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?

"More and more, the main customers for the newspaper aren't the readers, but the advertisers," observes Clay Steinman, professor of communication studies at Macalester College. "And that means to the extent the papers are under pressure to increase revenues, they're going to look for increasingly affluent audiences attractive to those advertisers."

 

During the last weekend of August 1998, while the bulk of Minnesota's populace was jawing with gubernatorial candidates at the State Fair in St. Paul, residents of Washington County's fastest-growing, most affluent city gathered at Ojibway Park for Woodbury Days. With its own miniature midway filled with carousels, carnival barkers, and crafts competitions, the annual festival is, like the city's annual Easter egg hunt, an effort to build community, both socially and economically. More than 2,000 people attended last year's festival, to browse or nosh at 90-plus booths, take in the morning parade and the children's coin hunt, the petting zoo, and two evening concerts. To top it off, for the first time in the event's 29-year history, onlookers were treated to an end-of-the-weekend fireworks display.

Diana Watters

There was another first at the 1998 Woodbury Days. For many years visitors had stopped by the Pioneer Press booth to pick up a free paper or take advantage of a subscription offer. But last year there was no PiPress presence. Instead, fair attendees walked past stacks of the Star Tribune. According to the St. Paul paper's marketing vice president Marti Buscaglia, the rival daily outbid her company for exclusive rights to 1998's celebration. "We'd done a promotional partnership, and when we do that, we rarely ever give cash--we think the promotional value is higher," says Buscaglia. "The Star Tribune came in with a cash sponsorship for the fireworks show. I've never seen their proposal, but we believe it cost them between $15,000 and $20,000."

In the weeks leading up to Woodbury Days, Buscaglia adds, the Strib also sent promotional mailings to readers in Woodbury with a return address in Washington County--as if the Star Tribune actually had a legitimate presence in the territory. Buscaglia also took phone calls from loyal Pioneer Press readers in the area who complained that the Newspaper of the Twin Cities was going door-to-door with a prototype that featured sections designed specifically for the suburbs, presumably to gauge readers' response.

The Strib's senior vice president and chief communications officer, Frank Parisi, confirms that the paper conducted the research. "There was a section featuring local news," Parisi says. "But it wasn't the focus of the study." As for the Woodbury Days sponsorship, Parisi offers a version of events that differs somewhat from Buscaglia's recollection. "We got into it because they came up short on sponsors and they asked us to help them out," he says. "The ballpark number was in the $10,000 range, with some giveaways." (Officials from Woodbury Days could not be reached for comment for this story.)

In response to the Star Tribune's newfound aggression, PiPress staffers stood outside the gates of Woodbury Days and hawked the paper--a tactic Buscaglia compares to a guerrilla insurgency. But that was only the beginning. For the first time in history, the Pioneer Press began directly attacking its Minneapolis counterpart in print ads and on television. In particular, the St. Paul paper is playing up its trademark "doorstep delivery" by depicting ostensible Star Tribune readers mucking down their snowy front sidewalks to retrieve a soggy paper.

"Things were a little sedentary around here. But Rick Sadowski is bringing that California attitude to the Midwest," Buscaglia says. "We don't subscribe to Minnesota Nice. The way I figure it, if the Star Tribune is in the east metro, they're on my turf and it's all out war. I've drawn a line in the sand."

"What I tell people is that there's a paper across the river that's trying to put us out of business," adds Scott Frantzen, vice president of circulation at the Pioneer Press. "I don't like that very much." On one sparsely decorated wall of Frantzen's corner office, framed like a family portrait, hangs a rallying cry written in large block letters: "We're at War."

While McClatchy spent the bulk of 1998 scheming to attract affluent Minnesota readers with custom-tailored non-news sections, the Pioneer Press made two moves to increase its lagging circulation, which had dipped below 200,000 Monday through Friday (an industry benchmark). Buscaglia and Frantzen convinced a hesitant Sadowski to green-light the reduction in the paper's cover price from 35 cents to a quarter, which Frantzen says increased readership 17 percent in eight weeks. Sadowski also committed the paper to an ambitious redesign.

In anticipation of the Star Tribune's suburban assault, the St. Paul paper christened two new editions in 1998, one "zoned" for the south suburbs of Eagan, Apple Valley, Lakeville, Rosemount, and Inver Grove Heights, the other for Washington County. The strategy was implemented when Sadowski saw local research, augmented by data from Knight-Ridder's corporate headquarters, that showed loyalty could be created among suburbanites if they were offered, as Lundy puts it, more "local, local news." Instead of more coverage of generic issues such as food or fluffy topics like sports, Sadowski became convinced that those same affluent suburban readers the Star Tribune was chasing really wanted stories about monthly school board meetings and local elections, and features about their neighbors.

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