here for PDF format
of Meeting with Steve Dornfeld
8301 Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Thursday, August 2,
B. Introduction and welcome
--Verne and Paul welcomed and introduced Steve Dornfeld, our guest
speaker. Steven Dornfeld joined the Metropolitan Council in 2003 as
director of public affairs after working for more than three decades as a
newspaper reporter and editor, focusing primarily on government and public
Dornfeld spent more than 20 years at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the last
dozen years on the opinion pages as an editorial writer, columnist and
editor. He previously served as
Washington correspondent, national/foreign editor and deputy metro editor,
when he directed political and governmental coverage.
Before joining the Pioneer Press, Dornfeld worked for 10 years as a state
Capitol and political reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. He is a past
president of the national Society of Professional Journalists and the
Minnesota News Council.
C. Comments and discussion
--During Dornfeld's remarks and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the
following points were raised:
1. Younger Americans not
following the news --Dornfeld recalls he helped the University
of St. Thomas with a conference a couple of years ago that highlighted the
issues in David T. C. Mindich's book: Tuned Out, Why Americans Under 40
Don't Follow the News. He believes the democracy is seriously
threatened by disinterest. Trying to find a young person following
public affairs is like searching for Waldo.
2. Change in news emphasis, not
in volume --Dornfeld recalled that he started with the
Pioneer Press in 1966 with the metropolitan beat and moved in 1970 to
the Star Tribune. He recalls that the space dedicated to news
wasn't any larger than today, but a lot more of the news as serious public
affairs. He recalls that the team of journalists assigned to the
Legislature would divide up the subject matter at the beginning of a
legislative session. They would follow stories closely and then follow
up with analysis articles on weekends. The journalists reported
regularly on the status of bills as they moved through committees. He
remembers that sometimes he'd have three to five bylined stories of his
own in an issue of the paper. Today it's unusual to see three to five
bylined legislative stories in total.
3. Change in the attitude of
editors --He remembers a long list of good editors, including
Debbie Howell, Chuck Bailey, Frank Premack and Frank Wright, who had
distinguished themselves in public affairs reporting and editing. Dornfeld
recalls specifically that Premack had him go to "school" in the fall of
1970 on the issues of school finance, so that he could report those issues
intelligently. A change in recent years has occurred as many editors no
longer are serious journalists, but marketing executives.
4. Difficulty in finding news
as a basis for writing editorials --In the 1990s, Dornfeld was
writing editorials. Often the news side of the paper wouldn't be
providing coverage of an area where Dornfeld wanted to write an
editorial. He'd complain about lack of news coverage and receive replies
such as, "Why cover that bill? It's not going anywhere." So Dornfeld
would have to resort to using the editorial page for providing background
on an issue as well as opinion.
5. The critical watchdog role of the press has diminished
recalls that as a reporter he knew that City Councils would try to delay
discussion of controversial issues until the press left the room. Thus,
he'd often wait until
when the governing body would finally take up the issues that they didn't
want to address in presence of the press.
He knows that editors have problems with a new generation of
readers and with more competition for advertising and circulation
dollars. But there's still a critical need for public affairs coverage to
which Dornfeld has dedicated his working life. The press keeps the
government officials accountable.
Newspapers are using the excuse that they can't afford the
journalism of the past. The Star Tribune had an 18 percent return
on investment and the Pioneer Press a 9-10 percent return last
year, but those amounts weren't enough to satisfy the owners. He doesn't
think that John Cowles, Sr., past long term owner of the Star Tribune
ever had to receive a 20-25 percent return each year.
6. Response to Joel Kramer's
proposal --Dornfeld has read about Kramer's proposal for a
non-profit, online, serious public affairs news effort. While Dornfeld
himself doesn't heavily use the internet for news, he knows younger people
do--and Dornfeld has two teenaged sons. In response to a question
Dornfeld agreed that today's young readers are not likely to read the same
articles that Dornfeld himself wrote some 30 years ago. Younger people
want things to be light and interactive, he said. Nevertheless, Dornfeld
believes that you still could find ways to engage younger readers in
issues about the school aid formula.
7. Young people are
communicating more, just in different ways --In the discussion
a member noted that while young people might not be reading what we wish
they were reading, they certainly are keeping in touch with others almost
continually. The night before last, when the bridge collapsed in
this member was out to dinner with family members, including a teenaged
daughter. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, the daughter was busily
text messaging friends beneath the table cloth during the conversation.
Suddenly, the daughter informed the group around the table that the 35W
bridge over the Mississippi had just collapsed.
8. Lack of interest in public
affairs --Dornfeld recalled that he encountered major
difficulties with students to whom he was teaching public affairs
reporting at the
University of Minnesota a few years ago. He would occasionally
administer "tests" about their knowledge of basic information, such as the
Senators or the name of the Chief Justice of the United States. He
always was concerned because results of the tests indicated significant
lack of knowledge. He's subsequently raised the issue with high school
social science teachers.
9. Possibilities of other print
media --A member asked
Dornfeld whether other types of publications might be explored, such as a
quarterly public affairs magazine. Dornfeld replied that some such
efforts are under way, such as Minnesota Law and Politics, a
monthly journal of legal and political issues and opinions.
10. Preoccupation with
"negativity" --A member commented that coverage by traditional
media today of public affairs issues seems to be overly negative--some
kind of accusation of wrong-doing always seems to be present.
11. Possible other ways to
provide coverage of the Metropolitan Council --In response to a
question Dornfeld said the traditional media aren't interested in writing
about the longer range land use, transportation and parks plans of the
Metropolitan Council. This discussion led to the question of the
interest of certain new media, such as the Twin Cities Daily Planet
that might willingly pick up releases from the Metropolitan Council.
Moreover, it was noted, that perhaps the Council could even think about
distributing its news releases directly to interested individuals and
groups. Once email addresses are inserted, distributing news releases to
large numbers of people via email costs virtually nothing. Another member
said that a news release captured in Google, even if not picked up by the
media, will still show up on a search of key words.
12. Question of a one-newspaper town
always has felt that competition is a good thing. If you had one
newspaper, he fears news from the eastern part of the metro area would be
neglected. The best examples today of good City Hall coverage are from
the neighborhood newspapers, he said. He cited the Highland Villager
in St. Paul and the Southwest Journal in Minneapolis.
13. Interests of young people
--Returning to a discussion of young people's interest in news and
public affairs, one person said that life is so intense and filled with so
much activity for young people. Their entire lives seem to be a buzz.
Much is going on. At the national level candidates have created a
conversation on the internet. We know that candidates must watch what
they say even if, technically, professional reporters might not be
present. We know that whoever is present at a discussion has the ability
to circulate comments widely. A member said that what is missing in
that kind of coverage is objective reporting.
The recent CNN debate among presidential candidates is another
example of the ability of younger people to show interest and ask good
questions, a member said.
Dornfeld replied that we still need professional journalists
with good background. He recalled the difficulty the Metropolitan Council
had in explaining its position on health care costs for bus drivers during
a strike two years ago. Turnover among reporters, particularly TV
reporters, is very high today, he said.
It also was noted, however, that the facts leading to a story
about needing to rebuild the
bridge to accommodate light rail came from information generated by a
14. Potential impact from
non-profit outlets --A member commented again about the
potential of an internet-based, non-profit news outlet for Minnesota,
perhaps Minnesota Public Radio's efforts or perhaps the proposal by Joel
Kramer a couple of weeks ago. Another member noted the success of such
an outlet in
www.voiceofsandiego.com. Another example, www.politico.com,
was also mentioned.
Dornfeld recalled that on election night 2006 he
simultaneously was watching TV, listening to MPR and looking at the
Minnesota Secretary of State's website. With those three outlets in front
of him--particularly the Secretary of State's website--Dornfeld said he
had the best coverage of anyone.
--On behalf of the
Civic Caucus, Verne Johnson thanked Dornfeld for meeting with us today.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting
years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to
provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee
Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland,
John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.