Newsroom's stadium coverage: Just the facts

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune Editor
  • Updated: May 21, 2011 - 8:39 PM

It's a highly sensitive issue, and our role is to shed light on all sides.

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An artist's concept of a Vikings stadium in Arden Hills.

Photo: Associated Press

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We've been following the push for a new NFL-quality stadium to replace the Metrodome for years now, but the intensity of the lobbying and politicking has never been as fierce as it has been this spring.

In a debate like this, the media sits smack in the middle, with gale-force winds blowing all around.

Opponents of the stadium have literally called Star Tribune writers "stadium whores," suggesting that we were lobbying for the stadium because one of several proposed sites could involve purchasing land held by this company. Members of the public have written me, in eloquent handwritten prose, to complain about the use of taxpayer subsidies for "wealthy team owners."

Proponents have called me suggesting that some of our reporters are biased against publicly subsidized stadiums. Doesn't the newsroom want to see a new stadium, they've asked? Some have whispered to me that we shouldn't poll the public on its opinions regarding the need for a new stadium, because that might hurt the cause. (The results of such a poll ran last week.) Others have tried to persuade reporters and editors that certain sites under consideration were dead and not worth debating, even as the facts seemed to indicate otherwise.

Editorial writers who work for the Star Tribune's opinion section take seriously their role to make a case for what they believe is in the best interests of the state of Minnesota; they have and will continue to express opinions about the stadium proposal.

In the newsroom, we have a different mission. Our job is to shine a light on the debate, to explore all angles, and to let proponents and opponents make their case so that an informed citizenry can come to an independent opinion about the right course for Minnesota. The role of the newsroom isn't to lobby for or against a new stadium. It's not to write stories that favor the Metrodome site, even if that could financially benefit the company (and provide the editor with the view of something other than our parking lot). The role of the newsroom is to explore the costs and benefits to the public of a new stadium and all the sites under discussion, so that all the information available is transparent and the public can weigh in.

Toward that end, we have written 48 stories this year on the stadium debate, compared with 30 in all of 2010; many of those stories ran on the front page. In the last month alone, traffic to these stories has generated 1.6 million page views. They are often the most popular stories on the website, suggesting intense public interest. These stories have included a point-by-point comparison of the benefits to the Vikings in the proposed Arden Hills deal compared with the benefits that the Twins got in their stadium deal; a business column analyzing the deal from a developers' perspective, and an environmental story that explored what it would take to finish cleaning up the Arden Hills site. Those are angles you didn't see anywhere else.

When politicians call to complain that a reporter has a certain point of view on the stadium debate, I hear them out. To be fair, I know of at least one former reporter who held strong opinions about public subsidies for stadiums. I also know there are reporters who are passionate Vikings fans (they wear their shirts to work) and would love to go to a football game in a new stadium. With this in mind, we read all of their stories to make sure the reporting comes across as a straight cut of the facts. While some will and do differ on that assessment, it's important to remember that a reporter's job is to write with a critical eye when explaining how the public's money is being spent. That shouldn't be construed as bias.

I've been involved in the coverage of many stadium debates, here and in other states, over the last two decades.

The arguments are often similar, and compelling. The business community and many politicians and other leaders believe that pro sports franchises such as the Twins and the Vikings improve the quality of life in a metropolitan area, make it easier to recruit a competitive workforce and bring many tangible and intangible side benefits. (What's better marketing than the beautiful view of Minneapolis from the Twins stadium during a nationally broadcast game?) Similarly, taxpayers and opposing politicians argue that these teams and their owners are wealthy in their own right, and shouldn't be subsidized by public tax dollars when there are so many other pressing needs. (How can the state finance a stadium on the backs of working-class people?)

The politics around this latest proposal, however, are as heated as I've ever seen them. Perhaps that's because the stakes are higher given that the Vikings are at the end of their lease for the Metrodome, that unemployment remains stubbornly high and that the state faces a $5 billion budget deficit. The leaders of this state will have to come to agreement on what is best for Minnesota, not just in this hot political season that will soon be history, but in the future. Our reporters will be there to bring the facts to light, explore the options and explain the final decision. What we won't do is try to sway that decision in any way except with the facts.

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