BLACK & WHITE... and Red All Over

Star Tribune honchos pooh-pooh insinuations that they're at war with that other paper across the river. So why is the Strib stomping all around the PiPress's back yard?

Chuck Laszewski often listens to the morning show on Cities 97 before shuttling off to St. Paul's City Hall, where he's the beat reporter for the Pioneer Press. Drive-time DJ Steven John spins thirtysomething pop standards, raps weather with KARE-11's Belinda Jensen, and does an on-air scan of the day's headlines for material--comic, controversial, or both. For Laszewski, that last feature often casts a dark cloud over his day, regardless of Jensen's forecast. "They usually read the Star Tribune," the reporter notes with a self-deprecating chuckle. "They never seem to pay much attention to the Pioneer Press."

But when Laszewski tuned in on Wednesday, March 10, he knew that no matter what Belinda Jensen had to say, it was going to be a sunny day. Steven John could hardly contain himself as he quoted from an exclusive "special report" in that morning's Pioneer Press. "U Basketball Program Accused of Academic Fraud," trumpeted the paper's banner headline. A painstakingly detailed, exhaustively sourced package of stories followed, complete with bar graphs, flow charts, and ominous, eye-grabbing excerpts: "At least 20 players had course work done by staff member"; "Haskins sought counselor's move to athletic staff"; "University must now answer questions about its integrity."

By noon Pioneer Press staff writer George Dohrmann's story had been repeated on virtually every local TV and radio station and broadcast coast to coast via cable sports networks ESPN and Fox News. In almost every instance, the Pioneer Press was credited with the scoop. Deborah Howell, a former editor at the newspaper who now works as the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Newhouse News Service, called from the nation's capital to personally congratulate PiPress editor Walker Lundy. At a press briefing, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura questioned the timing of the story's publication--the day before the Gophers were scheduled to suit up for the first round of the annual NCAA basketball tournament--then angrily decried the piece as a despicable example of media sensationalism.

"Everybody on staff that day was just pumped up," Laszewski remembers. "It's just nice to be thought about by the general public, good or bad. Usually we're just ignored."

Across the Mississippi in Minneapolis, staffers at the rival Star Tribune were stunned. Managers skipped the daily ritual of the a.m. news huddle, scrambling instead from emergency conference to impromptu meeting. Investigative reporters who'd done stories about the university hurriedly rifled through their notes, looking for a way to make up ground. Beat reporters not directly involved wandered from cubicle to cubicle smirking, wondering aloud where the ax would fall first. Managing editor Pam Fine took some time alone in her office to absorb the blow, then reportedly emerged misty-eyed but defiant. In an all-staff meeting the next day, editor Tim McGuire would recount Fine's battle cry (one that he admits made him giggle at first). "Today we're going to pretend we own this story," his second-in-command is said to have admonished her underlings. "Tomorrow we will."

"It came out of the blue for everyone at our newspaper," Fine says today. "It was a big story, one that I thought we needed to immediately get onto. So I took a few seconds to wish we'd gotten it, then decided that we needed to pick our chins up off the floor and get going."

The Star Tribune put no fewer than eight full-time writers on the story. In less than a week, a special team had been set up to cover the university's internal inquest. Investigative bloodhounds Chris Ison and Paul McEnroe were tapped to sniff around the periphery.

"I was thrilled with the response from folks involved," Fine says. "We quickly organized things so that during the next couple of days we could match the story. Then, in short order, I think we weighed in with some information that hadn't previously been reported."

Adds Ison: "Was I jealous? Yes. Did I think they did a great job? Yes. I figured they had a really good time that first day, and I wished I was having that good time. And the week after that story popped was a long week. But it infused this place with energy. And if you can generate energy, even if it's desperate energy, that ain't bad. I mean, it's a cliché, but competition is good. It's good for us, it's good for them, and it's good for the readers."

 

Of the few metropolitan areas that still boast more than one daily newspaper--Denver, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco being a few of the more prominent examples--the Twin Cities is an anomaly. This market is home to two papers, both of which are owned by publicly traded out-of-town conglomerates, and which provide overlapping local news coverage. The Pioneer Press, with a daily circulation of just over 200,000 (268,000 on Sunday) and annual gross revenues upward of $120 million, dominates Ramsey County and the east metro, thanks largely to its emphasis on the city of St. Paul. The bigger, more stable Star Tribune brought in more than $350 million in revenue in fiscal 1997 (1998 figures were unavailable) and attracts 364,000 daily readers (672,000 on Sunday) and is the paper of record in Hennepin, Dakota, and Anoka counties. It's also more popular in outstate Minnesota, especially north and west of the metropolitan area.

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