Few Minneapolis businesses have reached their 150th anniversary, a milestone so rare it’s worth noting.
That’s what the Star Tribune did on May 25, marking the sesquicentennial of its beginnings as the corporate heir of the Minneapolis Daily Tribune, which began publishing on that date in 1867.
At least one facet of that observance will be on permanent view for inspection by downtown pedestrians. That’s the restoration of the 6-foot-tall rotating globe that once graced the lobby of the Star Tribune’s longtime Portland Avenue home. The restored globe now sits in an alcove on the 3rd Avenue side of the Capella Tower, the Strib’s leased home for the past two years, just inside from the flashy Star Tribune sign on 3rd.
The restoration of the globe returns to public view an icon of Minneapolis that, like the Northwestern National Bank Weather Ball, once was a familiar sight in the cityscape. Generations of schoolkids were fascinated by the globe. It dominated the newspaper’s lobby when they arrived for newspaper tours, highlighted by a view of the massive rumbling presses through a glassed overlook. Presidents and foreign dignitaries passed the globe as they arrived in the building’s classy Art Deco lobby on their way to curry favor with influential publisher John Cowles.
Newspaper officials attribute the decision of the Cowles family to install twin globes at its newspapers in Minneapolis and Des Moines in 1951 to the desire of publishers to communicate the interconnectedness of the world’s peoples in a more unitary way than more common flat maps.
But the installation of the massive orb also reflects Cowles’ voice as a leading internationalist in a Midwest that was a hotbed of isolationism both before and after World War II. That’s reinforced by the demarcation of the globe’s base into time zones, each with its own clock set to local time and list of major cities. Thus in the central time zone Minneapolis shares the billing with Winnipeg, New Orleans, Mexico City, Managua and the Galapagos.
For workaday employees, including me, who trudged up the stairway past the globe to seats at linotype machines or copy desks, the globe was a touchstone, a signifier that their work offered more significance than a paycheck making widgets.
But the sphere vanished during an ill-fated bit of architectural vandalism wrought in the name of modernization by a now-departed carpetbagger publisher. Employees lamented the loss.
Consigned to the catacombs of the basement, the globe was rescued by the extended Cowles family during the 1998 sale of the paper in a prescient move that allowed the family to cash in before the fortunes of newspapers began to ebb in an increasingly digital world.
The globe made its way to a third-generation Cowles, sharing space in the Franconia Township studio of sculptor Fuller Cowles, who was traveling and unable to attend. Russell Cowles, one of a bevy of family members at the unveiling, attributed his nephew’s rescue of the ornament to his desire to preserve family history and its newspaper legacy.
“I think he probably had hopes it would be reinstalled,” Cowles said.
That process began when Fuller Cowles attended the opening of a time capsule at the Portland building not long before it was demolished for The Commons park, remarking that the globe was stored at his farm. Newspaper managers were too preoccupied then with their impending move to Capella, but the 150th anniversary provided a fresh opportunity to resurrect it.
The globe today reflects the world of 1978, the last time it was updated to reflect new names for nations in post-colonial Africa and Asia. It represents a time capsule of Cold War boundaries, with a Cold War-era Soviet Union sprawling over parts of two continents.
It’s been a long road since the first four-page edition of the Tribune. It was printed on a day when the telegraph wires were mostly down, the 19th-century equivalent on an Internet outage. Thus the inaugural front page includes a notice seeking return of a lost heifer.
From that modest beginning, the Tribune and other Minneapolis papers were melded by Cowles into what is now the Star Tribune. It’s now considered a relative powerhouse among the nation’s regional newspapers. Like all newspapers, it has seen increasing digital competition for presenting news and selling ads that has sliced profit margins from fat — by the standards of most industries — to merely reasonable.
That and a fearsome recession prompted the newspaper’s 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, a painful process of downsizing that cut pay for many employees. But that transition also short-circuited the danger of a precipitous diminution of quality under absentee ownership such as has beset the Pioneer Press and many other chain-owned newspapers.
Instead, the steady hand of publisher Mike Klingensmith and the home-state ownership of Glen Taylor have further stabilized the Star Tribune at a time when cuts continue to roil the industry.
The paper is attracting increasing readers on mobile devices, although the printed paper still is bulwarked by aging readers like me, who would be lost without it propped up beside their oatmeal. That combination attracts 8 million discrete readers each month, with digital or print subscribers in all 50 states. Part of the reason is the firewall that’s been maintained to insulate the journalistic product from the financial sapping at other papers.
It’s the job of Editor Rene Sanchez to carry that forward: “I think we have a strong legacy to carry, and we have to think about the legacy by the journalists who have come and gone.”