Mike Sweeney: With level playing field, future is bright for news

  • Article by: MIKE SWEENEY , Chairman, Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 22, 2009 - 2:01 PM

The Star Tribune is alive and well without tapping state taxpayers.

Mike Sweeney is the chairman of the board of directors for the Star Tribune.

It has been almost two months since I became chairman of the new Star Tribune, and I'd like to share my impressions of our company, our newspaper and the evolution of the news industry. My colleagues have stressed the special obligation a news organization has to be open and transparent. If we ask you to have confidence in our reporting, we must let you know who we are and where we are going. To that end, although we are a privately held company, we will soon be sharing on our website the same information on our ownership, our board, our executives and our financial results that publicly held companies must provide.

Today we are a profitable company with a healthy balance sheet and the financial resources to fulfill our core mission of being Minnesota's most important news source. Following the financial restructuring completed in September, we are more efficient and more innovative. The combined readership of our print and online offerings has never been higher.

And we are continuing to innovate. StarTribune.com is by far the most popular Minnesota-based website, but we believe it can be much better. During 2010 we'll make a significant investment in the website, adding up-to-date architecture that will allow us to provide more robust information in a format that is simple to navigate. The printed version of our newspaper generates the majority of our revenue, and it won't be going away any time soon. We will print and deliver a great newspaper as long as our customers want it.

The quality of journalism at the Star Tribune has never been higher. Of the 270 people who work in our newsroom, 115 are reporters. And 100 community bloggers write for our website. In 2000, when technology was less helpful to journalists, we employed 126 reporters. No news organization in Minnesota comes close to matching our reporting resources and xpertise.

In my 30 years in business, I have never seen a more exciting marketplace than today's news industry. Citizens are more interested in news than ever, and there are countless organizations willing to provide it. For-profit businesses and nonprofits are all vying for your attention. Large technology-driven companies like Google and Yahoo are competing with niche businesses like Politico and the Huffington Post. And the nonprofit world has responded with terrific sites like Minnesota's own e-democracy.org and MinnPost. Against this robust backdrop, our community is facing important public policy questions. One that particularly concerns us is whether the government should provide taxpayer dollars to subsidize news media companies. From the Star Tribune's perspective, the answer is a resounding "No!" We don't want or need taxpayer subsidies, and we see no reason for government to disrupt an already robust, innovative market.

Minnesota Public Radio disagrees. This past week MPR convened a group of hand-picked speakers from across the country to proclaim the future of news. The selected panelists seemed to agree that newspapers could not evolve and that market intervention was necessary. Information about how newspapers were evolving and how entrepreneurs were innovating was shrugged off. There was apparent consensus that public radio could fill a perceived void by grabbing public funding. We have numerous concerns about publicly funded news, but our primary question is how an organization funded by government can objectively report on government.

For example, MPR has successfully lobbied state government for years to secure millions in subsidies to help finance its nonprofit business expansions, most recently obtaining $2.65 million in Legacy Amendment funds over a two-year period. Apparently MPR will use some of those taxpayer funds to compete with private media companies. In a time of such scarce government resources, should public money be allocated to a healthy nonprofit so that it can compete more aggressively with private, for-profit businesses?

Today's media market is more robust than ever, and we welcome the challenges that lie ahead. At the Star Tribune, we will continue to evolve and invest in our future. As a community, we should reject the concept of taxpayer bailouts for failing media companies and eliminate tax subsidies that fund the expansion of nonprofits into functioning free markets. Let's start from a level playing field and let the best news media organizations survive and thrive.

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