A growing newspaper company must change with changing communities

Recently 40 of my colleagues and I were talking about race and racism. In a half-day workshop led by facilitators from an organization called Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, we discussed how race affects the way we see the world in which we live and our story-telling craft.

It was a moving day of watching video about racial attitudes and then breaking into small groups to discuss the way we were raised and the way we evolved as white people now living in a metropolitan area that is becoming less white. It was important work because as journalists, it is our job to produce newspapers and websites that reflect the reality of our cities and counties.

As Julian Andersen, our publisher and CEO, asked when I was arranging the workshop for ECM’s journalists,  “Are we covering our communities the way they are or the way they were.” Do our newspapers have stories and images of the diverse populations that are changing our cities and counties? Or do the front pages of our papers and websites have the same white faces they’ve always had?

Those cities and counties, primarily in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, used to be very white, but the 2010 Census and subsequent surveys show that changes are happening.

Coon Rapids, where ECM Publishers is  headquartered and where we publish three Anoka County newspapers, was 4 percent nonwhite in 1990. It was 16 percent nonwhite in 2010. Burnsville, where we publish the Sun Thisweek I used to manage, had a 6 percent nonwhite population in 1990, and is now 27 percent minority.

The numbers get even more dramatic when we look at cities now served by ECM as a result of acquiring the Sun Newspapers last December. Richfield, which is served by the Richfield Sun Current, was 9 percent minority in 1990, and it’s now about 40 percent nonwhite. Even Edina, served by the Edina Sun Current, has changed dramatically in terms of its complexion, and cities such as Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, which were more than 90 percent white 20 years ago, are now more than 50 percent minority.

I joined ECM about five years ago after retiring from the Star Tribune.

After deciding within a few months that retirement and I weren’t a good fit, I was offered a job running ECM’s Thisweek Newspapers in Dakota County.

In December, ECM, which was started 36 years ago by former Gov. Elmer L. Andersen, acquired the Sun papers, which had been the largest weekly-newspaper group in Minnesota. As a result of the acquisition, ECM-Sun publishes 51 newspapers serving about 240 cities and goes to about 700,000 homes. My boss, ECM President Marge Winkelman, asked me to take a job at the Coon Rapids corporate headquarters as director of news. ECM not only acquired more than 30 papers and websites but also about 40 reporters and editors.

We now have more than 80 news people who I bring together regularly to discuss how we fulfill our responsibility to cover the news accurately and responsibly for the readers in ECM Land. In June,  about 50 of our journalists met to discuss how we will be covering the campaigns and elections happening this year. Our guest speaker at that session was Dane Smith, former political reporter for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press who now runs a think tank called Growth & Justice.

After that session, in which Smith talked about political coverage to a roomful of white faces, he suggested we devote our second workshop to the issue of diversity. It was a good suggestion. As Tim Budig, our state Capitol correspondent, reported in a recent story, race is changing our communities: Ten years ago, Tim reported, minorities made up more than 10 percent of the population of six metro cities. Today, minorities make up more than 10 percent of the population in 73 cities.

Tim has also written about the work of Myron Orfield, a former legislator and now a teacher and researcher at the U of M. Orfield says the suburban communities are changing racially faster than the core cities and must make sure those communities don’t create segregated communities within suburban cities by making poor decisions about such matters as schools and housing.

In my small group at the race workshop, one of our reporters talked about growing up in Coon Rapids and remembering a single black person in her high school class. Having moved back to the city as an adult, she lives on a street where she, as a white person, is in the minority.

Yes, the metropolitan area where we live and publish our newspapers is a different place from what it was. As ECM grows in size and influence, our leaders are committed to helping us grow in understanding the people, places and issues that are the raw material for stories we write.

Another speaker at our diversity workshop, Lynda McDonnell, runs a program at the University of St. Thomas for high school journalists, many of them minority students. McDonnell, who spent many years as a reporter and editor at the Twin Cities dailies, shared a quote that makes the point it’s not just right to diversify our news coverage, but it’s probably good business.

She quoted Sally Lehrman, author of a book called News in a New America: “In a nation where democracy is organized by geography, the news organizations that reflect their communities will stay in business. The others probably won’t.”

Larry Werner is director of news for ECM Publishers. His e-mail is larry.werner@ecm-inc.com. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.