Moving Up But Not Away

New job, same city: I’m now covering Duluth and its surrounds for the Star Tribune as Minnesota’s largest newsroom expands its coverage here. I’m so grateful for the opportunity and so excited to keep working in this great city I’ve made my home. Let’s get to work.

Already I’ve starting digging in on daily stories with depth, leading off with Superior banning conversion therapy and how Minnesota cities may follow; a look at what’s facing students at UMD from someone who knows best; and how the Lake Superior Zoo is taking one small step toward filling the massive child care shortage.

I also took some time to explore what may be in store for the city’s medical district beyond the record $1 billion in health care campus investments pouring in.

And then some days I get to work out here:

As Katie Galiato writes, this historic lighthouse on Wisconsin Point in Superior was recently sold at auction to a California man for $159,000. Photo by Brooks Johnson

Big thanks to everyone at the Duluth News Tribune for three fast and furious years. Capping off my coverage over the past few months, I looked at ban the box, the finally settled Paulucci estate fight, the urgent need for foster parents, a close-up on the new ownership at Maurices and went all-out on digital elements with the 50th anniversary of the deadliest batch of tornadoes to strike this part of the state in modern times.

My last DNT byline hit doorsteps as I was heading to the Twin Cities to get initiated at the Strib. It was a look at 100 years of Goodwill through the eyes of people who have directly benefited from its services. A fitting end to a consistent workforce theme in my coverage there. Oh, and I’ve left The Memo in good hands as Kelly Busche takes over the business section.

One last thing for now: This line I wrote in a fairly turn-of-the-screw government story is one of my all-time favorites. Enjoy:

Compromise, that aching heart of democracy, had another idea.

The call goes out on the scanner

What happens before, and what happens after, is a picture of a community in crisis.

We launched a series on overdoses in March to get a closer look at the opioid problem and, hopefully, solutions. Here’s an interactive map I made tracking public overdoses in Duluth since 2017. Thanks to MPR News for having me on to talk about the series recently.

On a similar note, I’ve written a few stories about the power of redemption and the uncanny ability of human beings to remake themselves and change their stories. Like Racheal’s journey from prison to work, or these five recent drug court graduates:

“I see these God-awful comments on newspaper articles about people who ‘should just get locked up, they’re just never going to stop,’ and all the negative things about people who suffer from addiction,” Judge Jill Eichenwald said. “And then I see someone like you. You did it. You changed. You stopped using. And I think it’s incredible.”

I also followed up on our domestic violence coverage and looked ahead at the red-hot housing market to come. (More maps, can’t stop won’t stop.)

Then one recent Monday morning, after carefully planning what I wanted to accomplish that day, a European private equity firm went and scooped up Duluth-based Maurices.

In lighter fare, I wrote about my experience taking a fly-tying class. Because at the end of the day, it’s about telling good stories. And maybe catching some fish.

The author trims hair off of a moose hide as he creates a Royal Wulff dry fly at Duluth’s Great Lakes Fly Shop in January. (Jed Carlson /

‘They Could Have Done More’

That’s what Natasha Korby told us about her experience with the Duluth City Attorney’s Office after her ex-boyfriend allegedly pushed her into a laundry sink and down his back steps.

He was sent to a batterer’s program but not placed on probation — his charges will be dropped if he completes the terms of his plea deal.

Following a monthslong investigation, Jana Hollingsworth and I found that nearly two out of three people the city prosecutes for domestic assault receive unsupervised probation or less. That happened even in cases where victims told police they feared for their lives, and when bleeding and fresh bruises were documented at the scene.

In other work this fall, I published the last of my Workforce of the Future pieces, this one on folks blowing off the traditional retirement age either out of desire or necessity. I also took a data-focused look at severe weather and what the Northland might expect with a changing climate.

I also managed to get ahead of the news that Minnesota-born brand SuperAmerica is becoming Speedway, follow up on who deserves credit for the great ruby slipper recovery and scratch out an analysis of Minnesota’s 8th District Congressional race.

More recently I took a look at the challenges presented by our record-low unemployment rate and what to expect from another round of efforts to better protect elderly and vulnerable Minnesotans. I presented the problem in a map and the solutions in the story.


I also attended the sentencing of Don Jamsa in Grand Rapids, which came decades after the crimes that forever changed the lives of his relatives.

Already I’ve started work on two projects that will take most of my attention in 2019, and a third — our first child — will take the rest. Happy holidays and thanks for reading.

Pipelines and presidents

And so much more.

It’s been a busy summer at the News Tribune, with an especially insane news cycle between the Grandma’s Marathon weekend (I finished my first half!) the president visiting and the PUC approving the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline.

And can we talk about that crazy housing market?

Sarah Hakel scrutinizes the ceiling in the master bedroom of a home in Cloquet she and her partner Tyler Franzen (right) look over with Edina Realty agent Chad Watczak on Thursday. The couple toured a dozen homes in the area at a time when dozens more are doing the same, driving up prices and frustrations in the housing market. Bob King photo.

But let’s go back to the explosion at the Husky oil refinery in April.

In the aftermath of the fires that sent an ominous cloud of black smoke south of Lake Superior well into the evening, I investigated just how close a call it was: Hydrogen fluoride, if released into the atmosphere, could have sickened or even killed thousands. There are alternatives, but Husky would be a trailblazer if it stopped using the chemical.

I also found that while hydrogen fluoride is the greatest chemical risk in the region, it isn’t the only one. I made the map below to demonstrate:

Then there was President Trump coming to Duluth to stump for 8th Congressional District hopeful Pete Stauber in June. Since a Republican has won the district just once in the past 70 years, I asked a few experts: Why visit Duluth?

During the event, Jimmy Lovrien and I followed the protests, which were largely peaceful.

The week after that, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline at an emotional meeting in St. Paul that Jimmy and I covered. With protests planned and more permits yet to secure, there will still be plenty to write about.

Elsewhere, I’ve kicked off a series on the workforce of the future, with a look at declining teen employment rates and an increase in career changes. Those included side stories on apprenticeships and two-year degrees and automation preparedness.

More recently, John Lundy and I took a look at Minnesotans increasingly drinking themselves to death, and I offered our recently arrived batch of students a bit of advice for getting their rental deposits back.

Big thanks to the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program, a week of training at CUNY in July that left me hungry and well-prepared for big fiscal stories. I jumped right on Duluth’s budget resilience and dug through state pension fund holdings. More to come, as ever.

‘An Awful Secret’

After three months of interviews and research, Jana Hollingsworth and I published this story about a Minnesota family’s struggle to have childhood sexual abuse allegations heard.

Illustration by Gary Meader

On Monday we followed up with a story about a bill that would remove the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes in Minnesota. It has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

This is not a story we sought out or stumbled upon. This was a family who approached us, trusted us and allowed us to ask difficult questions. I can’t thank them enough. I believe it is paramount we break the silence on all allegations of wrongdoing lest they worsen and spread — and amid the chaotic swirl of an angry and often indifferent internet, a printed newspaper is the clearest and loudest way to do that.

Previously on Brooks Investigates:

We probably won’t be seeing much population growth in the region over the next few decades. And with a wave of Baby Boomer retirements just starting to crest, the workforce will shrink as a result. That could have profound impacts on our economy and, thus, our standard of life.

Graphic by Gary Meader/Duluth News Tribune

In news-you-can-use, I found through records requests that the number of parking tickets declined sharply last year (bit of a fluke) while the rate of ticket-forgiveness rose (concerted effort). I also explored misconceptions about the mission and financing of parking enforcement — they’re not hiding behind bushes, or so we’re told.

John Lundy and I examined what might happen to hospital charity care and bad debt now that the federal insurance mandate is disappearing, and I dug around some PUC filings to let you know how big industry feels about Minnesota Power’s proposed natural gas plant.

And if you want to get wonky about Duluth’s half-percent sales tax increase that needs legislative approval, check out this piece on past efforts and predictions.

I also helped cover the news that Rep. Rick Nolan would not seek re-election in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, leaving an open seat in one of the most-watched districts in the country. Watch for the carefully sprinkled analysis in that story, my favorite kind.

Elsewhere, I’ve started a podcast for Lake Superior Writers, a local nonprofit dedicated to fostering the literary arts in Northeastern Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. Also available on iTunes and Google Play, it was one of the first initiatives I undertook when I joined the board of LSW this winter. Watch for more cool stuff to come at our website and on Facebook. And as I sign off on the podcast: Keep reading, keep writing.

New year, new me

Well, new job title.

Jana Hollingsworth and I now comprise the Duluth News Tribune’s investigative reporting team, and I can’t thank my editors enough for the opportunity to focus on the biggest and best stories our readers deserve.

Right to it then —

It’s no secret that good day care is increasingly hard to come by, in Minnesota or elsewhere. But the reason so many providers are leaving the business? Cindy Giuliani decided to take a stand by contacting me and telling of a hostile work environment between licensors and providers, offering a window into a profession rarely seen as such.

For this story written by Peter Passi I contributed some data handiwork that also led to an interactive map. Nearly $149 million could be locked up in special tax districts in Duluth over the next few decades, starving county, city and school coffers of much-needed revenue. But could those taxpaying developments exist if not for this incentive?

My first story of 2018 was on the Year of the Woman, a local look at the national echo of 1992, and the top story of 2017 was our chasing of the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline debate.

Though it wasn’t my job title until recently, I certainly took an investigative approach to my work on the business beat, as seen in this piece on a golf course fallen on hard times or a look at what local elected officials (should?) make.

An employee climbs up to the cockpit of a crane at the IPS Crane shop in Duluth Tuesday afternoon. IPS Cranes rebuilds railroad cranes from the ground up at its Duluth facility. (Clint Austin /

On the more business-y side of things, I wrote about the fierce digital embrace and defense of brick-and-mortar happening at Maurices, a local locomotive crane shop, some rare new housing in Duluth and a look at exactly what five people must consider when deciding whether to approve or deny Line 3.

And then apparently people my age (I’m still young, right?) are managing financial planning offices. One of my best profiles to date.

Oh, and I got to write about soccer. Go Loons.

I Need Aviator Sunglasses

Photo by Steve Kuchera

…with all the aviation I get to write about — and experience. Last week I took a ride on a Cirrus Vision jet, the Duluth company’s long-awaited addition to its fleet that has been heading to customers since December.. Here’s a personal take on the ride (with a video I shot) and what it all means for our booming regional aviation sector.

I also broke the news on AAR Corp. getting a new airliner to service in its hangar here — multiple sources say it’s United, but the companies won’t confirm. It’s United, though, yeah.

Back on the ground I took a look at why big retailers are sticking with Duluth, how Cloquet’s pulp and paper mill is thriving in the face of industrywide decline, local labor’s uphill battle, how to put the success in business succession and, of course, more news on the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline.

I’ve also spent some time on campus lately, writing about changes at UMD’s student media outlet and even talking to one of John Hatcher’s classes about, well, what I do. Professor Brooks in training, eh? I also went after the youth vote with a column in our back-to-school section and a look at what to do in the long, ever-approaching winter. It’s nice to break out of the inverted pyramid sometimes.

Finally, a few weeks ago, while working a Sunday shift, I had to write the story you never hope to read or write — a vibrant local 15-year-old, Will Schlotec, jumped into a storm-roiled river and died. I called around the next day to see what can be done to prevent another such tragedy, and hopefully we can.

Summer in the City

And the news is hot. Kind of like our real estate market, which is causing some unhappiness up yonder.

Deeper problems lie within the rental market, however, as Duluthians of all income levels are often stuck paying too much, searching too long or settling too fast for a limited supply of often lower-quality rentals.

Don’t get too down on Duluth, though — just take a look at the coffee culture we’re brewing, or the incredible spirit of our entrepreneurs, or these big power plant plans coming from the electric utility.

Then there are plans that should have been laid more carefully, like those that led to the desecration of Fond du Lac graves.

My continuing coverage of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline has included the requisite public hearing, a scoop out of financial statements and a profile of a local company that stands to benefit if the massive project is approved by the state. More to come on that front, of course.

Finally, I’m pleased to share I took first place in the Minnesota SPJ Best Beat Reporting category after submitting the manufacturing series I wrote last fall. Just grateful I get to tell these stories at all.

The Winter of this Content

The text from my former Columbian colleague and fellow University of Montana alum came as I was driving to Ashland, Wis., on Wednesday.

Oil Town took top prize in SPJ’s comprehensive coverage category.”

It came as quite a pleasant surprise, given the fierce competition among similar-sized outlets in the Pacific Northwest, that Dameon Pesanti and I would top the category. I’m grateful, honored and humbled. Thank you, and here’s to everyone else who placed and continues to fight the good fight.

Back on this side of the Cascades (and the Rockies (and the Mississippi)), there’s plenty of fights to cover, whether it’s the multimillion-dollar (and shrinking) Paulucci estate or the next new pipeline proposed by Enbridge that will cross Minnesota. And then there’s the fight that finally fizzled out: Sunday liquor sales.

Of course there’s the sunnier stuff, like this new solar farm or the cutting-edge work of a biotech company in Two Harbors.

Some of my favorite — and most-lauded — pieces of late were analyses on NAFTA’s impact on Minnesota and the health care economy in Duluth, a short series I worked on with health care reporter John Lundy. I also enjoyed writing this profile on Duluth’s homegrown, billion-dollar company, Allete.

And though I was fighting a cold, who could pass up the opportunity to cover the biggest dogsled race in the Lower 48?

Looking back on the Oil Town series, it’s crazy to think where I was not even a year ago. But I”m still sitting through long port meetings, so not everything has changed.

Full Press

It’s been a few months since I joined the Duluth News Tribune, and already I’ve built a cache of work I’m proud of.

One of the biggest and most difficult pieces of my tenure came in December. It starts like this:

There aren’t “whites only” signs in the windows, but some job seekers in Duluth say it sure seems that way.

“Because I am of black, African-American descent, it is not as easy to get into the medical industry even with all the experience I have,” said Erikka Thornton, who has been licensed in her field for nearly 20 years. “I live in a town where there are racists. It needs to be discussed. It’s not a secret.”

Indeed, the unemployment rate among Duluth’s minorities is staggering, even as jobs go unfilled and employers complain of a lack of applicants. This won’t be the last I’ll be writing about that.

Meanwhile, in a case of I-read-SEC-filings-so-you-don’t-have-to, I find Enbridge getting cautious about buying a stake in the Dakota Access pipeline. The massive pipeline company has a terminal in Superior, Wis., and as such will find its name in the News Tribune from time to time.

On a lighter note, Cirrus Aircraft delivered its first jet and opened a big new expansion at its Duluth headquarters.

Joe Whisenhunt, the first owner of a Cirrus Vision Jet, helps family members from the plane at Monday’s event to mark the delivery and the opening of Cirrus’ finishing center. Photo by Steve Kuchera.
Joe Whisenhunt, the first owner of a Cirrus Vision Jet, helps family members from the plane at Monday’s event to mark the delivery and the opening of Cirrus’ finishing center. Photo by Steve Kuchera.

Business is soaring at Cirrus, sure, but the needle is scratching at the end of the record at Vinyl Cave in Superior. It is a good time of year to be in fitness, however, and the lake culture business is booming.

Tl;dr? Just take a look at my 2017 economic outlook for the area.

Do be sure to check out my reporting on the rebirth of an infamous building through beer, a hard look at health insurance for business, the business and labor spending on the region’s political races and a visit, the day before the election, of Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone I met at the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University. I was a fellow at the Reynolds Week to start the year and learned a great deal among the company of great journalists and educators. Cheers, all!