Star Tribune celebrates 5 years of ‘Curious Minnesota’ with database of every question answered

A man standing next to a sign with questions
At the Minnesota State Fair, Star Tribune’s “Curious Minnesota” editor Eric Roper asked people what questions they had about the state.
Ash Miller | Star Tribune

Whether you’re new to Minnesota or are born and raised, we all have questions about our great state.

As journalists, it’s our job to find you answers. And this year, our friends at the Star Tribune are celebrating five years of finding answers to some of those unique questions.

The “Curious Minnesota” column has answered everything from “How did the Mayo Clinic become one of the world’s most famous medical centers?“ to “Why do Minnesotans cut their pizza into squares?”

To celebrate five years, the Star Tribune has launched a database of every “Curious Minnesota” question they’ve answered. Editor of “Curious Minnesota” Eric Roper joined MPR News guest host Emily Bright.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Whether you're new to Minnesota or born and raised, we all have questions about our great state. As journalists, it's our job to find you answers. And this year, our friends at the Star Tribune are celebrating five years of finding answers to some of those unique questions. The "Curious Minnesota" column has answered everything from, How did the Mayo Clinic become one of the world's most famous medical centers? to, Why do Minnesotans cut their pizza into squares?

To celebrate five years, the Star Tribune has launched a database of every "Curious Minnesota" question they have answered joining us now is the editor of "Curious Minnesota," Eric Roper. Hello.

ERIC ROPER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Eric, I would love to see your inbox. How many questions do you get submitted a year? And how do you decide what the newsroom will answer?

ERIC ROPER: So we actually get-- it's between 700 and 800 a year. It depends on the year. And I do get every one of those questions in my inbox, which can feel a little overwhelming sometimes. I feel like I'm getting like the zeitgeist of the state kind of in my inbox sometimes. When we-- and we do-- right now, we answer some upwards of 50 questions a year. So it's actually-- I'd like to increase that number, but we'll get there. We're growing. We're figuring this out.

And I would say, when we look for a question, obviously, like, does it touch on a really fundamental Minnesota story, like the Mayo Clinic? That's one maybe criteria. Another one is, is this a tale? Can we really build this into a meaty tale where there's a lot of great events and characters to talk about? If it's something that we cover a lot in the news, we're probably less likely to do it just because this is kind of another space. there's? A lot of already place for things that are happening in the news every day, although I wouldn't exclude things in the news either, per se. Yeah, those are sort of some of the top lines, I would say. I could probably find others. But, you know, it's a little instinctual.

CATHY WURZER: Well, what are just a couple favorite questions you've answered?

ERIC ROPER: So just-- I mean, some of these are things that come to mind maybe because I wrote them. My favorite of my own story-- because I was writing for the column for a long time. My favorite story was, does Minnesota really have the world's oldest rock? How intriguing is that? There's like a historical marker in Granite Falls, Minnesota, which says "World's Oldest Rock," and it's there for a very specific reason. And it is some of the oldest rock in the world, and it took me like five months of digging into geology to sort of get a handle on that.

But there's others that are sort of whimsical. Like we've had a question recently, What's the largest machine in Minnesota? which we sort of crowdsourced the answer. A lot of these largest machines turned out to be on the Iron Range. We put the story out, and then US Steel called and said, hey, do you and the family want to come up to this taconite plant and see all these huge machines?

And so me and this family, we went up, and we did a whole other story and a podcast about, What's it like to be at a taconite plant? What's all the big machines? How does it work? So we kind of-- we let things kind of-- we take the story in the place that seems interesting and fun. And then there's other fundamental questions, like why didn't Minneapolis and Saint Paul ever merge? Great question.


ERIC ROPER: My colleague Kevin Duchshere did that. No, not the-- I mean, it turns out there was actually, for a long time, basically the idea that they were going to merge until sort of the early 1900s, essentially. And my colleague Kevin Duchshere did a great job sort of writing that up, and we have a podcast episode on that, as well. People can listen at the Curious Minnesota podcast to a number of these stories that we've done.

CATHY WURZER: Well, I love the investigative journalism that kind of grows out of this. And we'll get to that podcast in just a sec. But do you feel like, when you get these questions, they're kind of tying into that zeitgeist, as you said? Do you feel like you get a sense of what readers care about as you see these questions?

ERIC ROPER: I think one thing that is really-- sort of this project has taught me, which maybe is no surprise to some people, but there's a lot of pride in this state, that people have a lot of pride in Minnesota. And I don't know that every state can say that about itself, that there is a great pride in the history and culture of this state, and that really shines through in people's questions.

The other thing that I learned about from these questions is readers will take us to sort of the missing part of the narrative. So what do I mean? I mean, one example of that is there's a question we did way back about, how did-- or why did the flour boom go bust in Minneapolis? And that's where it's like, yeah, we get it. It's the mill city. OK, that's the narrative we all understand. But what about-- what happened next, right?

And so there's a couple questions that we've done that are right in that area where people are saying, yeah, OK, I understand sort of the thing that everybody knows, but I want to know this other thing that's kind of like the missing part of that narrative. And then I would say-- and the other thread that I see is that a lot of people have very specific questions around specific highways or specific things kind of near their houses and whatever. And the great guilt I have is that, just because of resource issues, I can't answer a lot of those questions. But I do see that people are very curious, I would say, about the world around them, but also the history of this state, and rightfully so.

CATHY WURZER: Well, curiosity is such a good base state for being alive. Why did you create the database?

ERIC ROPER: So I was thinking about this the other day-- how did this idea come to me? I think I was in the gym or something like that. But as journalists-- and you can maybe relate to this-- sometimes it feels like we put a lot of effort into things. We really-- I mean, with these "Curious" stories, we spend a lot of time on these stories. I mean, it's really my prime focus. And then we put them out in the world, and we hope they make a splash. We hope they have a big impact.

But then they kind of somewhat disappear. Maybe people find them on Google years later, and that is a big part of "Curious" is people rediscovering these stories through Google. But I was getting frustrated. I was like, how can we-- this is-- what we call it in the Star Tribune, we would call these evergreen stories. These are stories that are just as relevant today as they were when they were written four years ago.

So I started, and then I realized, oh my gosh, there's a birthday coming up. "Curious" is about to turn five years old. So why pass up an opportunity to sort of celebrate what's been going on? And thankfully, this is not me just, like-- it's not the Eric Roper show. I mean, what's really unique about "Curious" is the Star Tribune is the largest newsroom in Minnesota. And this is a complete collaboration across our newsroom of people who have very specific expertise, and you really-- this is like a complete sort of-- you're getting the full picture of the Star Tribune newsroom here.

So when I sort of had the idea of putting this together, it's a celebration of this project that I oversee, yes, but it's also a celebration of all the people who have contributed to it, and there are many of them. And so I think that's what really kind of made me motivated to kind of press forward with it.

CATHY WURZER: So what can people see when they go to the database?

ERIC ROPER: So if you go to got to get the link out there. You can go to the database. It's got 260 stories in it, all of our "Curious" stories. You can sort them by category. So it might be like history or most read or demographics, economics, immigration, state fair. And then you can see the questions, and you can see which questions have podcasts associated with them.

And you can also just type in the search, like, "Minneapolis" or "Duluth," and sort of see what comes up. There's even a feature where you can say Read a Random Story, and it'll just take you to some random story from our archive, which is-- when that was first proposed, maybe I thought it would be cool. But then when it actually launched and I started using it, I was like, oh, I really love this. This is like my favorite part in some ways is just clicking the Random Story thing. So I love that aspect of it.

CATHY WURZER: I love you could just click the button, be like, make me smarter about something and--


CATHY WURZER: Yeah! Well, Eric, thank you for your time and for teaching us things with your writing.

ERIC ROPER: Thank you so much. And yeah, your listeners can see it at

CATHY WURZER: All right. Thank you. Eric Roper is the editor of Star Tribune's "Curious Minnesota."

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