Mike Klingensmith, the engineer of The Star Tribune’s unusual business and editorial success, announced Thursday that he is retiring. He will depart in January, the company said. A successor as publisher has not been named.
Numbers tell the story of The Star Tribune’s rise to the top rank of regional newspapers. Under Klingensmith, its newsroom has remained intact with 233 journalists. Most years its revenues have held even or fallen just 1 or 2%, as sharp revenue declines have been the norm. And while building digital subscriptions to 100,000, The Star Tribune retains print circulation that makes it third largest metro daily and fourth on Sunday.
I asked Klingensmith in a phone interview Wednesday to reflect on his decade-plus as publisher and CEO.
“The newsroom is behind all the success we have had,” he said. Their accomplishments include three Pulitzers under three different editors, most recently for coverage of George Floyd’s murder. But, Klingensmith added, he has also insisted that The Star Tribune “stay dedicated to a full range of content,” not just big investigative projects.
The Star Tribune has benefited from ownership by billionaire Glen Taylor, so it is not burdened by debt or high profit expectations. But when Klingensmith came on board in 2010 after years as a top executive at Time Inc., the paper was owned by a private equity group and urgently in need of a new business model.
“We set out to build a digital subscription model in 2011,” Klingensmith said, “and that has been consistent (in the years since). There were a lot of naysayers at the time,” when the conventional wisdom was that digital content should remain free.
Klingensmith was also ahead of another industry trend — selling The Star Tribune’s downtown headquarters building and five vacant lots nearby, then plowing the proceeds back into paying down debt and improving operations. “We were then able to sell the company to Glen Taylor (for $100 million), and he has been a very supportive owner.”
Klingensmith’s program has emphasized diversifying revenue streams. “We created an effective digital advertising agency, and that has contributed a meaningful amount of revenue.”
Executive teams from other metros have regularly visited Minneapolis looking for best practices that they could borrow. I have written several times about The Star Tribune way, which includes having multiple innovations in the works at once and rigorously testing them with data.
Klingensmith told me for the first of those stories, “What we do is a little boring. Mainly we try to execute very well.”
Not that everything The Star Tribune tries turns to gold. It bought the alt-weekly City Pages in 2015 but was forced to close it in early 2020 as COVID-19 restrictions zapped its already shaky advertising base.
I asked for his assessment of the state of the industry in 2022.
“There are some clouds now, not only clouds, but rain this year — inflation that’s driving up our costs and a shaky economy. … But I am overall an optimist; this is a very rough patch, but we will work through it.”
Part of what’s needed, he continued, is “to shift the model with the big platform companies,” so that news content creators get paid by Google and Meta/Facebook.
He also thinks print still has a future. “I didn’t see that a time would come in my tenure to cut back, and that should continue, even if editions some days are not profitable.”
To the inevitable question of what he plans next, Klingensmith, who is in his late 60s, said, “I don’t think I can break myself of a 45-year habit of trying to follow everything about the news industry. So I expect that I will stumble into something. But not full time.”