Star Tribune

Agile Transformation for a Digital Organization


Minneapolis Tribune issued its first newspaper on May 25, 1867, just a few months after Minneapolis received its city charter. The Tribune’s early years were full of momentous transformation as the paper went through six ownership changes in its first 24 years. The next half-century was more stable, beginning in March 1891 when Gilbert A Pierce and William J. Murphy purchased the Tribune.

In the early 1920s, one of the Tribune’s competitors was the Minneapolis Star. The Cowles family of Des Moines, Iowa looking for an opportunity to expand beyond their borders, purchased the Star in 1935. Under the Cowles leadership, the Star-Journal prospered. The Cowles “formula” — which remains in place today — consisted of three elements: strong local coverage, an outstanding circulation system and strong promotion.

In the mid-1990's Star Tribune saw an opportunity to transform itself into a modern-day media company and in 1996 the paper launched its online edition. Over time Star Tribune built on its strengths of delivering the news when and how readers wanted it by expanding and refining its website, adding a mobile site and offering multiple apps as smartphones grew in popularity.

In 2013, Star Tribune was recognized with two Pulitzer Prizes— journalism’s highest honor — one in local reporting and one in editorial cartooning. In 2014, Mankato businessman Glen Taylor purchased the Star Tribune asserting, “The Star Tribune is not only a good business, it’s an important institution for all Minnesotans.”

Newspapers are a critical part of the American news landscape, but they have been hit hard as more and more Americans consume news digitally. The industry’s financial fortunes and subscriber base have been in decline since the mid-2000s, and website audience traffic, after some years of growth, has leveled off.

Every year since 2004, Pew Research Center has issued an assessment of the state of news media, tracking key audience and economic indicators for a variety of sectors within the U.S. journalism industry. Data shows, newspaper circulation fell to historic lows in 2018.



Digital ad revenue has grown exponentially, but a majority goes to Facebook and Google rather than to publishers such as Star Tribune. Revenue from ads placed on digital platforms – counting all platforms, not just news sites – rose by 23% in 2018, and now makes up nearly half (49%) of all ad revenue in the U.S., according to eMarketer estimates. And when it comes to display ad revenue – a form of digital advertising that include banners, videos and other advertisements that news organizations and other websites typically run alongside their content– half of all digital revenue went to just two tech companies: Facebook (40%) and Google (12%). Overall digital ad revenue has tripled since 2011, the earliest year tracked, while digital display revenue has grown by almost five times over the same period.

This growth in digital ad revenue has not been enough to make up for the decline in traditional ad revenue for some sectors. About a third of newspaper ad revenue (35%) now comes from digital, according to an analysis of SEC filings, but total ad revenue continues to fall.

Star Tribune recognizes that speed to market, agility, and rapid feedback to market changes are crucial for news media outlets to thrive in an ever-shifting landscape. Jim Bernard is Star Tribune’s senior vice president for digital with responsibility for the company’s portfolio of digital properties and operations, including – the state’s most-visited website with 7 million unique visitors each month. He also oversees dozens of other digital products, including Star Tribune mobile apps, print replica edition, and 19 Minnesota high school sports websites. In the spring of 2019 Jim and his leadership team engaged sdg agile expertise to help lead the digital organization’s adoption of an agile methodology to deliver products.


In early June of 2019, sdg began to assess the current state of how Star Tribune digital organization planned and delivered software, with goal being to better understand their current level of agile maturity and opportunities to improve their product planning and delivery processes. Through close collaboration with leadership and individual contributors, sdg identified opportunities to improve and partnered to implement agile process that aligned with Star Tribune's organizational goals.

The scrum framework was a logical starting point, as some people were already familiar with the organizational and communication structure of the popular empirical process. In preparation of the transformation, sdg worked with leadership on foundational tenants of scrum adoption. The roles of traditional project managers were replaced by product owners and scrum master, both of which were new to the organization. Products were defined and ownership was aligned to the newly established roles of product owners. Functional scrum teams comprised of roughly 5-7 individuals were then formed and dedicated to product lines.

Agile training was pragmatically developed and customized to best support the employees of Star Tribune during the early phase of transformation. Workshops included an overview of agile, scrum basics, agile estimation techniques, story creation, and story mapping. Close emphasis on the continual maturation of Star Tribune’s DevOps processes was encouraged, as it compliments an agile transformation.

To help ensure alignment and focus on technical excellence, the agile coach worked closely with the teams to define what “done” means. Weekly planning sessions were established with the teams that blended both backlog refinement and estimation.

Two-week sprints were decided as the best fit with sprints starting on Thursdays and ending every other Wednesday with a sprint review followed by a sprint retrospective. The sprint review was open to any and all stakeholders from whom the team needed feedback from, while the sprint retrospective was reserved for the team only. The retrospectives proved crucial as they served as a forum for the team gel as they figured out how best to work together. Many people in the organization had not worked closely or collaboratively before, so this was a significant shift in how software was built.

Initially, Star Tribune was not clear if a full-time scrum master would be necessary. Time proved that the role of scrum master was indeed a requirement for the success of their agile culture. To that end, Star Tribune added a full-time scrum master to their team. Once the scrum master was hired, sdg remained briefly engaged to help ensure a successful transition. sdg continues to consult on an ad-hoc, as-needed basis with Start Tribune leadership on their agile transformation.

Benefits of the new system included:

  • acceleration of software delivery
  • enablement greater adaptability to changing market priorities
  • increased productivity in terms of both output and outcome
  • enhanced software quality
  • improved team morale

sdg consultants served our customer in the following roles:

  • Agile Coach
  • Scrum Master
  • Documentation and training

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