Star Tribune Publisher Steve Grove on the Future of Newspapers
The Star Tribune’s CEO and publisher, Steve Grove, is a new-media guy. He replaced an old-media guy, Mike Klingensmith, in April, after four years as the state’s commissioner of employment and economic development. That followed over a decade at Google, where he ran its News Lab. Grove, who grew up in Northfield, has also done journalism, serving short stints at ABC News and the Boston Globe after graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a master’s in public policy analysis. We spoke to Grove the Friday before he began the job, over coffee in Linden Hills.
TCB: As a former tech guy, is AI top-of-mind for you as you take on this role? It’s all anyone talks about.
Steve Grove: Yes, sure. You have to be careful, thoughtful, but we’ve got to lean into it. I don’t mean as a replacement for journalists. But experimenting with it; in advertising, back-office functions. The changes you’ve seen in technology over the last 10 years have seemed so fast, but the next 10 are going to seem even faster.
TCB: Is government sufficiently responsive to media? A lot of us see a shift to a more arms-length, even adversarial relationship with the press.
SG: I don’t know if DEED ever had a more transparent commissioner than during my tenure. My team was exhausted by how much I wanted to engage with the press. We could have done better on the couple of data practices requests that became talked about, but people tend to forget just how fatigued, overloaded, and stressed state government was during Covid. Your broader question is about transparency, and I think government owes you something a business doesn’t, and I think government builds trust better, runs better, when it is more transparent and responsive.
TCB: Does social media drive the fear of transparency? Are we all playing to Twitter now?
SG: It’s hard to argue Twitter has improved social discourse. It does affect how government deals with the media. It’s frustrating when a small number of characters drives the discourse. But we have to lean into it if that’s where people are. But we have to ask what these platforms are doing for our democracy. Back in 2007, when I started at YouTube, it was all upside, we were exuberant, we were all, “This is the democratization of media.” But in my 12 years on the platform, we went through a whole roller coaster, and Trump was elected, Russian interference happened, and the downsides were evident. It is addictive and curated, but what’s the news equivalent of that? News orgs have not built their own versions.
TCB: How did you end up in this job?
SG: The search firm reached out. I was not looking for a new job. I loved being DEED commissioner. I signed up for a second term. I believe in the governor. It wasn’t a job I was going to take to maintain continuity. [But] it became clear they were looking for someone new. Glen [Taylor, Strib owner] made clear, as did the board, that they see this as a change opportunity. It is still primarily, from a revenue standpoint, a print business. It is hard to imagine a decade from now that [will be] the case. They want someone willing to accelerate the transformation we know needs to happen. I am drawn to opportunities with a sense of purpose, that match my values, and leave an opportunity to make a mark.
TCB: There’s a lot of talk in newspapers about Google and how it’s become the biggest competitor for revenue. Can you explain what it is about Google and its business model that’s done that?
SG: I think of it two ways. There’s the attention marketplace. Social media apps are sticky and they take your time; it takes away from time reading a local newspaper and you might feel you’ve gotten the same information. But what you’re talking about is the ad marketplace. If you’re an advertiser today and want to reach an audience, it’s easier online with [its] highly sophisticated algorithmic search-engine-optimized ad market than it is to take a flyer on a local newspaper. The ad marketplace is really shifting. If you’re a newspaper today, you are [focused on subscriber] revenue.
TCB: Is that a capitulation?
SG: I think the whole economy has shifted to a subscriber economy. Look at Netflix and streaming. It’s the sustainable model. It just requires you to make sure the quality of the product is worth the money.
TCB: So have the dollars moved, or are there fewer in the marketplace?
SG: The ad marketplace has shifted to large technology platforms. The sophistication, the minuteness, the clarity, the tools—Google’s AdSense and DoubleClick changed everything. But targeting ads around content that you uniquely own is still a large opportunity, it’s just more complex. Media organizations today have to start with their core asset and be aggressive with it. We’ve got this brand most Minnesotans know. A trusted brand. A huge newsroom. But we have an older subscriber base. How do we get younger news consumers connected to it and put a thoughtful price tag on it? The New York Times is a content-driven company. They’ve figured it out with their bundle. Would that work locally? We need to find out. Every regional publication is going for that.
TCB: How does your fluency with tech help you chart a course for the business?
Read more from this issue
SG: There’s no secret sauce. But I’ve worked in a digital company with an innovation mandate, and I hope to bring that vision to the Star Tribune. There’s a culture of working in a tech company that’s different—creating a space where you try things, take some swings.
TCB: What is Glen Taylor’s perspective on the paper?
SG: Glen really cares deeply about the Star Tribune. He’s engaged. He’s an active board member. He sees it as a legacy. He believes it should also turn a profit. Which is right, because good organizations turn a profit.
TCB: The print paper delivers the bulk of the profitability to the business. As a digital-first guy, how do you parse the future of the print product?
SG: You’ve got to meet your audience where they are. You need to deliver high-quality content and delight them with things they didn’t expect. I read the Sunday print paper. Browsing a print paper, you discover things. Facebook and Twitter restored browsing to digital. We need to find a way to make [our] digital product worth paying for at a scale that supports the business, and grow our audience. I bring the benefit of fresh eyes. There’s a huge opportunity with younger customers. We have to earn it. We have to listen. To me, the first 100 days is key. I’m going to go out and talk to people.
TCB: Do you like the idea of an editorial page and editorial board that speaks for the newspaper, or is it a relic of another era that inflames and confuses readers?
SG: I think it’s a good thing. Opinion is a powerful thing, and a newspaper of record should have it.
Editor’s note: Ironically, this perspective complicated the first month of Grove’s tenure, when the Star Tribune published the first cartoon by the paper’s new cartoonist, Mike Thompson. It attempted to skewer anti-Muslim xenophobia in Minneapolis but instead angered Muslims who misinterpreted the cartoon, and liberals generally, who were offended that Thompson implied the city was violent and rife with gunfire. Thompson is part of the editorial page, which reports to Grove, who responded by publicly regretting the cartoon, noting in a statement that the paper “will work harder . . . to hold ourselves accountable in constructive ways that speak to values of respect and integrity.” Grove answered a follow-up question by email.
TCB: It’s quite a step for a publisher to disavow work by editorial page staff, especially when much of the objection was rooted in misunderstanding. There are those who felt you failed to defend the independence of the editorial page, and others who probably wanted Mike fired. Why’d you take the action you did?
SG: I think being honest with our readers is important, and they should expect the Star Tribune to hold ourselves accountable to our values. I will be a staunch advocate for the First Amendment and the role of publications like ours to publish views that drive important conversations, and I also won’t hesitate to be transparent and honest when I feel we missed the mark.