Larry Oakes’ last story (5×8 – 1/7/12)

A voice for vulnerable, on motivation, maybe our kids are smarter than we think, Iowa and the hostile work environment, and ice climbing in Saint Paul.

The Monday Morning Rouser:


Larry Oakes was the kind of reporter who made other reporters angry because he wrote stories in a way that the rest of us wish we had. But, truth is: Most of us couldn’t write the way he did.

His colleague says his strength as a reporter was giving a voice to the “vulnerable and marginalized.” His death offers the same opportunity.

Oakes, a reporter for the Star Tribune, checked himself into a psychiatric unit on Wednesday because he was having suicidal thoughts. He was out by Friday and walked into the woods of Duluth and shot himself to death, another apparent casualty of depression, another secret that many people didn’t know until it was too late.

The Duluth News Tribune provided a glimpse of the man:

News Tribune reporter John Myers crossed paths with Oakes many times over the past 26 years, as they often covered the same stories in the Northland. He said Oakes never lost his empathy for the people he interviewed.

“I remember the day after a horrific murder in Grand Rapids, saying goodbye to each other after a press conference at the police station, only to drive up at the exact same time to the house belonging to the family of one of the suspects. Even though we worked for different papers, it was Larry’s idea that we do our interviews together that day so the families wouldn’t be bothered twice,” Myers said. “He did his job so well, he was tenacious, but he never stopped being a good person.”

Ann Glumac, a communications consultant in Duluth, worked as a reporter at the News Tribune at the same time as Oakes. Even on the difficult cops and courts beat, Oakes had a way of connecting with his sources, Glumac said. And unlike some of her other young colleagues, Oakes didn’t bring an attitude of cynicism to the newsroom.

“He just was fun,” she said. “We had those blocks of cubicles, and what you’d see with him were those twinkly eyes peering over the cubicle. He was a wonderful, positive force in the newsroom.”

The Star Tribune, working under heavy hearts, buried its sensitively written story on page B6 yesterday. It’s a standard policy at Minnesota’s most influential news organization, one that stems from editor Nancy Barnes’ personal experience when she was 17 years old, a fact she wrote about in March 2010.

The next day, I received a phone call from the dean of students, begging me and my editors not to do that again. The suggestion of suicide is a powerful force, the dean told me. It could encourage other students who might be stressed and depressed to think of suicide as a solution to their problems. It was my first confrontation with the responsibility that comes with the power of the press, and it was a lesson that I still go back to, more than three decades later, when confronted with a story on suicide.

The power of the press is the power to influence, and we need to take great care with how we wield that influence, especially with issues of life and death.

Ever since that event, I have questioned every story about suicide, especially if it is suggested for the front page. At my student newspaper that year, we discussed guidelines for how to cover student suicides. They were remarkably similar to the ones we have today at the Star Tribune. We restrict ourselves to suicide stories that truly involve news, such as those of public figures or those that occur in highly public places or those that document significant trends. So when a reporter brought us a story on the hidden problem of suicide among the elderly, we debated for weeks how to present that story. Would we put it on the front page? How would we design it? When would we run it?

It’s highly unlikely that Larry Oakes took his own life because he got the idea from a front-page story about suicide. Much more common in cases like this is the feeling of being alone, a sense of hopelessness, that help won’t help.

Sure, some suicides can be an impulse. Others aren’t.

Star Tribune editorial page editor Scott Gillespie assessed Oakes’ loss to journalism in his column today:

Oakes leaves behind heartbroken family members, colleagues and readers across Minnesota. They should find comfort in knowing that his contributions to journalism and the state will endure.

We are all better off because Oakes had the courage to tell stories from the darker edges of our complex world.

Oakes’ courage is matched by his family’s willingness to clearly state how he died, a clear invitation to talk about suicide and depression. It’s past time we in the news media step forward with an equal measure of courage to begin talking honestly about why he died.

Related: Conductor with bipolar disorder on music and mental illness. (BBC)


Reneé Rongen of Fertile, MN., quit her corporation job and chased a dream of becoming a motivational speaker, the Fargo Forum reports. Now, she’s a motivational speaker who’s just written a book, gives 20 percent of the proceeds to domestic violence causes and 20 percent to a woman battling breast cancer.


Perhaps you’ve seen those studies showing American schoolchildren are near the bottom of the rankings for math and science knowledge. But a few states — Minnesota included — jettisoned the country’s less smart states and competed in the Trends in Math and Science Study as if they were a country, instead of a state within a country.

For 4th-graders, Massachusetts finished 11th. For 8th graders, it finished 7th, while Minnesota finished 8th.

Check out this telling graphic:


And check out our eighth-graders science chops:


Jim Stergios of the Boston Globe connects the dots:

Well, given what Massachusetts has accomplished these past two decades and the little impact of federal policy, perhaps a better way of putting it is: States and localities are the only entities capable of improving student performance. States and localities bring 90 percent of the revenue pie, and states and localities are flexible and innovative enough to craft policies that matter.

The question for Massachusetts is why, if it is showing this kind of progress, it would want to tether itself to national and federal efforts like the Common Core standards, tests, and curricular materials. Why the best state in the US would resign itself to being like all the rest of the states is truly a difficult policy decision to explain.

Here’s the full report for math. And here’s the one for science.


Someone in Iowa thinks it’s not a bad idea to have prisoners watching movies that make them sexually violent. The Associated Press says murderers, sexual predators and other men housed at a unit for mentally ill inmates at the maximum-security state prison in Fort Madison were allowed to watch movies such as “Deranged,” a horror film that includes a scene in which a woman is beaten, raped, hung upside down and skinned.

But the story is what happened to a woman who tried to stop such an obviously bad idea. Kristine Sink defied orders from administrators not to turn off the movies or shows. Her bosses accused her of insubordination, suggested her clothing was more responsible, and let prisoners know who complained about what they were watching.

Related: Cat arrested at Brazil prison (BBC)


There can’t be many parks in American cities where people can ice climb in the winter.

Ice Climbing In Saint Paul Parks from St. Paul Ofc. of Communications on Vimeo.

Bonus I: The Greatest Conversations To Ever Happen On Twitter Between Real Astronauts And The Cast of Star Trek (Cyberbuzz)

Bonus II: A game-changing invention. A bicycle horn that sounds like a car’s horn. (

Bonus III: What if you thought the earth was flat? And then you found out it isn’t? (h/t: Brian Hanf)


The new Congress includes an unprecedented number of women. Twenty women now serve in the Senate, and 81 serve in the House. Today’s Question: How might the record number of women in Congress affect the conduct of government?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: What kind of president will Obama be in his second term?

Second hour: In his new book, Faitheist, religion scholar Chris Stedman draws on his own unique religious experiences and academic studies to explain why it’s necessary to bridge the growing divide between atheists and religious adherents.

Third hour: What drives humans to explore? Is there something in our genes that can explain it?

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): A program from the Aspen Ideas Festival about the ways technology might transform the college learning experience.

Talk of the Nation (1-2 p.m.) – The consequences of a short term farm bill fix.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – To kiss and tell is not new for teenagers. But with camera phones and social

media, they can show and tell their sexual exploits to nearly anyone. These have become powerful tools for bragging, and for shaming. NPR looks at teens, technology and the new scarlet letter.

Minnesota’s moribund recycling rates are likely to be a target of new laws as the Legislature begins a new session. Minnesota was an early leader in recycling, but in 2008 the recycling rate flattened out at 41 percent of waste discarded, and that rate has even started to decline in the last couple of years. Recycling is not only better for the environment; it’s an integral part of a growing economic engine in the state, and experts say we’re throwing away resources that those businesses need. MPR’s Stephanie Hemphill will have the story.