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?

"It's just a question of how you define a war," says Knight-Ridder chairman and CEO Tony Ridder. "The Star Tribune would like to be the only paper in the Twin Cities. We're doing all we can to maintain and grow our position. They're the big kid on the block. They're very aggressive. So maybe they're right. Maybe it's not a newspaper war in the classic sense. But hey, it's going to be one hell of a battle."

 

With combat comes casualties. Walker Lundy knows and accepts this. The editor has already told his troops at the Pioneer Press that the Star Tribune will beat them to a story or two, even on the basketball beat. "The law of averages dictates it," he says. But that's okay with him. There's no shame in coming in second now and then. Especially when, by his last count, the other side has 125 more reporters.

What Lundy won't condone is disloyalty. "Look, people work harder over here," he says. "That's an advantage we have--the quality of our employees. I always say, 'If you want to work for the Star Tribune, go work for the Star Tribune. I don't want you here.'"

In 1998 three of Lundy's most talented staffers heeded those words: Dan Browning, a tenacious investigative journalist who specializes in computer-assisted reporting; Eric Wieffering, an able business reporter whom Lundy had hired away from Corporate Report magazine to cover Northwest Airlines; and Rick Nelson, an award-winning food critic who had written for the Twin Cities Reader until the paper was sold and closed in March 1997. Bravado aside, all three departures hurt Lundy and the Pioneer Press. Browning was a seasoned vet; Wieffering labored diligently to keep his undernourished business section competitive with the rival paper's well-staffed newsbreaker. But it was Nelson's departure that was most irksome to Lundy.

Nelson had been brought on staff in April 1997 to help the Pioneer Press create a special addendum to the paper's Express section, EAT! With the advent of local online entertainment guides such as Microsoft's Twin Cities Sidewalk, restaurant reviews, recipes, and shopping tips were viewed by daily papers as a ticket to increased circulation, higher ad rates, and, in turn, greater profit. Because the Pioneer Press is always going to be smaller than the Star Tribune, the paper must constantly choose areas of coverage in which to excel. EAT! was an attempt to get a jump on the next big thing, and within a year Nelson had become a dependable staple.

That fact did not escape the notice of Star Tribune's features editor Susie Hopper. Because both papers belong to the Newspaper Guild of the Twin Cities, their pay scales are similar. But Hopper's paper is more apt to give bonuses. Even more of a lure, perhaps, was the prestige that comes with a job at the Newspaper of the Twin Cities, not to mention the resources. Says Nelson: "It has double the circulation. It's the dominant paper. For someone like me, who grew up reading the Minneapolis Star, it's thrilling to be at this paper. Because there's so many resources, the pressure to produce is not as great. You don't crank copy just to fill space. You have more time to be a professional."

Rather than close his door and stew in private as he had following the departures of Wieffering and Browning, when Nelson left, Walker Lundy boiled over. "I am sorry you decided to leave us for the Star Tribune," he wrote in a November 18, 1998, letter addressed to his former staffer and copied to Star Tribune editor Tim McGuire. "I was disturbed...to learn that you had removed a number of stories and files from your computer and apparently took them with you...If we are mistaken about our suspicions that your departure and the disappearance of your files are connected, please let me know right away. I don't want your reputation to be tarnished unfairly."

While the veiled threat infuriated Nelson, it didn't surprise him. The afternoon he announced his resignation, it was clear any transition to the other side would be acrimonious. At 1:45 p.m. on Monday, November 16, he had told food editor Kathie Jenkins of his plans to leave. She promptly went off to consult with managing editor Vicki Gowler. Minutes later Jenkins informed Nelson that she'd have to escort him from the building. On his way out, Nelson stopped to break the news to teen reporter Matt Peiken and art director Ellen Simonson. Jenkins, who had kept walking, yelled across the newsroom, "Rick, we've go to go," then grabbed him by the elbow. When Nelson found himself out on the sidewalk, papers hurriedly stuffed into a briefcase, his watch read 1:54. "I set a new record for getting thrown out of the Pioneer Press," he recalls with a chuckle.

Before leaving, Nelson says, he did delete some personal files from his computer and copy some old story notes. But nothing more. Lundy's suggestion that he'd sabotaged the paper was not only offensive, he adds, but illogical: After all, had he not been tossed out in nine minutes, he could have provided his editors with everything they needed. ("Besides," Nelson notes, "I barely knew how to use the spell-check program.")

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