Nancy Barnes: There's a world of news -- and we still cover it

  • Article by: Nancy Barnes
  • Star Tribune
  • October 27, 2007 - 5:30 PM

In the very back of our newsroom, beneath a god-awful portrait of the Seinfield character Kramer sits veteran reporter Paul McEnroe -- otherwise known as Mac. Mac prides himself on being able to get information out of just about anyone. He has even snaked a few secrets from me on occasion, much to my chagrin. Mac joined the staff in 1980 covering suburban communities, and has gone on to cover Desert Storm, the Iraq War and the Wellstone crash.

Since the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, he has spent all of his working days, and some of his nights, putting that skill to work to tell readers what really happened with that bridge and why. He believes this work is among the most important this newspaper will do this year.

For some months now, I've heard a low-grade rumble from readers about this paper's efforts to cover local news more aggressively. Readers fear this means becoming narrow-minded and parochial about journalism. You might get a different impression if you spent some time with our reporters. All across this newsroom, at the State Capitol and in Washington, you will find reporters working long, hard hours to make sure that we tell the truth to our readers, explain complex issues and bring the world to their kitchen table. They are journalists of substance and any paper in the country would be proud to have them. Today, and in the coming weeks, I want to introduce readers to just a few. We'll come back to Mac at the end.

In our business department, May Yee Chen just came off a months-long project exploring the unregulated infertility business, which ran in the paper last week. Before joining the Star Tribune in 2004, May worked as a business reporter for the Asian Wall Street Journal. When she's not covering business, she also co-writes a blog on parenting issues. She is, in short, a very busy woman. Her package on the infertility business was difficult to report, in part, because some couples who have trouble conceiving feel shame. She and her reporting partner Josephine Marcotty spent many weeks coaxing individuals to trust them with their stories. When I asked May why she thought this was an important story to bring to readers, she talked about how much of this business operates underneath our radar screen, unexplored and often unregulated. Meanwhile, there are important questions for society to address.

In Washington, longtime Strib reporter Kevin Diaz is trying to bring D.C. politics to Minnesota. He is the only Minnesota reporter there. Kevin has worked for the paper in three different stints numbering more than 20 years. His travels have taken him to Cuba, Brazil and Mexico, where he has explored international stories that were playing out in Minnesota in various ways. "I think people in Minnesota have a thirst for knowing how they fit into the larger world," Kevin says. "They are very outward-looking people and they crave knowledge of how their lives compare to others, how what is going on in Minnesota fits into a national and international dimension. We write for readers who are far from parochial."

Of all the stories he has written for us, the one that stands out in his mind was a project that ran in 2006, tracking the money that illegal immigrants send home to rural Mexico from Minnesota, and how that money is radically changing life both here and there. "It drew out connections not just personal but financial and economic between Minnesota and the very remote outposts of the Third World. It's such an important story and it is so relevant to us."

Those connections between Minnesota and the world are one reason Gov. Tim Pawlenty took a delegation to India last week. Business reporter Dee DePass went with him to help us better understand India's role as a business partner with this state. Dee covered banking and financial industries for us for more than a decade before covering the world of manufacturing. She is one of our best newsroom citizens; every time I talk to her she is working to raise money for one cause or another, whether it's to bring backpacks to poor students starting school or to keep food shelters stocked. In her spare time, she teaches physical fitness.

Her reporting brought us a front-page story this week about an Indian firm's plans for a new steel mill on the Iron Range.

While all this has been going on, Mac has been relentlessly working with the team of reporters investigating the bridge collapse. He works most closely with Tony Kennedy, another longtime reporter. As a result of their legwork, Mac and Tony "developed the Sonia Pitt story, where we found the MnDOT director of emergency planning was AWOL for up to 10 days and didn't come back in the state's hour of need. We sparked that investigation that was picked up by the state's legislative auditor. We uncovered the e-mails that showed the indecision that took place among the state's top experts on bridges on how to repair the bridge. It's our job as watchdogs to hold the state agencies accountable ... and they are pretty irritated right now because we are really keeping their phones ringing.

"I really feel that my partner and I are making a difference in how decisions are going to be made in the future, when it comes to protecting the infrastructure of the state ... and creating a debate about funding priorities."

As Mac talked about his work he paused, looked up, and said: "This is what you expect of a major metropolitan newspaper, isn't it? This isn't a special thing. This is what a subscriber expects to happen in their paper ... it falls under that category of: 'Yeah, this is our job, period.'"

Exactly right.

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