The Fury Files: David Brauer

Posted: October 17, 2011 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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It’s time for another edition of the Fury Files, the most popular Q&A segment on the Internet (waiting for official verification of that title). The first edition featured former St. John’s quarterback Tom Linnemann, and the second current MSHSL writer and former Star Tribune reporter John Millea.

This week’s guest is David Brauer, media critic extraordinaire who is one of the best-known/respected/feared writers in the Twin Cities. Brauer has done a little bit of everything in a career that has spanned nearly 30 years. He worked as a reporter for the Twin Cities Reader and City Pages and was the editor of the Southwest Journal. Proving he could talk as well as write, Brauer also broadcast for both KFAN and KSTP-AM in the mid-90s, where he talked about both sports and politics, two subjects that remain close to his heart, as his readers know.

He’s done freelance writing for numerous publications, including Minnesota Monthly and Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Today he works for and runs the influential Brau Blog, a site that documents the hirings, firings, successes, failures and controversies of Minnesota’s newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, magazines and everything in between.

What kind of reputation does Bauer have among the people he covers? The Star Tribune called him “the sheriff of Minnesota media,” a title he’s earned thanks to his willingness to dig, great sources, superb reporting and outstanding writing (it’s unclear if Dennis Green realizes he’s been replaced as the town’s sheriff). Brauer’s also something of a Twitter-holic and it doesn’t seem he’ll be cured anytime soon. And while he does much of his work today in blog posts or 140 characters, he’s shown his ability over and over again with long-form pieces. His 2006 piece on former Star Tribune editor Anders Gyllenhaal for Minnesota Monthly remains a great  read, an outstanding profile of a big-city editor guiding an old newspaper through a new media world.

In April, Brauer took a hiatus from his blog to recover from liver damage that was caused by a bad reaction to drugs (“boring legal pills” he called them). He was gone for about a month. When he returned he wrote of doing some longer pieces, but you’ll have to read below to find out how that is going for Brauer. He says he’s at about “98 percent” and while he’s currently not writing as much for Brau Blog he continues to be a thoughtful, influential voice on the Twin Cities media scene. Plus, he continues to be the Nick Punto of Twitter, always giving 110 percent.

Here, Brauer talks about a possible change in his philosophy, technology and how it affects writers, comments on newspaper websites, life in alternative media, the tragedy of young Minnesota sports fans, a Dream Team of Minnesota journalists, and more. Thanks a lot for your time, David.

Some media folks have complained that you’re too negative or don’t focus enough on good stories or good news from media outlets. You responded by writing, “Frankly, problems are more important than back-patting.” But do those types of criticisms give you pause or did they make you rethink your philosophy at all?
They do give me pause, and I am rethinking my philosophy. When I hit the beat in 2008, a lot of bad stuff – mostly economic stuff – was happening. It was dramatically changing newsrooms and I felt I had to be on top of that. Also, there is no one really REPORTING on the media’s foibles (as opposed to just criticizing), so I felt there was a gap to fill there. There is so much pr bullshit at most big media concerns that you want to nuke that.

But I’ll admit, over time, it made my soul sick. One of the unintentional factors was giving up Daily Glean. Had to do it because I was overworked, but it removed an easy place to praise good work. For my blog, I think I got so locked on target that I wasn’t providing the most accurate view of the overall scene. Writing “positive” blog posts makes me nervous that I am performing pr (or not dug hard enough). Plus, many stories are source puffery or just plain boring.

BUT I do want to be more open to real achievements and accomplishments. Those are potentially difficult to report now because many people will barely tolerate me. On some level, I don’t want to give in to the smallest minds, but I also don’t want to be small myself, so I’m trying to be alert to interesting GOOD things.

At the same time, I had an interesting experience several months ago. A regular source, excellent with the dirt, wanted me to write a piece exposing some embarrassing personal stuff about someone in the shop the source didn’t like. It was a real open question whether the personal stuff had professional relevance – I’m still wrestling with that one. I first decided to report the story, even interviewing sources, but in the end, I decided the public gain was not worth the target’s personal/family embarrassment.

When I changed my mind and decided NOT to do the story, the source ripped my integrity, because I had socialized with the target and had ripped one of the source’s pals (on purely professional grounds, I might add).

I’ll admit, the whole thing made me heartsick. Maybe because I was protecting the target (I don’t think illogically) or maybe because I realized the only way to “win” with a certain component of my readership was to rip – and if I didn’t, I was sellout. Do I really want to be in that trap? Is there a way out? Obviously, having the guts to deal with naysayers is part of the solution, but at the same time, I have to be open to the fact that painful criticism might be right. (I have seen too many story subjects incapable of the latter.)

Media critics are everywhere now. But Brauer separates himself by still being a reporter on the beat.

Along those same lines, everyone knows how technology has affected traditional media. But it seems like it would have also had the same effect on media criticism. While there aren’t the traditional ombudsmen, there are a million sites that criticize, complain or eviscerate papers, writers, editors and broadcasters. Has the democratization of media criticism changed how you do your job? Is it harder to have a unique take or angle when there are countless people online who will be shouting – or at least using all caps – about the same things?
Not really. There aren’t many actual reporters amid the myriad critics. If anything, it had made me more committed to reporting. Gathering facts and others’ insights while formulating your own opinions is about as good as it gets, in my definition of what I do.

There are some – well, a few – who can craft brilliant analyses without talking to anyone else. I am not usually one of those people. But I am energized, and often humbled, by the great media criticism that looks like diamonds amid the poo.

When you returned from your illness, you wrote about devoting more time to in-depth features. First, have you been able to do that since returning? Second, is it difficult getting back into that mindset of long-form writing, which obviously requires different skills than writing three or four blog posts a day? And finally, if you had an ideal job, would it be as someone who did long-form features – perhaps a few dozen, if that, pieces a year – or would it be as someone who is writing several times a day or week, is always out there and online, on a blog and tweeting? Or would you be a talk-radio host?
I pretty much haven’t done what I thought I’d do. It requires a commitment and patience I’m not yet ready to make – partly because I am on a stress vacation, partly because my vastly talented wife has let me know my job is to support her and the family (which I am enjoying immensely – tangible accomplishment).

Ideal job is a bad question for me because I am not a dreamer or a window-shopper … I like improving tangible situations. Talk-radio host would be the easiest, as long as it was an afternoon shift; I do miss that gig but will never get up in the wee hours for work again if I can help it.

I am not sure about long-form vs. short form. I may not pick a winner there. I can tell you that, by dint of an online addict’s attention span or just revisionism, I am less enamored of length than I used to be. MANY stories are overwritten or needlessly overlong. I love Twitter because it’s my most efficient info stream, and 140 characters is much more expressive than I thought (though headline writers probably always knew this). I guess I just want to be tough as I can be about story length, but not being afraid to “go long” if that’s truly the best way to pull it off. I have an explainer piece I need to squeeze out that can’t possibly be short; hopefully, you’ll see that soon.

Some questions on newspaper website comments, which you’ve referred to as a “cesspool” and which I can sum up as: FRIST!! Immigraants cause ALL our problemss! They deserved to die for driving in this weather, This is what you get when u vote for Socialist OBAMA! Trade Mauer already! Or make him QB for the Vikings!!!

* What do you think is the best method for dealing with comments on a paper’s site: Moderated, Facebook log-ins required, completely anonymous, etc?
No silver bullet, but for most of the stuff I read, completely anonymous does not work. Yes, you lose some potentially good stuff from people with legit reasons not to reveal their identity, but you get 100 pounds of crap for each ounce of good stuff. Caustic signal-to-noise ratio. I’d favor having an anonymous poster work through a moderator/editor, where someone screens for the truly valuable stuff and owns it in some way.

Facebook is a pretty effective, pretty simple solution but Mark Zuckerberg’s blithe dismissal of privacy freaks me out. I use FB because that’s where some of my audience is, but reluctantly.

I like moderated systems, but they are not very scalable. Community ratings systems often reinforce majoritarian bias. I like Gawker’s system of commenters “earning” trusted or featured status – sort of an open/moderated hybrid, but the publication awards the star, so it’s like editing in a way. Gawker allows pseudonyms, but you don’t have to.

* I’m an abolitionist on this topic. I don’t think papers should have them at all. If it’s about discussion, there are an infinite number of places on the web where people can talk about newspaper stories. Why should the paper itself have to play host to people who will spew racist, homophobic, misogynist, and, worst of all, poorly spelled rants? And if it’s about business – hits, page views, whatever – my response would be, how would not having comments put papers in worse financial position? What, there’d be hiring freezes, mass layoffs, plummeting ad revenue and paper closings? And that’d be different…how? Is my view too simplistic? Is it completely unrealistic?
Right. Fundamentally, the newspaper (and other media types) is selling an edited, curated experience. That should extend to any content they put out, even if it only goes so far as determining the parameters of a contributor platform the people formerly known as the audience contribute to.

Were you a Twitter addict from the outset or has it progressed? What does your family think about your problem?
Pretty much right away. See earlier answer. Yes, family thinks it’s a problem sometimes. They are right. It’s a battle, more like anxious eating than smoking crack.

At this very moment, somewhere in this world, David Brauer is tweeting.

When I went to The New Yorker Festival a few weeks ago, three different New Yorker writers, all of them feature-writing legends – Janet Malcolm, Ian Frazier and Mark Singer – made jokes about how they didn’t really know what Twitter was and couldn’t imagine ever using it. The lines got laughs and no one thinks their work has suffered because they don’t tweet or blog or make videos for their stories. Yet if a younger writer were to say such a thing, they’d probably be ridiculed and roundly criticized. As important as technology has become in media, is there still a place for up-and-coming writers who *aren’t* technologically savvy? In the end, won’t the great stories still be about old-school reporting, interviewing, writing and editing? Do you worry that in the rush to make sure everyone is up to date on the latest technology, we might lose sight of the skills that do produce classic stories?
As much as I love technology, there are some fine local writers and reporters who don’t use it. You don’t see many investigative reporters – for MSM newspapers around these parts anyway – with much of a social media profile.

In the end, it comes down to whether an editor is smart enough to figure out WHY their people should have a professional social media presence. For me, it’s essential – it’s awesome for sourcing and (I think) trust-building. And, at least at my low level, promotion. But in the end, what matters is having something to promote, and there are lots of old-school ways to get that.

* Obviously when people talk about the future of media, it’s usually the big guys they’re referencing, whether it’s network TV, local newscasts or daily newspapers. But what do you see as the future for the alternative media? Do they face the same problems or are there some that are unique to the alternative media? And do you think the alternative media can find a way to thrive in the changing world?
The alt papers benefited as much as anyone from information scarcity – those early entrepreneurs tapped a rich vein of dissatisfaction in a not-very-crowded marketplace. The prob is most of ’em were just as greedy and clueless as their MSM counterparts. Some dropped reporters as they pursued entertainment/lifestyle, only to discover niche websites pulling away the soft stuff and the Groupons of the world pulling away their ads. With a weaker commitment to news, they didn’t even have the cachet of relevance to hold audiences. And since they had fewer bodies and were less capitalized, they had less armor to navigate the big technological shifts.

Fortunately, the grassroots is doing a good job with insightful commentary and the niche-smart reporting the alts used to do. I still prefer a smart, diligent reporter, working for an editor. But some of those sites have sprung up online, and one-person bands have filled a good chunk of the remaining gap.

I have to say, I love seeing what Mother Jones is doing with a revived commitment to reportage and some very smart, less knee-jerk direction at the top. It can be done by the incumbents. Look at the Guardian.

What did you like best about working in the alternative media? Were there different stories you could pursue, more editorial leniency, etc.? And it seems like most people who work at those publications have a lot of…scrappiness, an eagerness for a fight. Did those same qualities help you when you devoted yourself to media criticism?
Fundamentally, the freedom to tell the story using any tools available. No rules (but not no responsibility). Also, the honesty – I didn’t have to hide who I was, how I voted, what biases I came in with (even while trying to write beyond that). A great lesson about transparency and trusting the people you were writing for.

I don’t know that I wrote about things the MSM couldn’t – I was never the most out-there reporter on-staff. I LOVED the idea of being a generalist and not having to work some banal beat to get to the interesting stuff. Fit me to a T.

Yes, you have to be willing to be an asshole. But I should say there are many MSM reporters with the same spirit. And as I’ve noted earlier, a constant diet of battery acid may not be healthy long-term.

There have been numerous major media stories in the state the last five years – Strib ownership, layoffs, Singleton drama with the Pioneer Press, behind-the-camera drama on newscasts. But what do you think was the most underrated media event of the last five years, whether it was a firing, hiring, an ownership change or a new font on the NBA standings on the agate page? Which event really had an impact but perhaps didn’t receive the publicity it deserved?
Hmm. I guess if knew that I’d write about it! I think I hit all of the ones above. I’d like to think the Strib’s stability after a near-death experience is perhaps not appreciated like it should be. They still have the most reporters in town, and some damned good ones. But every time I write something nice (which I’ve done more since bankruptcy) I worry they will lay off 100 people or sell to some conservative billionaire.

We’ll see how MPR fares now that Bill Kling’s retired. As a reporting outfit, it’s toughened up but still has vast unrealized potential. I’ve found Kling and the news boss, Chris Worthington, pretty opaque. I’m hoping new leadership is willing to open up more about MPR’s shortcomings as a way to get beyond them. I think sometimes they feel like if they do engage in honest dialogue, people will stop giving, when I think it would increase giving, especially among a younger generation more attracted to transparency.

Praying doesn’t help, kid. Not if you’re a Vikes fan.

Have your children learned that Minnesota’s sports teams will disappoint them and crush their hopes and dreams (except for the Lynx, of course)? Or do they still have that naive optimism about the Vikings, Twins, Wolves, and Gophers?
Yup. My son is every bit the fatalist I was a 14. Cynical dad doesn’t help, but performance speaks for itself. My daughter is a good sport and tends to dig the atmosphere and food regardless of results. My wife has decided there’s no other team she needs to see besides the Lynx. Front-runner.

As we’ve learned from the Miami Heat and Philadelphia Eagles, dream teams always succeed and are always a great idea. So, you’re an editor for a mythical Twin Cities daily. You can choose from anyone who’s ever worked at a Minnesota paper or magazine, doesn’t matter if it was a daily, weekly or alternative. Who do you hire (and perhaps a few words or two on why) for these positions?
2 Investigative Reporters
2 Metro Columnists
2 Sports Columnists
2 Sports Beat Reporters
2 Features Writers
2 Business Writers
2 Government reporters
2 Photographers

And, in a Pat Riley type move, you step down as editor after assembling this dream team. Who do you name as the paper’s editor?
(Publisher Fury’s Note: Do not blame editor Brauer for not including certain departments. Down the line we will add an editorial page, arts coverage, movie and TV critics, crime reporters and other departments, including payroll (will also have a big freelance budget). Copy editors and designers – sorry, you will be hired immediately but remain the nameless, faceless, unsung heroes who will only receive recognition when you screw up.)

Shit, I am going to get slaughtered on this one, so to all who aren’t listed, I forgot you! Honest!

(There are several necessary departments missing, but since I don’t want to get in deeper doo than I already will, I’ll go with your categories.)

Pat Reusse is hired for Brauer’s dream team. But only if he gives up radio. And brings back the mustache.

You have to have Britt Robson on your sports staff, and I’d still pick Pat Reusse if he’d give up radio. I’m a fan of 1500ESPN’s blogging staff – I’ll take Tom Pelissero because he breaks down Xs-and-Os on the most popular team in town (the Vikes). A lot of people like the Strib’s Mike Russo but I don’t follow hockey. The Strib’s Chip Scoggins shows generalist chops that might be perfect for this small staff.

The PiPress’s Bob Shaw, Mary Divine, John Brewer, Dave Hanners or Ruben Rosario would make nice feature writers, as would the Strib’s Phil Miller if he wanted to go beyond sports and Jon Tevlin and Gail Rosenblum since they write so well about people. Michael Tortorello, a former City Pages guy, is doing some wonderful local writing for the New York Times. MPR’s Sasha Aslanian and Laura Yuen. You don’t have an arts category, so maybe this is where some of the town’s arts writers get in. Really, this is one area where there’s no shortage, and too many names to mention.

MPR’s Tom Scheck and AP’s Brian Bakst would make a nice political team, but they’d talk about golf all the time so we’d have to have an 18-hole playoff for one slot. I’d take the Strib’s Rachel Stassen-Berger, though I’d like less objectivity (not partisanship); I thought she was a better, looser read when she was at the PiPress. There are some interesting folks at Politics in Minnesota but I can’t read a lot of their paywalled stuff.

The Strib’s Mike Kaszuba, Randy Furst and Tony Kennedy would be great investigative choices; City Pages’ Andy Mannix is an up-and-comer. MPR has a great young reporter in Madeleine Baran.

Because there’s no editorial page, I want some ass-kicker columnists who concentrate on “hard” news yet with the ability to capture personalities when appropriate. I’d consider a bunch of current non-columnists – MPR’s Bob Collins would be a gas…He’s an acerbic iconoclast with a heart of gold and an appreciation of the serious and frivolous. I’d be intrigued with what the PiPress’s Dave Orrick could do; he just made the switch from politics to outdoors, but he has a wonderful, flexible, smartass style. From my shop, Jeff Guntzel would offer really smart, original takes, as would Max Sparber if he could be persuaded to come to an arts-writer-free paper. The Strib’s Rochelle Olson has the best shot at becoming the lightning rod – she’s a straw that stirs the drink. Same vein: I’d be curious to see what Fox9’s Tom Lyden could do if he didn’t have to feed TV; he’s a bulldog reporter and not shy about a slant, though not an ideological one…being his editor would be interesting. There are many more I’m not thinking of right now.

Business writers, I’d have to consider the Strib’s Jennifer Bjorhus, Dan Browning, Dave Shaffer, Eric Wieffering; I like the PiPress’s MaryJo Webster and Chris Snowbeck. I would not overlook the staffs of the Business Journal or Finance & Commerce – there are a lot of insightful and experienced folks there who get overlooked due to paywalls, small circulations and such. Maybe this is the spot for MinnPost’s Beth Hawkins, who does a great job on education and has some biz-writing experience. I’d like to figure out a way to get her on staff.

As for photogs, I’m an admirer of the PiPress’s Ben Garvin, and the Strib’s Jim Gehrz is the guy they put up for Pulitzers. I wonder what Terry Gydesen would do at a daily. You’d also have to consider multi-media; I’m friendly with the Strib’s McKenna Ewen, but would need some guidance about the scene, including TV shooters who’d want to make the switch.

Who would edit? I’d pick Politics in Minnesota’s Steve Perry. Steve has a rep as a hard-news guy, tough-minded, whip-smart and a bit pitiless when he was running City Pages back in the day. But that was an excellent paper, and by all accounts, Steve has mellowed now that he has a family and is doing an excellent job improving PIM, also surprising people by not being doctrinaire.

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