Robust newspaper reporting on
no longer as common as in the past
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview February 5, 2016
John Adams, Steve
Anderson, Heather Bandeen, Dave Broden (vice chair), Pat Davies,
Paul Gilje (executive director), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper
(associate director), Dan Loritz (chair), Dana Schroeder
(associate director), Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Frank
According to veteran
St. Paul Pioneer Press political and Capitol
reporter Bill Salisbury, there are several reasons why reporting
on quality public-policy proposals is not as robust as it was
when he started his career as a Capitol reporter in 1975:
(1) Reporters at the Pioneer Press
now write first for online and only secondly for the print
edition of the newspaper. The focus on digital means getting
stories posted as quickly as possible, he says, which might mean
less time to do enterprise reporting, such as in-depth series.
(2) He notes that his newspaper, along
with most others, has a shrinking news hole, the space available
for news content, which makes it difficult to report the
background and context of a story.
(3) In addition to the
shrinking available news space, most newspapers have a shrinking
newsroom staff. The Pioneer Press newsroom has a staff
of fewer than 100 people now, down from 250 a decade ago.
(4) There are so many more competing
sources of information that want the newspaper's attention.
Although the newspaper sorts out very skeptically the sound
bites and avalanche of statements sent by public relations firms
on behalf of groups vying for attention at the Capitol,
Salisbury says the growing numbers of lobbying organizations at
the Capitol overshadow the work of "do-gooder" organizations.
(5) The role of institutional memory
in reporting is important, but many young reporters today have
little background in Minnesota's general, political and policy
(6) There are a lot more public-policy
proposals out there, but Salisbury is not sure the quality is as
good as it was.
In contrast, when he started at the
Pioneer Press in 1977, whenever the Citizens League issued a
report, it was important and the paper had to cover it. Now the
Citizens League and other similar groups must compete for the
attention of reporters and space in newspapers with advocacy,
lobbying and special interest groups. Salisbury believes that
has diluted the influence of public-policy groups.
He says the future of newspapers does
not look good, but there is a future for journalism through the
efforts of bright young people trying to figure out the best way
to communicate about public affairs in this digital age.
Bill Salisbury is a
veteran, semi-retired political reporter for the St. Paul
Pioneer Press. He has covered politics and government for
more than 40 years. He started reporting for his father's weekly
newspaper, the Belgrade (Minn.) Tribune, while he
was in high school. While attending the University of Minnesota,
he wrote for the Minnesota Daily newspaper and the
Ivory Tower literary magazine.
After graduating from the University
of Minnesota, Morris, with a bachelor's degree in history, he
started his daily newspaper career in 1971 at the Fairmont
(Minn.) Sentinel. He joined the Rochester (Minn.)
Post-Bulletin in 1972 and became that paper's state
Capitol correspondent in 1975. The St. Paul Pioneer Press
hired him as a general assignment reporter in 1977 and assigned
him to its state Capitol bureau the following year. He served as
the Pioneer Press's Washington correspondent from 1994 to
1999, when he returned to the state Capitol bureau.
Civic Caucus is undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public policy process for anticipating,
defining and resolving major public problems. The Caucus
interviewed Bill Salisbury, a veteran reporter of politics and
government, to get his perspective on how Minnesota's process
for developing sound policy proposals worked in the past, his
assessment of how well that process is working today and his
thoughts on the role the media have played in the past and play
currently in that process.
Reporters for the St. Paul Pioneer Press now write first
for online and secondly for the print edition of the newspaper.
Bill Salisbury of the Pioneer Press noted that the
newspaper is owned by Digital First. He said stories he writes
are first posted online as quickly as possible at the
newspaper's website, twincities.com.
Then the stories go secondly into the print edition of the
newspaper, perhaps just as they appear online or perhaps with
revisions. So his first responsibility is to the online edition
of the paper.
"The newspaper business is focusing on
digital stories, which means getting things quickly," Salisbury
said. "That may mean less time to do enterprise reporting, but
there is still an emphasis on it."
There have been a lot of changes at
the State Capitol since 1975. Salisbury said he started
covering the State Capitol in 1975 when he worked for the
Rochester Post-Bulletin. One of the biggest changes, he
said, is that at that time, there were no women in the Senate
and about seven women in the House. Now one-third of legislators
There are a great number of new
perspectives that are brought to the Legislature today, he said.
The makeup of the Legislature is a better representation of the
state. But, he pointed out, only seven percent of legislators
are people of color, while people of color comprise 20 percent
of the state population.
Covering the Capitol follows a cycle.
Salisbury explained that the Legislature will come into
session in a month, but campaigns are already underway. "Our
focus will be on politics, not policy," he said, "although
they're interrelated, because policy issues drive a lot of the
politics. We'll follow the Legislature and when the session ends
in May, we'll jump into campaign mode, when there's not much
time to focus on other policy issues."
"After November," he continued, "we'll
prepare for the budget session in 2017. When that ends in May
2017, it's the one opportunity we have in a two-year cycle to
get into mischief. It's the one time we can pick the subjects we
want to cover. Our work is not dictated by what the governor or
the legislators are doing, but by the issues we think we should
be looking at." He said that's when reporters look to groups
like the Civic Caucus for ideas.
The Pioneer Press is still
capable of doing in-depth stories, working from a variety of
sources. Salisbury used the example of a 2015 three-part
series on water quality in Minnesota called "Troubled Waters."
It was written by four reporters with an interest in the topic.
The paper no longer has an environmental reporter because of its
shrinking newsroom, he said.
In August of 2015, Salisbury did a
project called "Aging in Place," where he spent a month looking
at issues of older people wanting to stay in their own homes and
the variety of services they'll need. He pulled together
information from the Minnesota Board on Aging, the Wilder
Foundation, other private foundations, local government
agencies, transportation organizations and housing groups.
"It was fascinating," he said. "That's
the best part of reporting. Those are examples of what reporters
can do when they have time. A lot of our regular work is
stenographic, reporting on what the governor and legislators are
saying. They're dictating the agenda."
Campaigns can be a chance to educate
people and to dig into policy issues. However, Salisbury
said that does not seem to be the case in the current
presidential campaign. If the local campaigns bring up issues,
he said, the paper will be fact-checking what the candidates
One of the big differences today is
that there are so many more competing sources of information
that want the newspaper's attention. There's also much more
data readily available online now, Salisbury said. Organizations
like the Civic Caucus can say, "Here are the data and here's
what we think you should be doing with it."
Online reporting organizations like
MinnPost are players, but they're small. "I'm not sure
how many people read them," Salisbury said. "They have a small,
but very talented staff." He called
MinnPost's Capitol reporter, a "terrific reporter" and
said he reads MinnPost every day. "I think they're a
The newspaper sorts out very
skeptically the sound bites and avalanche of statements sent by
public relations firms. "There are some very professional
public relations operatives who realize we're not just going to
take a news release from someone and put it in the paper,"
Salisbury said. "We try to avoid quoting public relations flacks
as much as we can. We want them to put us in touch with the
experts who provided them the information. We want to know who
they're working for and what they're trying to sell. There are
some very reputable public relations firms in the Twin Cities
who treat us professionally."
The Pioneer Press and most
other newspapers have a shrinking space available for news
An interviewer commented that often
the listener or reader doesn't have the context to understand
when data or information is reported. He asked how people learn
from the media if they don't have the knowledge to understand
and interpret what they're reading. Salisbury responded that the
Pioneer Press and most other newspapers have a shrinking
"news hole", the space available for actual news reportage. He
said the Star Tribune might be an exception, although its
local news hole is shrinking. That smaller news hole makes it
difficult for newspapers to report the background and context of
"Another reason that it's a problem is
our emphasis on digital," he noted, "which means getting things
out fast." He said he's on Twitter all day long to find out
what's going on. "But that's 140 characters and has no context
whatsoever." An interviewer asked why he follows Twitter so
closely. In response, Salisbury said he uses it to find out
what's breaking news, so he can pursue it. "Pursuing it is the
problem, as is having time to get into depth on one of these
issues," he said. But he said at the Pioneer Press,
reporters are encouraged to do occasional in-depth series.
He noted that his paper has a
partnership with the
Forum News Service,
which includes the The Forum of
(formerly known as the Fargo Forum) and its 39 papers in
the region. Most of them are small weeklies, but they also own
most of the daily newspapers outside of the metro area,
including Duluth, Bemidji, Grand Forks, Red Wing, Worthington,
Willmar and others. "The News Service provides state news to
us," Salisbury said. "That's an asset we didn't have before." He
said his paper still uses the Associated Press, but that's
another shrinking-news-hole organization that is not doing as
much as they used to in covering the state.
The large numbers of lobbying
organizations at the Capitol overshadow the work of "do-gooder"
organizations. An interviewer asked whether the "do-gooder"
organizations, such as the Civic Caucus, the Humphrey School,
the foundations and others are producing the high-quality,
specific proposals we expect from them. Salisbury responded that
he isn't in a position to evaluate that.
But, he noted, there are groups, like
the Citizens League, that visit the Capitol regularly and keep
the press updated on the work they're doing. "But I, as a
reporter, don't see as much of them," he said. "Maybe it's
because we're inundated by information. The fastest-growing
industry in Minnesota is lobbying. Forty years ago, there were
only a handful of groups that lobbied the Legislature." Now
there are multiple groups representing cities, school districts
and other entities. He said there are now dozens, maybe
hundreds, of lobbyists per legislator. "They overshadow the kind
of work you're talking about," Salisbury said. "Groups like the
Civic Caucus are competing with these lobbying groups for
reporters' time and the interest of governors and legislators."
Rather than trying to put all the
background and details into a story in the paper's print
edition, reporters can put more detail in the online version.
An interviewer commented on the dilemma facing reporters of
how to write a story people will read that includes enough
detail to set the context and to be comprehensive and correct.
Salisbury responded that, with the digital news as first
priority, reporters can write a shorter story for the print
edition and put more details in the online version. They could
also post a link to another source of information.
The Pioneer Press newsroom has
a staff of fewer than 100 people now, down from 250 ten years
ago. An interviewer asked how the media can get the public
aware and involved in a public debate while an issue is
evolving. Salisbury responded that groups like the Civic Caucus
should keep the news media posted. "Let us know what you're
doing," he said. But with a cut in the newsroom staff from 250
ten years ago to fewer than 100 today, his newspaper is
short-staffed. In addition, the paper no longer has a Washington
bureau and doesn't employ as many specialists.
"You have to come and talk to us," he
said. "Come in with the information and tell us how we should
pursue it, face-to-face rather than by e-mail. An e-mail is easy
to delete without reading it."
Media are so diversified now that we
don't all have the same conversations. An interviewer
commented that today different people have their own favorite
media to look at to get the news. Not everyone reads the
newspaper now and there aren't the same types of common
conversations about issues that there used to be. Salisbury
agreed that there aren't the same conversations as before. Now
there are many cable news channels offering different opinions
about the news. "We don't have these common, shared interests
that we used to," he said.
Part of the answer is through
electronic media, Salisbury said. In the Pioneer Press
office, there is a big screen allowing staff members to find out
what people are reading online. Much of the readership comes
through links to the paper's website from places like CNN and
the Drudge Report.
Institutional memory among newspaper
reporters is very important. In response to an interviewer's
question about the role of institutional memory in reporting,
Salisbury said it's very important. "It's one of the few assets
I have," he said.
"In politics, if you don't have that
context about how our policies evolved, it's a problem," he
continued. Bright, young reporters from elsewhere have no idea
what the DFL is, for example. And one young intern didn't know
who Walter Mondale is. Frequently, he sits down with some of the
young reporters to give them a bit of Minnesota history. There
are lots of young reporters who don't know the history of the
"Minnesota Miracle" or of the Fiscal Disparities legislation.
"Some are interested and some aren't," he said.
Education and taxes are always big
stories that get read. Salisbury said young people often
start reading the newspaper when their children begin to reach
school age. "Schools are a big issue," he said. "We always do
stories on education."
Stories on taxes are the most
political and they're among the most well read, he said. "People
are very interested in education and taxes. But I don't know how
we get them detailed information about the school-aid formula."
He added that important education stories lately have been about
achievement issues and violence in the St. Paul schools.
Politics are now so much more
polarized and politics much more extreme. Salisbury said
there are more news sources out there, like Fox News, that
reinforce certain political beliefs. People are more likely to
get that kind of information, rather than analyze other people's
points of view. An interviewer commented that the world is more
complicated, but people understand less.
The journalism business is fiercely
competitive and the people who land reporter jobs are the most
qualified. "I'm very impressed about the kind of talent
that's out there among young reporters," Salisbury said. "I'm a
little dismayed by the lack of focus on public-policy issues."
There's a greater emphasis on entertainment both on television
and in the newspaper. "We must entertain, as well as inform."
There is no formal training to
background new reporters on Minnesota's general, policy, and
political history. Salisbury said he presumes every news
organization has some way of introducing new staff members to
the community. He said the newspaper used to have several
veteran reporters come in to speak to the newsroom staff
occasionally about St. Paul history and important past and
current issues. The paper would rent a bus to tour the city so
that new staff members could learn about St. Paul.
He said the School of Journalism and
Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota used to have
Capitol reporters come in and talk to the school's public
reporting classes, but that doesn't happen much anymore.
Instead, the paper hosts a number of student interns, but their
background in public affairs and history is generally weak. "I
wish they had more background in political science, history and
public affairs in general," Salisbury said.
Some news media try to report on
public issues before final decisions are made. Salisbury
said he thinks the Pioneer Press, Star Tribune and
Minnpost try to do that. "We're constantly talking to
sources about what's coming up, what's the next big thing,
what's going on under the radar," he said. "We're looking to get
things out there." He said television news isn't always there
following and reporting on public-policy issues and will often
wait till the final decision has been made to do a story.
The Pioneer Press has stopped
being a statewide newspaper and is now an east metro paper.
An interviewer asked about the metro newspapers' coverage
outside of the metro area. Salisbury said the Pioneer Press is
no longer a statewide paper, but an east metro publication. He
said the paper's circulation is stable, at 250,000 every Sunday.
He noted, though, that the Star Tribune has kept up four
regional reporters around the state. He believes the outstate
dailies have gone downhill because of out-of-state corporate
ownership that doesn't have the same concern for each community.
One important link to the non-metro
area, Salisbury said, is the Forum News Service, which picks up
stories from his paper, while the paper picks up stories from
the news service. So Pioneer Press stories sometimes run
in the Greater Minnesota papers that belong to the news service.
Groups with proposals for innovative
public policy changes now compete with advocacy groups, lobbying
groups and special interest groups for attention. An
interviewer asked whether there has been a change so that
Minnesota is not doing as much quality innovation in public
policy in 2016 as it was in 1975. Salisbury said, "When I
started at the Pioneer Press, whenever the Citizens
League issued a report, it was important and we had to cover
Now the Citizens League and other
similar groups must compete for the attention of reporters and
space in newspapers with advocacy, lobbying and special interest
groups. "I think it's diluted the influence of public-policy
groups," he said.
Salisbury said he agreed with an
interviewer's idea that perhaps it's time to look at the quality
of ideas coming out of foundations, do-gooder organizations and
academic institutions to see if they're taking seriously the
trust that's been put in them by donors and taxpayers. "There
are a lot more ideas out there, but I'm not sure the quality is
as good," Salisbury said.
Another interviewer had recently
attended an event where Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said no
one is coming to the Legislature today with good, actionable
proposals on any issue.
A different interviewer asked whether
the nonpartisan legislative research arms of the House and the
Senate are bringing proposals to legislators. He asserted that
used to happen more with proposals from House Research, but
today they're not asked to do that. Salisbury responded that the
nonpartisan research staff, especially in House Research, has a
lot of institutional memory, but they're usually reacting to
requests for information from their bosses, rather than making
The future of newspapers does not look
good, but there is a future for journalism. In response to
an interviewer's question about the future of media, Salisbury
said he is very pessimistic about the future of newspapers. "Our
readers are getting older," he said. "When the baby boomers die,
newspapers will probably go with them." But he said newspapers
are still very strong now.
In contrast, he said, he's optimistic
about the future of journalism. "We've got a lot of bright young
people trying to figure out the best way to communicate in this
digital age," he said. "They're still interested in doing the
work of covering public affairs and making sure the information
is available to people, even if we have to twist their arms to
get them to pay attention to it."
He suggested that the Civic Caucus
make a better effort to get its information out to reporters.
"You're going to be competing with a lot more organizations and
groups that want our attention," he said. "You're going to have
to work harder to get out your information through us."
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,