Top local stories of the year wrap: The Mole’s list and more

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The Bridge is the biggest story of the year–but other picks may surprise you. The Daily Mole makes its top picks, followed by the picks of other local journalists and media critics.

1. 35W bridge: It was not just the suddenness and magnitude of the event that made it so shocking. A plane crash in south Minneapolis or a category 5 tornado in the metro area would not have engendered the sense of public betrayal that the collapse of the state’s most-traveled bridge did. It called into question one of the most basic unspoken bargains underlying our sense of what it is to be an American, or a Minnesotan: the confidence that our government, whatever its political allegiances of the hour, is competent enough and uncorrupted enough to ensure that essential services continue to function. Amy Klobuchar articulated as succinctly as anyone: “A bridge in America just shouldn’t fall down.” Yet it did, and the stories that have unfolded since the collapse almost five months ago demonstrate just how dithering, crony-ridden, and cash-starved the agency overseeing the safety of our roads and bridges really is.

2. Minnesota economy: The bad news included a terrible job market (a net decline of over 26,000 jobs through the summer and early fall); a ranking of dead-last in the nation in personal income growth in the third quarter; city budget crises here in the Metro; mounting evidence that the state has fallen progressively further behind in maintaining its infrastructure (see number 1, above); and declining indicators for the future (such as rate of education spending growth).

3. Real estate mess: The repercussions from subprime mortgage madness hit here as everywhere else, causing what had been a booming local construction industry to grind to a near-halt and bringing news of ever-greater month-by-month reductions in existing home valuations. As some of the worst predators in the lending game were exposed over the course of the year, it became evident that the poorest parts of town were also the most preyed-upon.

4. Race and reaction at the MPD: I’ll start by quoting what I posted the other day at Talk in nominating the MPD for local villain of the year: “Besides the usual quotient of embarrassing high-profile incidents–this month’s utterly unfounded, gunfire-filled raid on a north Minneapolis home, the city’s $4.5 million payout to Officer Duy Ngo, shot in 2003 by one of his own colleagues–the department was also hit by a pair of civil rights lawsuits alleging chronic prejudicial treatment of non-Anglo cops, the more publicized of which is pitting five of the department’s longest-tenured and most respected African-American officers against MPD Chief Tim Dolan.” But I did neglect to mention the department’s overtime pay troubles (which, of course, are tied up with its cronyism problem), and that Lt. Bob Kroll–who was promoted by Dolan even as numerous ranking black cops were being demoted or transferred–took a turn in the spotlight after reportedly calling Rep. Keith Ellison a terrorist.

5. Media upheavals: The other list-makers have said about enough on the subject: over 100 newsroom jobs lost at the dailies through the course of ownership changes and sliding revenues (the Strib is said to be down $60 million, or about 15 percent, in ‘07 receipts), and a near-complete staff turnover at the local alt-weekly. Then there are the new kids, MinnPost and the Mole, with many more sure to follow.

6. DFL collapse: I’ll cadge from my local-villain nominees again: “The Kelliher-and-Pogemiller-led troops parlayed a big 2006 electoral victory into a) no meaningful legislative progress, b) a crisis in party finances, and c) barely a peep during the “battle” over a special session to deal with transportation funding.”

7. North Minneapolis: Ostensibly, the news was good in one respect: Some kinds of crime were reportedly down on the often violent streets of near-north, but as one MPD officer put it to me recently, that probably has more to do with a decreasing incidence of people bothering to call the police rather than with a decreasing incidence of day-to-day mayhem. The north side remains one of the poorest areas in any major US city, and it was likewise the hardest-hit section of the Twin Cities in the subprime real estate hustle, if foreclosure statistics and criminal indictments are any guide.

8. Tax and fee hikes at the city level: The hidden cost of Pawlenty-era tax cuts at the state level wasn’t a “story” so much as a theme song playing behind lots of other stories–big ones, like the disastrously timed hikes in local property taxes or the $1.3 million shortfall discovered recently in St. Paul’s city budget, and small ones, like the city of Minneapolis’s efforts to pass “dangerous dogs” ordinances whose main effect would be to create entirely new classes of violations and licensing fees for pets.

9. Rachel Paulose: Our own little piece of the scandal that brought down Bush administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez–though, for us, the most memorable interlude came at the end, when local conservative power-blogger Scott Johnson sought to win Paulose a reprieve, and instead offered up (at National Review) the Paulose quote that wound up costing her her job.

MnMon’s Paul Schmelzer on the top local stories of the year

Schmelzer writes:

Most Entertaining: Par’s Parabola. Can Par Ridder’s quick rise and fall as Strib publisher be seen as emblematic of the greed and lunatic pursuit of a competitive edge in a newspaper industry clinging to an outdated profit model? Maybe. But from the stolen data to the nutty antics (a zip drive “returned” to the PiPress in a new straight-from-CompUSA shrink-wrapped box?) to the screw-you gesture of buying a Lake of the Isles mansion in the midst of it all, the plot line was more lurid than anything C.J., Katherine Kersten, and Nick Coleman could concoct together over a passed bottle of Jameson.

Spookiest for Democracy: Strib DC Bureau Shuttered. In a year when Michele Bachmann planted a weird, wet one on the prez, Minnesota elected Congress’ first Muslim, and the Twin Cities laid plans to host the 2008 Republican presidential nominating convention, the Star Tribune imploded: letting much of its top talent go, repositioning reporters to focus on local and surburban news, mandating local-only editorials (jettisoning its longtime editorial page editor in the process) and letting its Washington D.C. bureau go dark. The DC office — as big as five reporters a decade ago and, according to former chief Chuck Bailey, as many as seven or eight reporters in its heyday 50 years ago – was down to an intern, and then to no one for a spell this summer. New owners Avista capital partners made lowball offers to chief Rob Hotakainen and reporter Kevin Diaz, who, smartly, refused. But eventually the paper got one back: in election year 2008, Diaz will be the only Minnesotan covering the nation’s capitol full-time for a Twin Cities newspaper. In a bit of truly Bushian logic, editor Nancy Barnes in a late-October column spun this fact into a golden turd: She cited Diaz’s D.C. gig as evidence that it’s “not true” that “the paper’s focus has narrowed.”

Best news graphic: Strib’s mortgage map. I’ve returned to the Star Tribune’s interactive mortgage-foreclosures map repeatedly, both because I’m an interested north Minneapolis homeowner and because, like a gawker driving by a car wreck, I can’t tear my eyes away from the spectacle. The story is all too familiar and it’s been covered plenty, but I want to hear more: Who is really being affected and why? Who profits? Who’s got solutions and who in local, state, and national government might address the fact that my neighborhood, with its lack of solid infrastructure, jobs and training, or promise, is a little bit of Katrina waiting to happen?

The bridge: Two things I remember about the 35W collapse: Getting there and seeing so many people – thousands, probably – with cellphones at their ears or video cameras to their eyes recording what none of us had yet had time and distance to really experience. And my phone call with Shirley Phelps Roper a few days later. Roper, of Fred Phelps’ infamous Westboro Baptist Church, threatened to protest at the funerals of some of the victims as a way of illustrating her church’s belief that the collapse was God’s punishment for the Twin Cities’ tolerance of gays and lesbians.

Mole survey, part V: Public radio producer Sasha Aslanian’s top local stories of 2007

“I don’t think so much in terms of ‘top stories’,” writes American Radio Works producer Sasha Aslanian, “but the test for me is stories that haunt me. What are the stories that rattle around inside of me days, weeks or months after I hear them?”

The local stories of 2007 that I can’t get out of my head:

35W bridge collapse: This was the perfect equal-opportunity horror scene or Twin Citians. How many bridges do we all cross each day? Geez, I thought somebody was making sure they were safe? Is the trembling Lafayette bridge on my commute next? (or as my kid said as we crossed the Wabasha bridge the next day, “Is this the bridge that fell?”) I felt the magnitude of the event reflected back from the outside world. I was across town picking up kids when it happened and didn’t have my radio on. A relative from Seattle rang my cell phone to see if I was OK and told me what had happened. I came home to a montage of long-distance messages on my answering machine. Emails poured in –including my freshman roommate from South Africa–checking on me. Even though I work in news, in an instantaneous medium, the way news travels still stuns me.

Human Trafficking in the Twin Cities: It’s here. “One brothel operator bragged…that two of his prostitutes had serviced 80 men in just one night.” From a Star Tribune article May 21, 2007 headlined “25 arrested in Twin Cities in international sex slave bust.” These stories blare in the news, then go under as they wend through the courts. The Strib did one follow-up saying the women–Spanish-speaking immigrants – were getting help. Last week, there was another bust, this with Asian women being trafficked. Is there less alarm because these women are immigrants? Who are their customers? Is anyone talking?

Toxic toys (and antifreeze in toothpaste): Big case of “who’s minding the store here?” By store, I’m thinking my local Target and the vast and seemingly indecipherable commercial lineage of everything I’m buying. As an American, I want to think I’m buying products that are safe and well -tested. The toxic toys coverage was unsettling, as was the great New York Times piece about contaminated medicine with the kids in Haiti who died when their parents gave them pain reliever made in China, unwittingly poisoning them. It’s a great story about globalism made local in our toy boxes, cupboards and medicine cabinets. We’re more connected and more vulnerable than we think.

The Death of Jordan Gonsioroski: Although this 10-year old girl was killed in 2006, I became aware of her story in 2007 through press accounts of the charges against her father and stepmother. I remember reading a Star-Tribune story on a summer Saturday morning and not being able to shake it all day. Jordan had been scalded to death in the bathtub. She was being punished for putting a chip in her underpants, a habit she had picked up after being sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. What got me were the little details. As the girl was dying, she helped her stepmother clean up the bathtub and kept apologizing for the mess. There are some stories so upsetting they change your world. I couldn’t stand giving my daughters baths for a while because I couldn’t erase Jordan from my memory. As a society, how can we prevent more Jordans from happening? I’m told her foster mother pleaded the girl not be returned to her family. We have to live with this on our conscience.

Snouts: Here’s a more recent one that rocked my world. Who knew pig brains were blown out through snouts using pressurized air? I feel conflicted about some stories reaching the light of day.

Mole survey, part IV: Deborah Rybak picks the top local stories of ‘07

Before Deborah Rybak–late of the Star Tribune and the Rake’s media blog–submitted her list of the year’s top local stories, she offered the caveat that she spent a substantial part of the year outside Minnesota. So her list focuses mainly on the upheavals on her longtime local media beat, which touched most of the print and web publications in town.

The bridge collapse: It pulled back the curtain at the monolithic Minnesota Department of Transportation, revealing an entirely inadequate Carol Molnau grasping at the controls. Nationally, it inspired stories across the country about substandard funding and maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure.

Media: Where does one start to catalog the dramatic shift in media personnel and priorities over the past year?

Within a matter of months, the Star Tribune turned from a respectable paper owned and helmed by seasoned media professionals to a leaky, listing sloop piloted by a bunch of greedy private equity stooges and publisher Par Ridder, who apparently never met a proprietary piece of information that he didn’t feel entitled to steal. He successfully turned the Strib from a go-to media source to a staff-starved purveyor of high school prep scores, local crime stories, and wire copy. It took a judge to topple Ridder. It’s hard to say whether the paper will ever recover from his brief, brutal regime.

City Pages flipped from a smart alt weekly to frat boy snark sheet and lost most of its staff in the process. Two of the three biggest TV news operations in town lost their news directors and Clear Channel’s local radio station cartel lost Mick Anselmo, who had brought some local humanity to the faceless conglomerate. In the process, local media’s institutional memory took a hit of Alzheimers-esque proportions.

The media upheaval sent dozens of journalists online, where the future of Twin Cities media may now lie. Tune in next year to find out who’s still standing at the OK Corral once the marketplace determines whether readers want their news delivered smart and stylish (think Daily Mole) or stultified, like MinnPost.

Mole survey, part III: Brian Lambert’s top local stories of 2007

Today’s stories of the year list belongs to Minneapolis St. Paul magazine senior editor and media blogger Brian Lambert, who previously covered TC media for many a year in the pages of the Pioneer Press and the Rake.

Brian Lambert writes:

I-35 Collapse: If ever a single event seemed destined to launch a spear through the heart of the cynical, recklessly simple-minded “Small Government” echo chamber, it should have been this one. Government on the cheap = Grossly deficient infrastructure … and a lot else. As the year ends it appears Gov. Pawlenty has again out-maneuvered progressives, mostly by throwing the hapless Carol Molnau under the bus. Maybe the session will draw blood.

Big Media Meltdown: The shriveling of daily newspapers accelerated, with the Star Tribune slashing staff while clinging tightly and spending millions defending ruling class scion Par Ridder. In St. Paul, the Pioneer Press operates at subsistence levels awaiting the inevitable merger. Meanwhile, the viewing audience for local TV news–long a cliche turned self-parody, now turning irrelevant in the age of Stewart and Colbert and maturing web wags–declines by 15% from 2006.

Corrupt Corporate Governance Minnesota Style: Reverberations from the Wall St. Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on back-dated stock options claims the head of king in Minnesota’s Bill McGuire of United Health. It would have been nice if any local news organization had wondered aloud how McGuire and United Health (and their ilk) could pile up billions in profit at the same time the cost of health insurance was wreaking havoc on every family, every level of government and every other company, large and small. At a billion-plus in his own pocket, McGuire’s “support of the arts” amounted to flipping the bums a dime. Is that all it takes to buy yourself a pass?

Mole survey, part II: Maryn McKenna’s top local stories of the year

Today we continue our survey of local journalists and media critics’ picks for top local stories of 2007 with Maryn McKenna, a recent Twin Cities transplant who, as her bio states, is a “former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and author of Beating Back the Devil and the forthcoming Superbug. She writes for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and is a member of the Poynter Institute’s E-Media team.”

Maryn McKenna writes:

My “big stories in no particular order” list:

1. Event: The collapse of the 35-W bridge, of course. Because it was a shocking tragedy; because it was international news; because it was an amazing example of the worth of citizen media (the first report of the collapse reportedly came by Twitter). But especially because it is such a potent reminder of the necessity of funding urban infrastructure. As a society, we do a very poor job of funding or even thinking about prevention; the bridge collapse should make us realize that diseases don’t disappear, crimes don’t stop and bridges don’t stay up on their own.

2. Trend: The insane fall of the dollar and the local ripple effects. Because I report on emerging infections, I leave the country numerous times a year — and every time I’m freshly stunned by how little a dollar buys elsewhere. Why does that matter here? Because while the weak dollar may be luring planeloads of foreign shoppers to the Mall of America, it is undermining every business that sources raw materials or sells finished product beyond the state’s borders. Plus, it sucks that Canada is no longer a permanent 30%-off sale.

3. Event: The apparently race-based reassignments in the Minneapolis Police Department. So, excuse, me, I just moved to town, but: What century is it up here?

4. Event: The St. Paul police department’s seizure of Fox-9 news reporter Tom Lyden’s cell phone records, via a secret “administrative subpoena” that allowed an end-run around the state shield law. Someone in that police department gets credit for thinking like a lawyer… a lawyer who slept through Bill of Rights 101. In journalism circles this story is getting national attention.

5. Trend: The incredible growth of electronic, citizen and other alt-media in the TC. This may be a little meta, given that this survey is for the Mole, but this year marked the debut of the Mole and MinnPost and the continuing flourishing of the Minnesota Monitor and the Daily Planet, among others. A media audience that supports and engages with that many voices is a good place to live.

Mole survey, part I: What were the top local stories of 2007?

Last week we asked several local pro journalists to select their top local news stories of the year; this week we’re publishing the results, beginning today with MinnPost media critic David Brauer. We’ll publish more lists every day, culminating with the Mole’s own list on Friday.

David Brauer writes:

1. 35W-ness and nothingness. A bridge fell down and nothing really changed. Tim Pawlenty’s approval rating went UP 10 percentage points since his re-election a year earlier, as the public doesn’t buy that he was the guy responsible; crabby Carol Molnau goes into the Lt. Gov. Hall of Fame for insulating her boss from the so-far puny fallout. The Main Mole blames the Dems for fecklessness but they are effectively checkmated; the fact is, Dems need government to do a bunch of things and veto-protected Pawlenty needs nothing, especially in the wake of his 2012 presidential bid as the no-new-taxes but cutesy-photo-op Midwestern gov. For 2008, I predict a gas tax hike passing over the gov’s veto (but with his tacit OK to his House Republican praetors for plausible deniability), with the Dems going for Pawlenty’s transportation bonds as the only politically achievable way to throw more money at the transportation problems.

2. The big shitpile’s inside-outside game. Atrios lovingly labels the mortgage meltdown as a pile of poo, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that while inner-city neighborhoods have been shat upon, those are troubled places used to such muck; the real gonad-shrinking panic is emanating from the petro-enabled Outer Burbosphere, whose overvalued aura of Manifest Destiny may exhibit a steeper downward arc than our own fading American empire. Wouldn’t it be something if the flipped parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul were some day repopulated by the Hummer-scarred expats of Commuterland?

3. Lake Superior’s record-low levels. This was, frankly, the story that scared me the most this year. It’s dangerous to epitomize the biggest story of our lifetimes (global warming) with any single event; in fact, the Big Chilly’s waterline has risen since the late summer’s historical nadir. But Superior’s temperature rise is less flighty; if you’ve spent any time up there, the steadily increasing temps are more bone-chilling than any dip in the lake, and evaporation is the lake’s most serious cancer. We’re no better than frogs in a slowly boiling pot, and our vaunted water supply may not be the global warming bail bond we think it is.

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