At the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a newsroom that's gone from surviving to thriving
MINNEAPOLIS — Step into the new office of this old newspaper and it would be easy to assume the Minneapolis Star Tribune has moved fully into the present.
It has — at least physically. The Star Tribune's offices in downtown Minneapolis are filled with light from walls of windows. There's a news hub, quiet rooms, studios, even a wall that mimics the Northern Lights.
It's not the coffee-stained, newspaper-stacked home of the Star Tribune's past. And while the move last year came with some big upgrades, the newsroom is still evolving. But staffers aren't starting over, and they're not giving up on the print paper.
Instead, they're building on something they clung to when things got pretty bad: the value of local journalism.
Things changed overnight
In December 2006, Courtnay Peifer was on a cruise in the Caribbean when everything changed back in Minneapolis. Until that day, the McClatchy Company's ownership of the Star Tribune felt like a safety net.
Then, before heading out for dinner, Peifer checked her email. McClatchy sold the newspaper to Avista Capital Partners, a private equity firm based in New York City. Peifer, then the coordinator of the Star-Tribune's world section, wasn't there to talk with colleagues or sort things out in person. But at the time she thought: This means everything will change.
She was right.
Newsroom leaders realized they had to protect newsgathering if the paper was going to survive, said Eric Wieffering, now assistant managing editor of news. It was their key to remaining relevant to readers.
In a region with 16 Fortune 500 companies, the Star Tribune decided not to cut the standalone business section when some other regional newspapers were, said Wieffering, who was then business editor.
In 2010, Michael Klingensmith became CEO and publisher. In 2013, the newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartooning and local reporting. During a tumultuous time, they were doing some of their most ambitious journalism, Wieffering said.
And that work sent an important message to the newsroom and the community: The Star Tribune wasn't going anywhere.
At its peak, the Star Tribune had 450 people in the newsroom. Now, there are 250.
But when Managing Editor Suki Dardarian came from The Seattle Times in 2014, it seemed to her that the Star Tribune had survived the worst of it. That year, Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx owner Glen Taylor bought the newspaper.
Then, last fall, the Star Tribune joined a project that gathered a handful of regional newspapers to bring their digital efforts up to speed.
Seeds for many of the changes in past year were planted before the Star Tribune got involved with the Knight-Temple Table Stakes project. The process itself, however, has accelerated those changes.
Here's what they've been up to:
They've created a team that gets the news up, fast
Last fall, editors noticed they were missing a daytime digital audience while producing the print edition every day. An idea started percolating: In many cases, they were already posting news as it happened — could they be doing more?
The Quick Strike team was created to engage with audiences using mobile devices and on social media. The plan: localize national news, be fast on social media, jump on breaking coverage early and grab stories that fell between beats. That team would drive digital traffic during the day, giving other reporters on the metro section time for enterprise.
Karen Lundegaard was initially hesitant to lead Quick Strike, a role that felt very undefined. Now, that's what she likes about it.
"Ultimately, my job is to have my team do stories that people want to read," she said. "I used to ask, 'where will this go in the paper?' And now, it’s like, 'will people click on it?' That’s kind of the only question I need to ask. Is it newsworthy?"
They're changing how they work in small ways
That includes posting stories earlier in the day, updating articles frequently and adopting an audience-first mindset. A year ago, for instance, the sports department largely ignored its Facebook page. Nearly two weeks could pass without updates. Now, they post about every 40 minutes during the day, said deputy sports editor Chris Carr.
They take analytics seriously, too, tweaking headlines if they don't resonate and making sure they get social posts right. It took Carr time to care about pageviews, but he now sees the changes as audience-focused.
"For 150 years, we just did the best we could and thought they’d read it because it was our best effort," he said. "But the more that we attempted this, the more our focus came back to that audience that we’re trying to serve."
They're training the people they have
Journalists in many newsrooms see digital-first thinking as instinctual: People either get it or they don't.
"We’ve been able to move past that to, 'who wants to get it?'" Dardarian said. "And we’ve found that pretty much everyone wants to get it."
Roughly 20 new hires have come since January 2015, following a recent wave of retirements. Some of those people fill the skills gap in a way coaching can't. They've hired a developer, a digital designer and a social media manager.
"But you can’t fire everyone, that would be so stupid," Dardarian said, "so the key to it is using your brilliant journalists who are in the room to solve the problems."
The Star Tribune's training is led by Kate Parry, assistant managing editor for development and special projects. They work with journalists in their first decade to build editing and data skills. And Parry plans to continue adding digital skills as the Star Tribune identifies the ones that matter here the most.
They're thinking about revenue in big and small ways
The Star Tribune makes money a few different ways. It has 454,881 Sunday print and digital subscribers and 387,587 print-only Sunday subscribers. Its weekday average for print and digital subscribers is 272,789, with 178,367 print-only. As Poynter's Rick Edmonds reported in May, non-traditional revenue streams are currently bringing in 10 percent of income and growing. Revenues this year are up slightly.
Shortly before moving into the new office, the Star Tribune hired an events manager, said Steve Yaeger, the Star Tribune's chief marketing officer. In the first year, events made money and created new ways for readers to connect with journalists. They've done that through large-scale events and small ones that don't cost a lot but get great engagement.
When the U.S. Figure Skating Championships headed to St. Paul, the Star Tribune offered a photo workshop during a practice session taught by a staff photojournalist. People paid to be part of it, submitted their best photos and a winner was chosen to sit with the media during the championships.
"Did we make a ton of money? No," Yaeger said. "But our costs were very low, engagement was off the charts, and everyone involved asked us to do it again.
They care about the print edition in a region where newspapers still matter
Among top-20 markets, Minneapolis is No. 1 in daily and Sunday newspaper readership, according to Nielsen Scarborough Multi-Market Studies 2016. The Twin Cities have high voter turnout, above-average high school graduation rates and rank first among cities where women work outside the home.
Those factors point to an audience that is prepared to read — and pay for — a newspaper.
"Print is still critically important," Dardarian said.
So, the Star Tribune chose not to go digital-first at all costs. It's audience-first, she said, and that audience is still reading the newspaper.
A case study in serving both print and online audiences came along when Prince died suddenly in April. They covered the story quickly online. When it was time to put together the next day's newspaper, one designer told Dardarian it was like a smorgasbord.
Because the Quick Strike team was covering the news as it broke, other reporters in the room had the time to think about what people would need and on day two. The Star Tribune produced a special section that weekend with four different covers. They also dug into the archives and reposted a 15-year-old oral history of the artist. Among mobile readers, the piece had an engagement time of eight minutes.
"We did right by digital, which gave us the opportunity to do right by print," Dardarian said, "and we were able to see the magic of that."
'You can almost call it joy'
Christopher Ison left the Star Tribune more than a decade ago, but the Pulitzer-winner and associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota thinks his old news organization is doing pretty good work right now. It's also, as a business, in a pretty good place, he said.
"It’s not like they’re struggling to stay alive," he said. "I think that reflects that the audience here finds them pretty relevant, and I think that’s kind of key."
It's key in the newsroom, too.
It used to feel like the other shoe could drop anytime, said Colleen Kelly, mobile and social media manager. Now? "...You can almost call it joy," she said.
"The way we do business has kind of changed," agreed Quick Strike reporter Tim Harlow, "and I think it’s kind of energized the room."
But they still have work to do.
Mary Lynn Smith has been at the Star Tribune off and on since 1987. Editors tout her as a success story on the Quick Strike team, a veteran who has shifted to writing for the web.
But she struggles with the idea of writing for traffic and being guided by pageviews and virality.
"If a monkey can just push a button and put it online, then I don’t want to do that," she said. "But if we can put some meaning behind it... otherwise, why are we paying journalists to do that work? We have to be the filter."
There's always tension between cultivating traffic and pandering to it, said Kavita Kumar, a business reporter. But "I don’t feel like we’re going too far down the rabbit hole," she said
Here are some areas reporters and editors said still need work:
"We can’t just forgo a lot of the print workflow and thinking like other newspapers have," said Terry Sauer, assistant managing editor for digital. "And at the same time, we have to press forward full bore on digital."
Ultimately, he thinks progress in digital will come at the cost of print. But print still drives revenue.
And, while overall morale has improved, features reporter Amelia Rayno understands why the focus on digital has been hard for some in the newsroom. For people who don't use digital tools outside of work, asking them to use them at work is like giving them a second job.
"You can definitely feel that there’s frustration and even resistance to it," she said, "but I think that’s changing."
That old newspaper feel
The Star Tribune's old home is now a tree-filled park, apartment buildings and offices. Some people don't miss it a bit. Others do.
Kumar likes the new space, but she loved that old building.
There, she worked nights writing obits after college, eventually moving to breaking news. There were piles of yellowed newspapers, coffee-stained carpets, cubicles that held the character of people who'd decorated them over the course of their careers.
"It just had more of that old newspaper feel," she said.
But not everything from the old Star Tribune is gone. The iconic medallions that hung on the building's front now hang from a new home. The printing presses live at another facility. And at the bottom of the new office's long staircase, there's a slab of black marble.
Like everything else here, it's new. But it's also a nod to the old building's black marble entryway.
There's no identifying plaque or engraving to explain that history. At the bottom of the stairs, near a collage of images of the Boundary Waters, this small acknowledgement of the past is just a part of things.
Correction: An earlier version of this story noted the Star Tribune won one Pulitzer in 2013. It actually won two. Also the U.S. Figure Skating Championships were in St. Paul, not Minneapolis. This story has been corrected, and we apologize for the errors.