ADVERTISEMENT

Nancy Barnes: Even in a changing industry, news is front and foremost

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • April 26, 2008 - 4:55 PM

I believe in the value of good old-fashioned hard news and deep, probing investigative news to help bring readers into the fold both in print and online.

That might seem like a no-brainer coming from a newspaper editor, but over the course of the last few decades, I've seen all sorts of trends and fads take root and fade away. A few trends have not, however: Today's reader is busier than ever and has an array of sources for news and information that is expanding almost daily.

That means we have to engage the reader faster and with more compelling news and information. We have to write and report about their lives in a way that is meaningful and offers value. If we give them great stories that they can wait until tomorrow to read -- readers very well may never get around to doing so.

Our response to all this competition is reflected in the choices we make on page one. We have, over the course of a year, tried more often to put harder-hitting news on the front page. You saw this reflected in Friday's A1 with four strong stories, including news out of the Legislature about tougher rules for teenage driving. (That followed stories in this newspaper about how Minnesota had the highest teen death rate in the country related to automobile accidents.)

It is also reflected in how we choose to use our resources. Last week, for example, we ran a three-part series on what can only be called the housing nightmare in Wright County. This reflected months of work on the part of the newsroom. This project began with a story reporter Chris Serres broke about massive mortgage fraud in New Prague, which prompted lots of phone calls from homeowners and real-estate agents suggesting the housing problems were particularly severe in the northern part of the metro area.

Early on in the life of this story, our business news department decided it wanted to do more than just a quick-hit story. It spent months using database research to track down real-estate transactions and foreclosures. "But the key was good, old-fashioned reporting," said business editor Eric Wieffering. "Chris made countless trips out there to track down owners and developers, while Jim Buchta [our real-estate writer] reached out to his network of agents and builders." Others, including editor Karen Lundegaard, photographer Glen Stubbe and computer-assisted reporting editor Glenn Howatt, contributed significant time and energy.

"In the end, I think the story captured the complex forces that drove real-estate mania in many parts of the country. It began with real demand, and that created genuine opportunity. But, after a while, demand became irrelevant. Perverse incentives -- cheap money, lax lending terms and no regulatory oversight -- distorted reality," said Wieffering.

How did our readers respond? We've gotten lots of written comments from our print readers. The Web also allows us to capture, specifically, how many clicked on the story and read it. Day one, alone, received 295,000 page views. When we add in all the page views from the other parts of the project and accompanying slide shows, the total project got about 675,000 page views. Terry Sauer, one of our senior editors for online, said he couldn't remember a project with that kind of readership.

In the last week, we also launched a news project of a different sort. Our new whistleblower blog allows readers to give us tips about wrongdoing in the metro region for our reporters to ferret out. This got 27,000 visits in its first week, easily topping all other news blogs.

This tells us that readers respond when we address news that affects their everyday lives.

Nobody should take this to mean, however, that we are abandoning people-driven stories, especially if they have the power to connect with readers. Today's front page features a heart-wrenching story about a new father whose wife died unexpectedly after childbirth, and about the way the broader community of family and friends reached out to help him. You can't help but read this story, and that's why it's on the front page.

But we are, first and foremost, about news and information that you need in your life, and we are working across our organization to sharpen our focus on this.

You can send your feedback by writing me at 425 Portland Av., Minneapolis, MN, 55488, or nancyb@startribune.com (and I do read all the letters).

© 2014 Star Tribune