Don't Believe the Hype

The Strib's corporate parent says nothing but good things will happen when they sell the paper. Where have we heard this before?

I can relate to the editorial staff at the Star Tribune. A former reporter at the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader, I know what it's like to be "For Sale." I know how it feels to hope for the best when logic dictates the worst. I know that when management makes assurances it's hard to believe they would lie. I know the corporate spin is seductive. But I've also been bounced off the bottom line, where community interests are negotiable and award-winning journalists are expendable.

So while it's easy to understand why staffers at the Strib say they're viewing the future with guarded optimism, it's hard not to be cynical. Because the only thing more predictable than the politics of a jaded media columnist are the motives of corporate America.

On September 5, Cowles Media--the Minneapolis-based company that has had controlling ownership of the Strib since 1935--publicly disclosed their intention to examine "strategic alternatives." In other words, one of the last family-owned, locally controlled metropolitan dailies in the country is on the block. Frank Parisi, vice president of communications at Cowles, says he's confident the "process" will take more than a few weeks, but less than a year. Industry analysts believe every major media chain will take a pass at the property, estimated to be worth at least a billion dollars. Leading contenders include the Washington Post Company (they already control 23 percent of Cowles stock), the Tribune Co., Times Mirror Co., New York Times Co., Advance Publications, and Gannett Co. Inc. The second largest newspaper chain in the country, Knight-Ridder, has publicly denied interest in the Strib, saying they're committed to running the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Strib reporter Joe Rigert admits a part of him still hopes (in fact, dreams) the Cowles family will decide not to sell, even though, at minimum, they stand to make a $280 million profit. "The Cowles family had a strong commitment to the paper and contributed to the community. So personally I have major concerns about the end of family ownership."

Despite the inevitable anxieties accompanying any sale, Rigert--like many in the news room--trusts Cowles will look out for the paper's best interests. In memos from publisher Joel Kramer and Cowles CEO David Cox, Strib staffers have been assured that new owners will honor existing contracts with vendors, advertisers, and employee unions. There's even a sense the paper's editorial product will benefit from fresh blood. "We know things are going to change radically,'' one reporter says. "But I don't think there's a concern the paper will get worse. There's no panic. In fact, there's some hope the paper's going to get better."

This rhetoric, these hopes--while comforting--are familiar. Before American City Business Journals Inc. sold the Twin Cities Reader to Stern Publishing, Inc. last March, employees were told not to fret. ACBJ was not in the business of closing papers, chairman Ray Shaw said after announcing his company's intention to explore their "strategic alternatives." In fact, Shaw said, selling the Reader to a company who specialized in alternative newspapers would no doubt be a boon to the underfunded Minneapolis weekly. Even when it was disclosed that rival City Pages was to be purchased by Stern Publishing, Inc., owners of New York's Village Voice, Reader faithful were asked to buy the brighter side. Increased competition would mean increased opportunity.

One month later, Shaw announced Stern had bought the Reader, then left the building. The next day, while staffers at REV 105 were being booted by Disney, Stern President David Schneiderman told the Reader staff to pack its bags.

Of course no Strib scenario ends with the newspaper closing. There are, however, a number of reasons employees should be skeptical of Cowles's corporate-speak, just as Reader employees should've been more skeptical of ACBJ. No matter who the buyer, industry analysts agree there will be a push to downsize, especially since the Strib's wages are above the national average and resources are bountiful. More importantly, the Newspaper Guild's union contract runs out in July, 1998. Whether the Strib's new owners are pro-union or not, they'll have the opportunity to renegotiate terms with editorial staff. In the wake of the failed newspaper strike in Detroit, management will have the upper hand.

"Gannett and Knight-Ridder have taken loses to send a message," labor journalist Jane Slaughter says. "When a newspaper strike is broken in a labor town like Detroit, it's bound to have a chilling effect on any newspaper union's ability to negotiate in any circumstance."

Locally, Newspaper Guild representative Mike Sweeney says language in the Strib contract ensures legal protection for employees in case of a sale. The document includes an "evergreen clause" that allows for negotiations to continue after the contract expires. He's also willing to believe Cowles has good intentions, since they've always dealt with the unions fairly. Still, if an unfriendly company offers the best price, it's hard to believe Cowles won't take it and run. The bottom line, after all, is what matters most.

Of Cowles's possible suitors, the most feared (and powerful) is Miami-based Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country. Responsible for the Detroit debacle, they're roundly hated in the industry. Even the Strib's most sanguine staffers shudder at the mention of the mega-chain, which owns the St. Cloud Times and KARE-TV.

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