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Nancy Barnes

Nancy Barnes

file, Star Tribune

Editor Nancy Barnes: The budget crisis, in real-life terms

  • Article by: Nancy Barnes
  • Star Tribune
  • February 13, 2011 - 4:14 PM

Commentary

Long before Christmas, as we assessed the big stories facing the state this year, we began thinking about how we would cover the projected $6.2 billion budget crisis in a way that readers could really understand.

As we talked about the economic climate, the unemployment rate, the pension questions and health care funding issues in the state, it seemed to us that a new economic reality was settling in that challenges life as we have known it in Minnesota.

We also knew that the budget crisis would overshadow every issue at the state Capitol this year as a new governor took office.

"It's such an enormous issue, with so many ramifications, that it's hard for the average citizen -- or even lawmakers -- to get their arms around it," said Kate Parry, our assistant managing editor for local news.

With that in mind, we set out an ambitious reporting plan to try to bring home to Minnesotans what this budget problem means in real-life terms, and to explore the truly difficult questions facing our state's leaders.

More than half a dozen reporters from our news, investigative, business and photography staffs were pulled aside to explore different aspects of this perplexing issue. The journalists were given four to six weeks to report their pieces of the story.

"If you add it all up, it was more than a half a year in reporter time," Parry said of the effort. "But if we're going to make that kind of investment of time and resources, we couldn't pick a topic more crucial to the well-being of the state of Minnesota and its citizens right now."

The result has been unfolding since January in a seven-part series we have labeled "The Reckoning."

In this series, reporters have looked first-hand at issues ranging from who is struggling at a personal level with pending cuts in state services such as personal care assistants and rent subsidies to what the impact would be on businesses if we taxed food or clothing or professional services to maintain Minnesota's spending levels.

They've asked tough questions about backlogs in the state courts and the quality of education in our schools.

The last installment, today, explores whether the state can afford its current level of state employees, and accompanying benefits, some of which are more generous than the private sector delivers.

In every story, there are strong arguments on every side of the debate -- and clear winners and losers, depending on what our Legislature and governor ultimately decide.

Any way you look at this problem, it's inevitable that a lot of people are going to feel real pain.

"This really is a reckoning for Minnesota, and our goal has been to take readers deep inside of it, to have them think about and feel the hard choices ahead," said Managing Editor Rene Sanchez, who has worked with the news departments to oversee this project.

As a longtime editor, I know that issue stories are not necessarily the sexiest of topics to read in your state newspaper or on its website. That's why we've tried to humanize these stories by exploring what they mean in the lives of everyday Minnesotans who are running a business or going to a school or who are personally in need of help.

Whether the content is popular or not, this is one of those times when I believe that it is our job to put the question of money and services front and center for readers so that they fully understand the complexities of the difficult choices facing our state.

The reckoning at hand will affect every single one of us, either in terms of the taxes we pay or the services we get from our state and local governments.

Nancy Barnes is editor and senior vice president of the Star Tribune.

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