)