Something scary is happening in our city, and something hopeful.
The Star Tribune is in bankruptcy, newspapers around the country are dying, the Pioneer Press is hurting, and all that’s scary. But the reporters and editors at the Star Tribune are taking their futures into their own hands – and that’s hopeful and resourceful.
Instead of just leaving their fates in the hands of a bankruptcy judge in New York or possible new buyers, the Minneapolis members of the Newspaper Guild have been researching new business and ownership models for providing great daily journalism to the community.
And they’re inviting the community to help them solve a challenge that hasn’t yet been fully met anywhere in the world – how to keep a major daily newspaper viable in the electronic age when so much of its content has been available free online. The journalists – and I – think Minnesotans can find a solution. Minnesota has long been a center of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit and is a community that values citizen involvement, education and an informed public.
We’re inviting community leaders, groups and individuals to come up with innovative approaches to keeping the Star Tribune a strong community resource. The goal is to find new local ownership and a new business model that can keep the Star Tribune delivering news and entertainment in whatever format consumers choose.
We’re envisioning a creative ferment that bubbles up new ideas – for example:
• A university business and journalism program joins with a group of entrepreneurs to develop a new approach to owning and running the business.
• At the same time a collection of digital dreamers comes up with an elegant idea for keeping journalists’ feet on the streets while delivering the news in ways nobody’s conceived of yet.
• And across town, a group of think-tank and non-profit leaders teams up with a business visionary to come up with a “eureka” moment that shows how this all can work.
This is a scary and exciting moment. We could lose what is by far the largest news organization in the state. Or we could step up as a community and figure out how to bring that crucial community resource into the new electronic age.
I’m concerned that we’re going to lose what professional journalists do – dig into records, hit the streets and back roads to see what life is like here, sit through boring meetings, ask a million questions, be irreverent, hold the powerful accountable. And we’re going to lose what professional journalists bring us – knowledge, awareness, new ideas, new views.
I believe in the value of professional journalism – in reporters who learn how to ask questions that open people up, in reporters who are skeptical and check the record, in reporters who know how to plow through heaps of documents and extract their meaning, in reporters whose blood runs faster when big things are happening, in journalists who lust to find out what’s under the surface of events and words. I believe in the value of journalists who are trained and called to chase after the truth wherever it leads, whoever it helps or hurts.
I write a blog, and I know that I do very little research or reporting to back up my words – mostly I write my take on things I read that reporters have researched and analyzed. I love the access anybody has to readers through the internet – it takes nothing, no overhead, to start your own little journal or website or podcast. This cacophonous chorus of voices is lively and good for our society. But a bunch of people speaking their minds isn’t enough – we also need trained journalists to dig into the facts and hold them up for us all to see.
I know, lots of people love to hate the Strib. Too liberal, too negative, too whatever. Lots of politicians and businesspeople think reporters are out to get them. If everybody loved their hometown paper, it would be a church bulletin. I actually think journalism should be more rowdy and more like blogs, but still based on solid reporting that most bloggers don’t have the time or capability to do.
And that’s part of the point. In this open invitation to the community to help come up with new approaches to keeping daily journalism viable, everything is on the table. We may find ourselves coming up with ways of doing journalism that are more honest and lively and helpful and interesting than the mainstream journalism of today. Wouldn’t it be cool if the new Star Tribune that comes out of this creative process had a new way to run the business and a new ownership structure as well as new ways of reporting, writing and delivering news and entertainment? That sounds like growth, innovation, evolution.
The Star Tribune is still profitable. The paper is the 15th largest in the country by daily circulation, and 10th largest on Sunday, with 552,000 subscribers. The paper’s website, www.startribune.com, averages 76 million page views a month, among the nation’s top 10. Part of the paper’s economic problem is the huge debt the current owners – a New York investment group – have piled on the paper. I’d like to see local ownership – perhaps community, cooperative ownership – that looks for more than just a financial return from a news organization.
I believe that robust professional daily journalism is an essential ingredient of a strong community. And I believe that there are people out there – people reading these words now – who can figure out how to bring high quality daily journalism into the new era of communications.
I’m volunteering to coordinate this search for new ideas. I’m a former Star Tribune reporter, a journalism teacher, blogger and communications coach who cares deeply about keeping journalism healthy. Please contact me at email@example.com or 612-861-3943 if you put an ad hoc group together to find a solution, have an idea or have any questions.
It’s time to be creative and find solutions nobody’s thought of yet.
P.S. Many people have been trying to dream up new models for newspapers, and there are many smart analyses about the state of newspapers today. The Newspaper Guild’s Twin Cities office can provide a great deal of background material to interested groups, and the journalists of the Guild have been exploring possible new models that might work in Minnesota – feel free to contact the Guild. Mike Bucsko is the Guild’s executive officer, and he’s reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-789-0044.
Here are some resources to give you context:
Paul Farhi writes for the Washington Post and the American Journalism Review about the economic and technological forces behind the collapse of newspapers:
And here are three more good articles on newspapers’ future and alternatives, from Editor & Publisher and The Huffington Post: