The Strib's new owners hire a publisher who fits their nice-guy image

Put out by the Sacramento News & Review, the weekly alternative newspaper of California's capital city, is a parody of the area's daily paper, the Sacramento Bee. When the Web site's localized humor isn't downright sophomoric (Bee reporters ridiculed for what they wear, columnists scolded for their arrogance), it's way too inside (Bee managers mocked for using corporate catchphrases, editors accused of selling out). In short, it's a low-budget one-off meant for media junkies surfing in the Sunshine State. Lately, however, the site has been hit by a wave of visitors from the Twin Cities curious about the Sacramento-based media conglomerate, McClatchy Co.--which owns the Bee and this March purchased the Star Tribune.

In the current issue of suckbee, McClatchy President and CEO Gary Pruitt gets stung on the "McTacky Corporate and Acquisitions Page" (for "top-management eyes only"). "Virtual newspaper environments need virtual managers to lead the way," reads the faux news item. "To this end, McTacky has created an undisclosed number of 'Virtual Gary's'--charismatic, profit-seeking men--all programmed to oversee developments at all current and future McTacky locations. Folks, this is where the hype and the hope come together! But be advised. Don't assume the one you're talking to is less apt to cut a deal than the real one."

According to staffers in the Strib's newsroom, Pruitt, who was introduced to the rank and file last November, is a smooth smooth-talker. He's a handsome, 38-year-old master of corporate-speak--a hotshot with fire in his eyes. (Some female employees at the Strib were so taken by their new boss last winter, they asked out loud whether he was married. He is.) Strategically, at least, John Schueler, whom Pruitt hired last week to succeed Joel Kramer as the Strib's new publisher in mid-May, seems to be cut from the same cloth: a Virtual Gary who believes that newspapers can integrate their advertising and editorial departments without casting doubt on their autonomy or damaging their credibility.

"With the Star Tribune, advertisers have the benefit of an incredible marketplace of readers and users," Schueler says by phone from his office in Orange County, California. "The whole idea from a business perspective is to have a newspaper figure out ways to gather a large, well-rounded audience for its advertisers. In order to gather and maintain that audience, I also believe you have to maintain editorial integrity."

At the relatively young age of 48, Schueler is already considered a veteran publishing executive. Currently wrapping up his duties as president and CEO of the Orange County Register, where he has been since 1991, Schueler has built a reputation in marketing, promotion, and Internet strategies by making his indelible mark at papers in Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, and New England. At the Register, for instance, he oversaw the development of electronic commerce on the paper's popular Web site (restaurant listings, classified ads, etc.) and coordinated special sections such as the Register's weekly Golf Extra, which is driven by advertising interests but written by sports-page reporters.

Besides being known as an aggressive visionary by business colleagues and editorial personnel in Orange County, Schueler's also known as one hell of a nice guy. In 1993, the Orange County Business Journal reported that his former colleagues in the Miami Herald's circulation department had dubbed the words fairness, equity, excellence, and integrity "Schueler-isms." Mike Lednovich, director of corporate communications at the OC Register's parent company, Freedom Communications Inc., says tears were shed when people in his office learned their colleague was leaving for Minneapolis. Opines Cathy Taylor, director of editorial pages at the Register, "Folks at the Star Tribune should feel lucky: There's no dark side to John. He's just a really nice guy."

Strib sources, who've been in wait-and-see mode for a year, don't doubt Schueler is, indeed, a nice guy. In fact, they're counting on it. Joe Rigert, chairman of the paper's unit of the Newspaper Guild, says union members were encouraged by what they heard when the new publisher addressed the troops on April 25. "We are pleased to be told that he has a record of dealing positively with union employees, that he will not allow advertisers to influence news judgment and that he will not change the editorial policy of our newspaper," reads a Guild statement written by Rigert.

Despite the good vibrations buzzing back and forth between Minnesota and California, everyone from Rigert to outgoing publisher Kramer to staffers such as investigative reporter Chris Ison acknowledge there's concern in the newsroom about Schueler's lack of editorial experience.

"When a guy doesn't have ink on his hands, you worry," one reporter says.

"There is always going to be a concern," Ison agrees. "But I don't personally know of anything coming from McClatchy that makes me more concerned than I would be anyway. We kind of always have our antennae up. And we certainly do while we start this relationship with the McClatchy chain."

Adds Rigert: "Yes, the Guild is naturally concerned the new publisher hasn't ever worked as a journalist. But as long as he maintains the positions mentioned in our statement, we'll be perfectly happy."

In response to such concerns, Schueler points to his close working relationship with reporters and editors at the Register. Like Kramer, he will encourage collaborations between departments at the Strib to increase ad revenue. Put simply, advertising and editorial must both be conscious of the bottom line. But, Schueler says, his kind of strategy is nothing new, pointing out that under his leadership salespeople and reporters at the Register consistently worked in concert without compromising their ethics.

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