Sunday, December 14, 2008


This commentary appeared in The Fargo Forum on Sunday December 14, 2008.

Like many around the region, I follow the painful decline of the Star Tribune newspaper with a sense of disbelief. How could a once dominant newspaper fall so far so fast? Was this collapse inevitable or was it caused by a lack of bold and visionary leadership at the Star Tribune over the past 20 years?

The Star Tribune’s story of decline is not unique. It is the story of many in the newspaper industry, of the auto industry and many other traditional industries, of the national and global economy, and of America’s decline and need for renewal.

This pattern of decline is similar at all levels of scale and is the story of how world views trap us and the story of how people struggle to adapt to discontinuous and chaotic changes in their environments. Ultimately the story is one of human courage, creativity, flexibility, and adaptability as systems large and small—families, communities, organizations, and nations—renew themselves boldly and routinely or stagnate and die.

In 1998 the Star Tribune was sold to the McClatchy Company for $1.2 billion. While the short term value of the company was maximized by Star Tribune executives, I wondered then if the changes needed for the long-term sustainability of the newspaper were neglected.

The Star Tribune remained threatened by demographic changes, technological advances, circulation decline, the potential of the internet, and other unknown variables and systemic dynamics. Rapid decline, long in the making, would soon begin.

Many efforts to reform the Star Tribune were made over the years. New editors redesigned the look and organization of the newspaper, new technology was incorporated, distribution models were changed, and departments reorganized. New executives came and left. The changes gave the illusion of progress but proved to be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In the end, all the energy expended simply recreated a lesser version of the newspaper they were trying to change.

On December 26, 2006, the Star Tribune was again sold. The sale price was $530 million plus a future tax benefit of $160 million. The sale price was not a good omen for a newspaper industry with plunging advertising revenues.

Since then I’ve watched as the Star Tribune continues to suffer declines in circulation and advertising revenues. A revolving door of executives downsizes staff and outsources work as the company cannot pay its bills. Morale plunges, behavior regresses (the Star Tribune recently agreed to pay over $300,000 to settle a sexual harassment complaint), and people become bitter, cynical, and disillusioned. Leaders lose all credibility. The Star Tribune is not a good place to work.

The future looks bleak for the Star Tribune. Bankruptcy looms on the horizon.

Forum Communications was rumored to be interested in buying the Star Tribune. Owner William Marcil responded that he had no interest. Marcil is way too smart to get involved with the Star Tribune. He’s impressed me as a very smart man, a natural entrepreneur with an eye for talent and a nose for good properties.

Was this decline at the Star Tribune (and in industries across the nation) inevitable?

Leaders created these messes by the decisions they made and failed to make over many years. Are people helpless to change what they created?

Are leaders and workers not ready to change how they do things? Have they grown too lazy, myopic, cynical, fearful, arrogant, complacent, and too entitled to do the hard work of change?

Are the systems we organized our nation and lives around too big and complicated to transform? Are they unable to adapt to changes in their environments? Should we abandon these systems and begin anew?

How we answer these questions may determine the fate of countless organizations and enterprises and of our nation.

In the end it is all about leadership. And a leader’s first responsibility is to have foresight.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


This commentary appeared in the Grand Forks Herald on December 12, 2008.

Sandy Blunt, former CEO of WSI (Workforce Safety and Insurance), goes on trial on December 15 in Bismarck.

What are the alleged crimes of this notorious outlaw from Ohio?

In April 2007, based mostly on findings of an enfeebling state auditor’s performance audit of WSI, Blunt was charged with a felony for rewarding employees with gift certificates, buying lunches for legislators, giving employees a party with costumes, flowers and other such normal and nominal corporate activities. I’m told that the charges against the audacious Blunt included the purchase of forks, plates, coffee and a cake to welcome him to WSI.

A second count alleged he had authorized bonuses for three employees—an illegal act in North Dakota. Blunt said he gave deserving employees a pay raise based on the recommendation of a nationally respected compensation consultant.

Do the citizens of North Dakota believe that these administrative actions are worthy of criminal charges, an appeal to the state Supreme Court after the charges were initially thrown out by a district judge with common sense, and a jury trial?

Do the people of the state really believe that destroying Blunt’s career and reputation and forcing him to put his life on hold in Bismarck for the past year are the right things to do to a man brought to a historically troubled WSI to bring about change for the betterment of the workers and taxpayers of North Dakota?

I think the people of North Dakota are better than this.

Blunt didn’t benefit from his acts. He didn’t intend to break the law; he was trying to run a better WSI.

Blunt’s “crimes” were administrative in nature. If anyone had an issue with them, they were more appropriately handled in the governance of WSI—between the CEO and the WSI Board and between the Board and the North Dakota legislature.

Blunt’s decisions were easily within the authority of a CEO in even the smallest for-profit company. Similar decisions are made daily by mid-level managers in thousands of organizations across the state and nation. Criminalizing such actions will make agency heads paranoid and fearful of making good management decisions.

Independent consultant Neal Conolly, hired at the urging of Governor Hoeven, concluded that WSI under Blunt was doing an excellent job. He was puzzled to come to Bismarck and, after hearing everything being said about Blunt and WSI, to then see an organization that he “would stack up with any organization that does this kind of work in the United States.” Blunt did a good job for North Dakota.

What of the judgment of the provincial Burleigh County State Attorney’s Office? Does Burleigh County have too many attorneys—too little work and no serious crimes to solve? Why prosecute these “gotcha administrative issues?” Do they really believe that Blunt’s “crimes” rise to the level of being worthy of prosecution?

On April 1, 1940, Attorney General Robert H. Jackson addressed United States Attorneys:

What every prosecutor is practically required to do is to select the cases for prosecution and to select those in which the offense is the most flagrant, the public harm the greatest, and the proof the most certain.

Do the charges against Blunt meet this standard?

Based on media accounts and the report of credible independent consultants, the nose of this former Secret Service agent smells a politically motivated witch hunt from the day an unsuspecting Blunt crossed the state line into sleepy North Dakota. The message is: don’t come to North Dakota and try to change the way we do things.

Justice in this case will be “not guilty” for Sandy Blunt followed by accountability for those responsible for the charges against him.

(Heuerman, Ph.D. is a former Secret Service agent, Star Tribune newspaper executive, and organizational consultant. His web site is He lives in Moorhead and can be contacted at