Star Tribune Editor: Committing to hard-hitting journalism in hard times

  • Updated: January 29, 2012 - 4:06 PM

Quality reporting takes time, has value beyond a balance sheet's measure.

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A photograph provided by the family shows Miller as he flew on a hellicopter during his tour in Iraq.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Late last week, the FCC delivered a landmark report suggesting that the economic tsunami that engulfed this country in the last few years, coupled with the digital revolution, has fundamentally threatened journalists' ability to deliver on their First Amendment obligation to hold government (in all its myriad forms) accountable.

Michael Sweeney, the Star Tribune Media Company's chairman, penned a message to leaders here, asking whether that was true in Minnesota.

It's a fair question.

Newspapers and television stations across the country have had cutbacks of one sort or another, and some are mere shells of the news-gathering organizations they were just five years ago. I have talked to a number of editors who are deeply troubled about their ability to do journalism that makes a difference.

Hard-hitting, tough-minded reporting takes time and money, and that work doesn't transcend directly into profits shareholders can appreciate. But over time, it can build a trust with the public that has value beyond measure for a news organization.

That's why we remain committed to giving reporters the time to dig, even as we cover the budget shutdown, the rise, fall (and rise?) of the Twins, and the daily mayhem that makes up life in a major metropolitan area.

Last week, for example, Brad Schrade wrote the first of what we expect to be a number of stories examining whether Minnesota is living up to its responsibility to protect some of our most vulnerable residents -- those who live in nursing homes and other care settings. We started after seeing case after case of allegations of abuse with few consequences.

To report this story, Schrade had to sift through hundreds of cases. He had to dig into state and federal records that were not readily available. Then he had to take time to really understand the regulatory process and how it works before he could ask more questions.

Several months in the making, his story showed a pattern of failure in the way Minnesota reviews and investigates nursing home complaints. Only two other states, he points out, performed as poorly over the past five years.

This is important work, holding the state accountable for its obligations to oversee nursing homes and other licensed providers caring for our aging parents and grandparents. We all would want that for ourselves if we were sitting in these facilities.

This week, Mark Brunswick delves into the heartbreaking question of why so many of our soldiers are taking their own lives. Brunswick, along with photographer Jim Gehrz, spent painstaking hours listening to family members explain their concerns about their loved ones.

Along with the help of our corporate lawyer, we used public records laws and affidavits from military families to fight for access to records that might shed light on what is going wrong -- leading to this true epidemic.

In some cases, we found that soldiers' commanding officers didn't even know when the men under their command had recently been treated for suicidal tendencies, leaving them incapable of making the best decisions for their troops.

As you can see from some of the photographs shot in the dead of winter, this is a story that has been reported all year, with more stories to come over the next month.

As the Federal Communications Commission notes in its report, the founding fathers of this country envisioned a free and independent press that would watch out for citizens and help hold government accountable.

It's a sobering challenge. With 120 reporters covering all facets of life in Minnesota, we want our readers to know that we are as committed to that goal as we were 140 years ago, even as we remake ourselves for the digital era.

I'm grateful that through all of the industry-wide turmoil, the leaders of this news organization have always understood that a strong reporting staff that takes time to report deeply and broadly is essential to the long-term future of this company and the community -- even if its value cannot be concisely measured on a balance sheet.

Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor.

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