Should the media try to make a difference?

If you think that’s a stupid question, you’re probably an old-fashioned journalist, or at least old fashioned. But Nick Coleman, the long-time columnist at the Star Tribune, says he think the media is too afraid to make a difference these days.

He never got much of a chance to say goodbye to his readers — some of whom hung on his every word, and some who exalted in the opportunity to hate what he wrote. Back in the day, that’s what columnists did — they got people riled up. Those days are pretty much over at newspapers, who can no longer afford to alienate anyone. Coleman took a buyout from the Star Tribune.

He talked with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer. (The audio is below the fold)

Q: Why didn’t you take the job that was offered, writing for the variety section?

A: I worked on the variety staff 26 years ago, before I became a media critic. I’ve done that. After 3,500 columns, I’m set in my ways.

Q: What was the rationale behind the Star Tribune’s eliminating your column.

A: I don’t know. I wasn’t given any explanation. I suggested other possibilities but they were never discussed.


Here’s the Cliffs Notes version.

Q: Why not say goodbye to people?

A: It’s complicated. I was stumped for what to say and how do you say it without sounding pathetic. I didn’t want my column to become the world’s tiniest violin. I feel bad that I didn’t say goodbye but I didn’t leave voluntarily. The column was taken away from me and it’s up to someone else to explain why.

Q: What was your goal in writing the columns?

A: There’s so many ways to write a column but I was taught by the nuns on West Seventh and Randolph that writing is supposed to make a difference. I adopted their sensibility. You write about people and their real concerns and you try to tackle their common interests with a common touch and find a common purpose. These days that makes me some kind of dinosaur. I believe newspapers should make a difference.

Q: Did you make a difference?

A: Yes. I’ve had enough people tell me that. The license of a column is you can use it to provide insight into what is happening to people and why it’s happening. Sometimes the job is to point a finger at powerful people who may not be speaking honestly. I never thought a columnist’s job was to be loved.

Q: Why paper is going to survive in the Twin Cities.

A: I don’t know but I’m open to offers. I’m 58 and I’m not ready to retire. I still have young children to send to school. People are being pushed out of this business and both papers have lost thousands upon thousands of years of experience of covering the Twin Cities. You see errors in both papers now that would’ve been unthinkable years ago.

I’m trying to cobble together some kind of teaching or blogging and speaking. I still have much to say about these towns. I don’t want to go learn a new town at 58.

Q: What stories do you want to cover?

A: I don’t have a list. In the newspaper business it’s so day-to-day oriented that I often didn’t know going into an office each day what I would write about.

Readers want perspective and context in stories about real people that are not told in a voice by people who are afraid to make sense of something. I think we get overwhelmed with the “he said she said,” people get very burned out on that. But if you can tell stories in a way that tries to make sense of it and point out the ridiculousness of it, or the outrage of it, you want to make people… laugh or cry.

Q: What story made you cry?

A: I did one about five years ago after I returned to the Star Tribune after the Pioneer Press. There was a young Indian soldier from the Cheyenne River Reservation from the middle of South Dakota who’d been killed in Iraq. I went to the reservation for his funeral. It was an amazing, overwhelming, sad and wonderful two-day ceremony. That one would still make me cry if I read it. I love funeral stories. They’re not just sad and grieving, but you hear so many great, wonderful, funny, touching stories at funerals. The press rarely covers someone’s funeral.

You should be sad and happy if you’re alive in this world because that’s the kind of world we live in. For some reason, it’s become very hard in this environment for media to want to make an impact. It’s almost as if there are forces at work to not try to make too much of a difference and I don’t get that.

A lot of media, especially the ones who are just barely holding on, are trying not to get anyone upset and are trying to not be accused of trying to make any difference. And I don’t think it’s just a printing press for making money. It’s supposed to be some kind of higher calling to be in this business, or you might as well be doing something else that has shorter hours and better benefits.

People are afraid of speaking up and speaking out. The whole world seems to be boiling down to Barack Obama vs. Rush Limbaugh and I think it’s bigger than that. I think there’s much more that needs to be discussed, but I am surprised after eight years of George Bush and the kind of political change we saw through January, that there’s still a large reluctance for people to speak up and speak out, and express in a respectful way their point of view.

  • GregS

    Godspeek Nick Coleman, you should have left years ago. The same goes for the StarTribune.

    Why can we not recognize the distinction between the columists “speaking out” and propagandists who simply does not respect people?

    …Why can we not see the difference between “alienating” some people and alienating the majority?

    The editorial staff of the StarTribune stubbornly held a position far to the left of their readership and the majority of Minnesotans.

    Sadly they hired a news staff that felt duty bound to report from a similar position.

  • Jan Willms

    I completely disagree with above comment. Writers like Nick Coleman have been a part of what made the Star Tribune at one time a quality newspaper. Both the Strib and Pioneer Press have lost their standards, and their readership has been dwindling. This is not due to online blogs, but the fact that the papers have gotten rid of their talent and substituted good journalism with nothing but concerns for the almighty dollar. I have usually agreed with Nick’s opinions, but even when I don’t, I can appreciate strong writing. Good luck, Nick.

  • John Armstrong

    I admit I was not a regular reader of Mr. Coleman’s column–on the occasions I did read it I would sometimes find myself yelling at the paper because I so completely disagreed with what he was saying. However, I respect the fact that he always had the courage to stand up and say (or write) what he believed without worrying if he would make someone angry. It is important that we have a variety of voices out there. It is only by having the variety that we can be sure to get to the best ideas and solutions for our problems.

    The news stories can be found anywhere. The compelling reason to subscribe to a newspaper has long been the voices that weren’t on the front page. Those voices are slowly being silenced in favor of lower costs, which simply makes more readers move on, leading to the next round of cuts–a cycle that is hard to break out of.

    I do sincerely hope that he finds another outlet to make his voice heard. His ability to make people think and talk about issues is sorely needed in what is turning into a knee-jerk society.

  • Bob Ryder

    Thanks, for all the columns you wrote about topics that I never would have known about, if not for you. I agreed with most of your subjects and, even when I didn’t, I respected your writing. It’s too bad that we are more and more living in a world where a public newspaper is fearful of offending anyone. I’m so tired of political correctness. We need to hear differences of opinion so we can make up our minds on issues. You gave us that chance. So thanks, again, and I hope I’ll be able to read you again.

  • Paul

    First, the Strib is not a leftist newspaper by any objective measurement, nor is it to the left of a mostly liberal state that elected Pawlenty with less than forty percent of the vote. While the Strib, and Coleman in particular can be described leaning liberal, and certainly neo-liberal with it’s economic reporting, this only puts the Strib to the left of Minnesota on the warped ideological landscapes of folks like Michelle Bachmann. Ideology is not killing newspapers.

    The Strib is currently caught in an unfortunate economic tidal wave brought on by pin head investors. The financialization drive that took so many businesses out of the hands of families and small groups of investors; and delivered them into public offerings and large investor groups is killing papers like the Strib. The Strib made 30 million dollars last years. That would be a lot of money for a family or small group of shareholders, but it’s nothing to the public or large investment groups. Pin head investors also drove up the price of everything in a plethora of “bubble’s” that are now popping like bubble wrap under the feet of crazed children. The Strib is saddled with an unpayable debt because investors paide three times more for it than it was worth in the first place. None of this has anything to do with the papers ideology.

    Coleman is right, the paper stopped trying to make a difference. However, although the pin head investors excelerated the process, the drive towards banality, mediocrity, and meaninglessness began over a decade ago. For years if you wanted to know what the Governor was really up to you were better off picking up a free copy of City Pages. The same afflictions that characterized most major media outlets have plagued the Strib for decades, and now that the model is changing and alternative news sources are available it seems many big news organization simply no longer have the skills to find an deliver important news about important things… unless you consider five year old unsolved murders, tornado anniversaries, or sports be essential civic knowledge.

    My only dispute with Nick Coleman is that he treats the irrelevance of major media as if it is something new… I stopped reading the Strib by and large in the late 80s, not because I didn’t like it’s ideology but because I was looking for news.

  • Paul

    Regarding the query: “should media make a difference” more directly… the media does make a difference in any event, the question is always what kind of difference does the news media make?

  • Joel Reiter

    If Nick Coleman avoided writing a goodbye column because he didn’t want to sound pathetic, he should not have done the interview with Wurzer. Or at least he shouldn’t have tried to argue that his firing was primarily the result of newspapers purging anything that is noble.

    Coleman might have been fearless, but his reckless disregard for accuracy made his writing far from noble. Pathetic, indeed.

  • Paul

    I just have to say that it’s exceptionally bad form to use someone, anyone’s unemployment as an excuse to level mean spirited insults. You’re talking about a persons lively hood and career, just because you don’t like or agree with what they say doesn’t mean you should celebrate their misfortune. How would you like it if someone showed up outside your house the day you got laid off sporting a sign saying: “good riddance you deserved to lose your job!”

    I was glad to see Katheryn Kirsten column disappear. I think columns were a toxic influence that frequently issued bad information and distorted facts. But I was glad to see her column go, I was not glad to see her suffer misfortune to whatever extent she did, and it wouldn’t occur to me to take advantage of any public platform hurl mean spirited insults. I don’t wish Kersten ill, I just wish she’d written better columns.

  • Greg

    Jan,

    A big part of quality is representing ALL opinions, not just the strident ramblings of the progressive left.

    Paul,

    The StarTribune has long been acknowledged as the furthest to the left of all major dailys in the country.

    People who fail to recognize that are usually so far to the left that the entire political landscape appears to their right.

  • Paul

    Greg says:

    “The StarTribune has long been acknowledged as the furthest to the left of all major dailys in the country.

    People who fail to recognize that are usually so far to the left that the entire political landscape appears to their right.”

    Recognized by whom? It might be interesting if you were describe your view of the political landscape?