Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Strib: Where's the bottom?

Lately I've written quite a bit about the decline of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Most of my criticism has lamented the right wing turn of the paper's news pages, and the dishonest headlining of many political stories. What I didn't know before was that this dimunition has even infected the paper's sports pages, where no subsidy to a billionaire is too much, no pay for a player beyond the pale, and hunting with weapons that would be useful in war doesn't raise an eyebrow.

Another thing I hadn't mentioned before is the Quixotic pursuit of young print readers by the paper's managers. Have these new approaches worked out for the paper commercially? It doesn't look that way, as shown by the opaque reporting about Avista Capital, the owners of the paper who are already disappointed by its financial performance. Over the past six months the paper lost a whopping six percent of its print readers, which to be fair isn't much different than its newspaper brethren, yet proves that attempts to stem the financial and reader hemorrhaging have not worked.

On the news pages, the Daily Mole has the back story of a wet-kiss interview done by Trib editors with Carol Molnau, where they allowed the head of the Minnesota DOT to spin like crazy, and where the editors of the Trib didn't ask one follow up question. Real reporter Paul McEnroe commented that the "interview" speaks for itself. Yeah. Molnau won't speak with reporters like McEnroe, and has complained about them trying to get at the bottom of why the I-35 bridge fell. If the Trib had an interview with Molnau, why wasn't McEnroe in on it? Was that a precondition of the interview imposed by Molnau? I'm betting it was.

Meanwhile, on the Trib's sports pages columnist Jim Souhan paid homage to Torri Hunter, who just inked a $90 million deal with the Dodgers. A friend who reads the sports pages mentioned to me how we citizens of Minneapolis, many of whom will never attend a Twins game, are nevertheless required to pay for the billionaire Carl Pohlad's new stadium, while game-players like Hunter are paid $90 million and school teachers are forced to beg for the $40,000 or so a year they earn. That's not a concern of Souhan, though, who approves both of Hunter's deal and Pohlad's strategy of not dipping into his personal $2 billion fortune to actually field a competitive team.

Also, as Spotty points out, on the sports page on Sunday outdoors writer Dennis Anderson was defending the use of assault-rifle-like guns by hunters. According to Anderson, the rifles can "pick off a prairie dog at 700 yards."

* * *

Where does that leave the Trib? Its website continues to do well, ranked among the top newspaper websites in terms of traffic; print readership has been off sharply in every recent period, and the value of the institution has been more than halved over the past five years.

The Trib basically operates in a monopoly environment. In this era the paper has lost some of its ability to define the news agenda, yet it still has a gigantic reach, plus a stable of highly skilled reporters. The question remains, will the paper pay for its rightward turn and its dramatic loss of quality writing, designing and editing? The results of such a basic diminution in credibility and respect might be slow to be realized, and even harder to quantitatively measure, yet nonetheless significant.

A few years ago Trib managers were faced with an unpleasant choice: Try to attract young readers by publishing articles and taking perspectives that might appeal to them, or focus on traditional quality journalism dependent on more and better reporting and editing. Unfortunately, those prospective young readers, conditioned by our national entertainment state, are uninterested in the real news product. Thus, trying to get those young readers flies directly in the face of the strategy of improving the journalistic product. And just how are you going to get these young people to read your paper by pandering to them if they never even pick it up?

What's worse, there's no evidence I've seen that validates this strategy in the least. Is the paper losing so many adult readers that it makes up for some increase in younger readers? That's a hard argument to make when you lost six percent of your daily printed version of the paper in only the past six months.

So either way the paper was and is going to lose print version readers. The paper's response to this loss will not only lose more readers, but also harm the paper's reputation and credibility. More importantly, the changes have failed at attracting the young print readers the changes were supposed to garner. At the same time pandering to the mythical young readers is alienating the very people who make up the core audience - people who read because they want to know what's going on in the world.

If you take the craptaculation of trying to attract young readers, the capitulation to right wing forces represented by the hiring of the torture-sanctioning Katherine Kersten and Doug Tice, the ongoing rightward tilt of its news pages, and the loss of other top talent, the picture of the Trib is one of an institution in a steep tailspin, still digging itself into an ever bigger hole. Given the overall picture of declining readership in the industry, the paper may be destined to lose readers for some time. The paper's response to this crisis of readership and revenue might have been to turn to its traditional mission of quality journalism. It might have still lost readers, but it would still have a respected and quality product. Instead, the paper flailed away trying to attract young people and right wingers, and in the process has humiliated itself and alienated its true core audience.

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