Nancy Barnes: How we respond to reader concerns

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2007 - 5:02 PM

Some of the changes the Star Tribune has made this year have prompted mixed reactions from the community. Even so, we want to hear about them.

It's been a watershed year for the newspaper business. If you want to know what I mean, just check the stock prices on most major newspaper companies. You will find they are trading at near-historic lows. This reflects some of the questions that Wall Street and investors have about where the news business is headed as we are absorbed into one of the greatest mass communications changes in history, the maturation of the Web. It is second only, perhaps, to the development of the first printing press.

Readers have seen this play out at the Star Tribune all year long as the company changed hands and advertising shifted to the Web, and we have had to reallocate both people and other resources to keep the paper vital as both a business and a provider of news and information. Sometimes, we have tested your patience, as I can tell from both the phone calls and e-mails that we have received from long-time, dedicated readers.

I apologize to those whose patience we have tried, and I want to ask readers to bear with us as we make changes that we think are necessary to keep this a strong and vital news company. Not all of our readers have been happy with some of these changes, and I appreciate those who have taken the time to share their concerns. The paper belongs not just to the people who are chasing the news but to its readers as well. We make mistakes, and because this is a product that we are producing daily in print and by the minute online, we will almost never be perfect.

Still, I believe that a strong press is important to our community and our society. If you have any doubts, you might check out some countries where the press is controlled by the government. Citizens never find out about what businesses might be leaving pollutants behind, how the government is spending its money or even where the safest places to live might be. We take our freedoms for granted in this country, and that's not always a bad thing.

But in order to survive as a self-supporting, independent news company, sometimes we have to make changes like some of those we have made in the last year. Take our decision to distribute four different zoned versions of news. Some people are very happy with this; others are irate. This is a necessary change, both to bring in new readers whose communities have never been represented in the paper and to be able to offer small, local advertisers a more affordable rate. Those are needs we didn't have to worry so much about 15 years ago when the population was more concentrated and we had more large advertisers. Today, we need more readers and more small advertisers to support the level of journalism we all expect in a major metropolitan newspaper.

To help communicate what we are doing and why, top editors will share this column with me most weeks. We will also be available in a blog online, to post comments and hear your thoughts. You can find us at www.startribune.com/blogs/editors.

Some readers have told me that they no longer know where to call with corrections and concerns. We have staff members available to take your calls at 612-673-4414. If they cannot handle your concerns, they will find someone who will. In addition to these efforts, I have asked all top editors to be responsible for responding to reader concerns regarding their sections and any changes they are making. You'll find those names and numbers here.

At least one loyal reader expressed concern that these efforts might be self-serving. I took that to mean that perhaps we would try to put a positive spin on what we are doing. I am very proud of a staff that has stood up under so much change that has come our way this year and whose members have responded by digging in their heels and dedicating themselves to helping this paper survive -- and thrive -- in the new multimedia world in which we all live. But we'll try to avoid sounding like a public relations machine.

For today, I'll close by suggesting that the best read in the paper is a story on the front page by staff writer Pam Louwagie. It's a beautiful, touching love story that came to a close the day the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. I'll guarantee you won't be able to put that story down once you start.

And that's not spin.

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