THE SAD DECLINE OF THE STAR TRIBUNE
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.