City Centered: A Savior for the Strib?

Is Glen Taylor the 21st-century newspaper baron we’ve been looking for?

Star Tribune sports page
Courtesy Star Tribune Facebook Page

I bought a subscription to the Star Tribune (then the Minneapolis Tribune) in 1981 at Macalester College and have maintained home delivery ever since. I have historically been unenthusiastic about the paper, which I often found slow-footed and provincial, but those are petty considerations in today’s media environment.

Sometime this spring, local business and sports magnate Glen Taylor will buy the Strib from the debt holders who took it out of bankruptcy, and for the first time since the Cowles family’s regrettable sale to McClatchy Company, the paper will be in committed local hands.

If you’re trying to figure out if this is a good thing, the answer is inevitably yes. How good a thing is tougher to divine.

In an age when newspapers are atrophying and dying, when most big dailies are shells of their former selves, the Strib emerged from its bankruptcy a better entity. It shed staff but manages to do more with less. Once an operation weighed down by a ponderous process and odd culture, steeped in a quotient of what I call “pipe and slippers” journalism, the newspaper today is feisty, energetic, and has good news sense.

The intense liberal bias of its newsroom is less obvious, though at times it remains unmistakable. Its editorial page is an increasingly smart, pragmatic place to look for takes on the issues of the day.

I covered the newspaper from 1985 to 1994 as a media critic, but today I am less connected to its inner workings, so I don’t have a lot of insights into its transformation. Some of it was surely accomplished via fresh leadership with new priorities, unshackled in desperate times from old ways of doing things. Part of it may be that we have a greater appreciation for the local daily as other cities lose theirs (see Portland, New Orleans). Whatever the cause, the Strib today is qualitatively among the best American newspapers.

Glen Taylor is buying an entity with momentum underpinned by a community of readers and leaders who still look to it for insight and priorities. It is an asset with influence. But it also exists in an industry in near freefall and faces a still-dwindling revenue base. Its future is by no means assured.

What the Strib needs from Taylor Corporation is management continuity, a willingness to sustain the asset with very modest returns, and a commitment to the newspaper beyond when the rather elderly owner cedes the reins. Generational turmoil cannot be on the near-term horizon.

Glen Taylor bought the Timberwolves as a local white knight in much the same way he is buying the Star Tribune. The Wolves have lurched from periods of stability to eras of inexplicable incompetence since. Taylor’s presence is palpable, but his influence opaque.

It’s a lot harder to make money in news than sports, and my hope is the Taylor family will act as conservators of the Star Tribune rather than trying to apply business principles and metrics from other Taylor properties to management of the newspaper (see Sam Zell’s destruction of the Chicago Tribune).

The NBA is a community asset, but owning the Star Tribune is a sacred trust. Here’s hoping the Taylor family is up to the challenge.

Adam Platt is the executive editor of Twin Cities Business Magazine and formerly held the same post at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. City Centered is his monthly column in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine that examines the cultural climate of the Twin Cities.