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?

Few industry analysts have thought of the two entities as direct competitors. "It's just not the same as when you have two papers published in the same city," says John Morton, a former reporter who now runs a media-research consulting firm in Maryland. "The competition is in the margins."

Some local observers say this strict geographic division has created an impenetrable buffer zone for both papers. "We've always kind of smirked when we hear the [Star Tribune's] phrase, 'Newspaper of the Twin Cities,'" says Jim Pounds, vice president and media director of the Minneapolis advertising agency Periscope Communications. "While the Star Tribune dominates most of the metro area, they've historically struggled in Ramsey County. They'll make some inroads, gain some incremental growth, but there's never been a successful assault on the castle." Indeed, when the Star Tribune made a play for St. Paul in the late 1980s, the paper failed miserably. For its part, the Pioneer Press doesn't even bother providing delivery service in Minneapolis.

Undeniably, the papers exhibit different personalities. "When I think of the Pioneer Press, I think of individual reporters and writers," says Don Gillmor, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. "The Star Tribune may seem a little more bland because it's a little more moderate in tone. It's a more institutional tone. Yet day to day, it seems more credible because it's more consistent."

Diana Watters

In November 1997, when the locally owned Cowles Media Company announced that it would be selling the Star Tribune to the Sacramento-based McClatchy Co. for $1.4 billion, media watchdogs couldn't help but wonder out loud, as they have many times before, whether the Pioneer Press would wither. McClatchy, which just a few years earlier had knocked off a competitor in Anchorage, Alaska, was known as an aggressor, and given the unprecedented debt caused by the purchase of the Star Tribune, the company was expected to fortify the paper's dominance. That McClatchy installed John Schueler to succeed Joel Kramer as publisher only reinforced the perception. A sought-after executive who cut his teeth working for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, Schueler made his name increasing circulation at the Orange County Register, which now thrives in the shadow of the Los Angeles Times. "With McClatchy in the market, the pressure for profits will no doubt increase at both papers," predicts local author Dean Alger, who recently published the book Megamedia: How Giant Corporations Dominate Mass Media, Distort Competition and Endanger Democracy. "It's not clear what that will mean in the long run, but the situation bears close watching."

As the Star Tribune was changing hands, the Pioneer Press, while in the black, was suffering a dip in circulation. The paper had also recently appointed a new publisher, Rick Sadowski, a lifer from Knight-Ridder who had just spent five years as publisher of Southern California's Long Beach Press-Telegram. That embattled paper, which was put on the block just before Sadowski left for St. Paul, no doubt would have been cut loose with or without him. Still, in the wake of Sadowski's arrival, Pioneer Press staffers nervously joked about the new publisher's track record: Perhaps corporate was finally getting ready to hang a For Sale sign.

But Sadowski assured his employees he had come to St. Paul because he likes a good battle. To prove it he hired Marji Ranes, previously of the Seattle Times, to serve as his new senior vice president of sales and marketing, because, he says, she too was looking for a challenge. He also brought along Marti Buscaglia from Long Beach to serve as vice president of market development. Coming from a newspaper where the competition included both the L.A. Times and the Orange County Register, Buscaglia knew all about being the underdog. She could talk about "guerrilla marketing" and "good service" in the same breath. Shortly after taking the job, her staff presented her with a mocked-up Pioneer Press front page featuring the banner headline "Star Tribune Bankrupt." Now it's prominently displayed in her office.

Ask Rick Sadowski whether there's a newspaper war under way in the Twin Cities and the publisher will answer without hesitation: "Yes, absolutely."

McClatchy president and CEO Gary Pruitt, his handpicked publisher Schueler, and their editor Tim McGuire are quick to disagree. "In this market our biggest competition comes from television. There is no newspaper war," Schueler says. Adds McGuire: "I think that it's more of an issue of professional pride than competition. We certainly pay attention to them on a professional level. We don't like to get beat. I think the difference might come in that we try to be fairly unemotional about it. I'm not sure that everyone over there is."

Yet even as the market leader has persisted in characterizing its St. Paul counterpart as, at worst, a gnatlike irritant, the Star Tribune has set and met an ambitious circulation goal, unveiled plans for a number of consumer-oriented special sections, and taken dead aim at affluent communities east of St. Paul that until now have been Knight-Ridder territory.

The Pioneer Press has engaged in some maneuvering of its own, decreasing its cover price from 35 cents to 25 cents and creating two new "zoned" versions of the paper to attract suburban readers. And last year general ad revenue in St. Paul more than doubled (thanks to boosts in automotive, high-tech, and telecommunications advertising), and the paper's classified advertising department was a top-three performer in the Knight-Ridder chain. In short: As Goliath flexed his muscles, David loaded up his slingshot. And on March 10 the little guy scored a direct hit.

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