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Nancy Barnes: New strategy will use zoned editions to cover suburbs

  • Article by: Nancy Barnes
  • Star Tribune
  • October 6, 2007 - 6:40 PM

Early Thursday afternoon, a bus showed up at the Star Tribune to take 19 reporters and editors on a five-hour field trip -- to Burnsville, of all places.

Please bear with me as I explain why you should care.

The latest census numbers available from 2006 show that of the nearly 3 million people who make up the greater metro area, 2,146,189 lived outside Minneapolis and St. Paul. Most of them are in the burgeoning suburbs, like those south of the river, and many of them are our readers.

For those still firmly rooted in Minneapolis or St. Paul, it might be surprising to learn that these aren't your father's suburbs. They are no longer filled with just white, middle-class families, or the stereotypical 2,000-square-foot home on a quarter-acre lot.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic shift going on, with more immigrant and ethnic groups and people of a wide variety of incomes moving in. Some suburbs have welcomed this transition by subsidizing housing to bring a greater diversity of people into their communities. Apartments and condos have gone up. New developments have transformed many of these places, like Burnsville, into a new type of community.

The challenges for some of these places have grown, too: sharply rising poverty rates, conflicts between old residents and new, schools struggling to adjust, property-tax spikes. If this sounds like a lot of the same issues that our older cities are facing, it's because they are. For better and for worse: A huge part of the life of this metro region is playing itself out in the 'burbs.

That's why this paper has started shifting more resources to cover these regions. It's also why, starting this week, we are dividing the paper into four zones, to provide more local coverage and content to people living in the north, south, west and east metro areas. This content will be contained in the local news sections, which are being renamed, depending on the community. We'll have an East Metro, North Metro, South Metro and Twin Cities West section. At least five days a week, there will be about two full pages of local coverage, as well as daily news stories, in each zone. Over time, there will also be more local, relevant advertising in these sections.

Each region has been assigned its own editor and a team of reporters. Inside today's paper is a four-page section explaining these changes and introducing readers to the team covering their region. I hope readers will take a few minutes to get acquainted with these changes.

Every time I mention covering the suburbs, some readers say they think that means abandoning coverage of the cities, or giving up on smart, sophisticated stories about health, the environment, business or legal issues. This is not the case. Our company home is in downtown Minneapolis, right next to the Metrodome, and we have a bureau in downtown St. Paul. Many of our writers live in one of the Twin Cities. We will never give up our coverage of the vibrant life inside these wonderful cities.

Readers tell me they fear we are cutting back on national and international news. It is true that we put such news on the front page less often than we did 10 years ago, but that's because we think readers have seen and heard it lots of other places in the era of 24-hour news. It's not because we think it is less important. We spend a large part of our content budget every year subscribing to the New York Times, the Washington Post and other services to ensure we can bring you top national and international stories. The space in the paper devoted to this will not shrink. In a few weeks, we are sending a reporter with Gov. Tim Pawlenty to India, and we are already making plans to send reporters to China for the Olympics next summer.

Readers have my commitment that serious, probing journalism will continue even as we become more local in the metro section. We have more reporters devoted to investigative journalism than we did a year ago, because we believe that this is the work that only a news organization like ours can provide. We have also created a separate department devoted to more in-depth journalism, including a team of health-care reporters.

In the last few months, we have brought you stories not only about water quality, but about the warning signs inspectors saw long before the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. And you saw the head of the state Health Department step down, and be replaced, in part because one of our investigative reporters outlined how the department sat on the news of Iron Range miners' deaths for nearly a year. These are stories you couldn't get anywhere else.

But this paper has been slow to change its ways as the region has changed. The shift in where people live has accompanied sharp changes in demographics and politics, which in turn affect all of us one way or another. We haven't always captured that. Duchesne Drew, the assistant managing editor over all the zoned sections, was on that field trip and was surprised by how much he didn't know. "My image of Burnsville is dated. I was surprised to see how many new things thing have been built and how many are things are in the works that will change the face of that community. ... I thought I knew Burnsville, but there's a lot that has changed."

That's the point. We owe it to the two-thirds of our readers and residents who live in places like Burnsville or Anoka or Woodbury to cover stories where they live, too. That doesn't mean it isn't substantive journalism.

For example: A few weeks ago, we ran a three-part series on long-term water pollution, much of it affecting residents outside the cities. That's substantive journalism, about a real problem in our state that happens to affect more people in the suburbs than in the city.

I'm glad we were there.

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