Mike Klingensmith: The Exit Interview
Mike Klingensmith, publisher of the Star Tribune Courtesy of the Star Tribune

Mike Klingensmith: The Exit Interview

The Strib’s publisher/savior opens the books one last time.

Mike Klingensmith is one of the more impressive individuals I’ve had the pleasure to interview in my on-and-off career writing about media. He’s affable, open, manifestly competent, and, in a very Minnesota way, free of the pretension of the New York media world where he spent most of his career as a Time Inc. exec.

He came to the Star Tribune in 2010 as publisher, at the start of its second renaissance, if you will, after bankruptcy, and four years before Glen Taylor bought the newspaper. A longtime colleague of his told me, “We hoped he’d stay three years, but we got 13.” It was a compliment.

Pushing 70, Klingensmith will retire in February. His colleagues believe he was instrumental in the newspaper’s survival, though much of the credit surely belongs to Taylor, who operates the paper as a community asset, mostly hands-off, with few expectations beyond breaking even. Its evolution from a respected if stolid mid-market daily to one of the largest regional newspapers in America has mostly been due to the atrophy of its peers and its relative stability.

Five years ago, I sat down with Klingensmith to talk about the future of news and newspapers, and he was kind enough to revisit our conversation this fall. The Strib remains stable, he says, but continues to see print revenue and print subscriber erosion. News hole and staffing is static, but strict expense controls are in place to manage the effects of inflation, he says.

Some notable points of our conversation:

  • Print subscriber attrition has “quickened nationwide,” he says. “In the pandemic, people were afraid of print papers and so they traded them out for digital subscriptions.” Single-copy sales also took a hit. The problem is that there’s roughly $200 more profit in an annual print subscription ($400) than in a digital one ($200). For every thousand print subscribers who convert, that’s $200,000 in lost profit.
  • Digital “engagement” rose 50% in the pandemic and social unrest period but has settled back to pre-pandemic levels as some semblance of normalcy has returned to daily life.
  • Print display advertising is down 8-9% annually. Digital ads offset some of the loss, but the industry struggles to monetize digital. The paper needs three digital subscriptions to equal the advertiser revenue of two print subscribers, meaning erosion in print readership drains the paper not just of subscriber profit, but advertiser revenue. “Every year,” Klingensmith adds, “Google and other digital platforms pick up a larger percentage of incremental advertising.”
  • The Strib now sees markedly less real estate, auto, and Sunday glossy advertising. Health care, financial, and grocery advertising has held up.
  • The newsroom remains at around 240 people, not dissimilar to five years ago, and the paper publishes a similar number of pages, he says, though there is actually more news hole because there is less advertising.

Klingensmith summarizes his tenure as “getting ourselves more organized, having a game plan. Our degree of difficulty is continually greater, because the print product is waning.”

I shared my growing sense of an agenda in news coverage/story framing, as a younger journalist cohort, with more of an activist bent, becomes influential in the newsroom. “Marching orders have not changed,” he says. “We want to keep opinion out of the news pages,” but it’s difficult to cover both sides when “one side has become so distrustful they will often not talk to us.”

“I don’t know how to honor journalism in such a polarized environment,” he says.

As for the industry as a whole, Klingensmith expressed surprise that the Strib outlasted his longtime employer Time, saying at one point he was asked to go back but was fortunate he didn’t. The clear winner in New York publishing has been the New York Times; he notes that the Times now has 10 million subscribers and $1 billion in annual revenue, the pandemic and volatile political era having been very good for the national newspaper.

Klingensmith is thus bullish on legacy brands in newspapering, noting that there are few examples of quality digital-only journalism startups that have had staying power; he’s “optimistic about well-managed metro newspapers,” though he admits the industry is still experimenting with ownership models. It’s not clear how many newspapers will be around when that model is evident.

He says it’s key for the industry to find ways to combat entities like Google, which use newspaper content without paying for it. He, like many local media execs, is cheering on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Journalism Competition and Protection Act, which would allow the industry to negotiate collectively with them for use of newspaper content.

As for his successor, search firm Spencer Stuart is looking for candidates, and he says the paper is pleased with the response. He says ownership is looking for a candidate with digital proficiency, a news industry background, and some familiarity with the Minnesota market.

Come February, Klingensmith plans to spend more time with his kids and travel, though he expects to continue to “intersect” with the community and retain a home here.

I’m not sure what Klingensmith expected when he showed up at 425 Portland Avenue back in 2010, including that the newspaper’s iconic headquarters would cease to exist, but like so much else in this transitional media age, change has been constant. Whether you call it managed obsolescence or an amazing comeback story, that the Star Tribune remains the foundational information resource in Minnesota is, in many ways, a feat Mike Klingensmith pulled off, against all odds.