Nancy Barnes, the editor who ran the Star Tribune newsroom during the rockiest years for modern newspapers, on Wednesday was named editor and executive vice president of news at the Houston Chronicle.
Barnes will be joining the biggest newspaper in Texas and one of the country’s most successful multimedia corporations. The Houston Chronicle, with an average daily print circulation of 360,000 and 16 million monthly online readers, is the leading news outlet in the country’s fifth-largest market. It is one of 15 newspapers owned by the Hearst Corp., a privately held company that also owns 29 TV stations and 20 magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping.
Star Tribune Publisher Mike Klingensmith said the company will look both inside and outside the newsroom for her successor, and that in the meantime, other senior editors will manage the news operation.
Klingensmith said he accepted her decision with mixed emotions. “She was asked to lead the newsroom at one of its most difficult times,” he said.
Barnes, 52, guided the news operation through a financial crisis that convulsed the industry, a bankruptcy proceeding that resulted in cost cutting, painful staff cuts and, more recently, the rise of news distribution across multiple digital platforms, including mobile apps and social media.
‘An exemplary partner’
Now, Klingensmith said, the newspaper is strong, with more readers than ever. And this year it won the most coveted award in journalism, a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, for an investigative series on the rising number of infant deaths in Minnesota in-home child care. “She has been an exemplary partner,” he said.
Hearst executives said Barnes will bring valuable experience in new forms of media, along with a strong commitment to local journalism and enterprise, one of her hallmarks at the Star Tribune.
“Nancy understands the value and impact of local enterprise reporting that distinguishes a newsroom,” said Mark Aldam, president of Hearst Newspapers. “We are very excited to have her join our leadership team in Houston.”
Barnes, who was in Houston to greet her new staff on Wednesday morning, said her decision was extremely difficult.
“We have a great thing going on” in the Twin Cities, she said. But she decided that she wanted new challenges, adding that the job offers the opportunity to take the Chronicle to another level.
“There is great journalism going on every day here,” she said. Her discussions with Hearst executives have been around how to “put this newspaper on the map,” she said. “They want me to help with that.”
Barnes, who started as a newspaper reporter in Lowell, Mass., joined the Star Tribune as business editor in 2003 and became deputy managing editor in 2005. She was appointed executive editor in 2007, when her predecessor, Anders Gyllenhaal, left for the Miami Herald. The transition occurred just as the Star Tribune was being sold by the McClatchy Company to New York-based Avista Capital Partners, a group of former investment bankers whose firm became the first private equity group to own a major American newspaper.
That same year, Star Tribune publisher Keith Moyer stepped down unexpectedly and a court fight erupted over the newspaper’s attempt to hire Par Ridder, then publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Meanwhile, newspapers across the country began suffering stunning revenue declines during the recession and some readers migrated to the Internet.
Saddled with debt in the midst of a recession, the Star Tribune filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and the company emerged in 2009 with about half as many employees. It is now owned by Wayzata Investment Partners, a private investment group that has said it intends to sell the company. Klingensmith underscored that no sale is in the works.
The repeated cycles of cost-cutting led to often-tense negotiations with the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents Star Tribune news staff and other employee groups. Guild leaders declined to comment specifically on Barnes’ role in that process. “While the Guild has disagreed with many decisions made by management in recent years, we absolutely wish Nancy the best of luck in her new career endeavor,” said Guild leaders Janet Moore and David Chanen.
By 2011, the newspaper industry began to stabilize, as did the Star Tribune’s fortunes. It won the Gerald Loeb Award for Breaking News in 2013, two Edward R. Murrow Awards for multimedia journalism in 2013, and numerous other national prizes for business, sports, features and news reporting.
Jane Kirtley, a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, said Barnes was saddled with more than the usual number of problems faced by newspapers.
“She inherited a pretty dicey situation on a number of levels,” she said. “To walk into that must have been a huge challenge.”
“There was a time I felt like we were the butt of jokes in the industry,” she said. “But slowly, over the years, we have beaten back all those problems.”
Kirtley said Barnes made some smart decisions along the way, including expanding suburban coverage and focusing on aggressive, local reporting.
“The bread and butter of any metro daily has to be local coverage,” she said. “If you are not doing excellent in-depth reporting, then you are not doing your job.”