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?

"The Star Tribune has significantly more revenue than we do," CEO Tony Ridder says. "So we have had to come up with strategies for the long term, not the short term. Long-term, we're not going to be the Minneapolis Pioneer Press, we're going to be the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the paper of record for the east metro and Washington County."

Ridder then goes on to cite his experience in the 1980s as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, where he was able to keep longtime readers from turning to the growing San Francisco Chronicle by making sure his reporters and advertising executives kept their eyes trained on the local turf. It's also worth mentioning that the A.H. Belo Corporation, owner of the Dallas Morning News, recently formed a zoned edition for Arlington, Texas, to create a buffer against the Fort Worth Star-Telegram--owned, coincidentally, by Knight-Ridder.

Still, the jury is out on whether zoned editions--an on-again, off-again industry fad--can hold an audience's attention, let alone attract enough new readers to make a difference. "I live in Afton," says David Nimmer, assistant professor of journalism at St. Thomas University. "Do I think this zoning strategy will be persuasive? No. Judging from my own habits, I don't think people are that tied to their communities. I think they view themselves as metro residents. I'm looking for stories people will be talking about. I'm not sure many of those stories appear in my back yard."

Philosophically speaking, Macalester professor Clay Steinman hopes Nimmer is right. "The risk there is that the people living in the inner cities become even less visible to the people in the suburbs. So what you'll get is the journalistic equivalent of a gated community," says Steinman. Still, from a practical standpoint, he admits, Knight-Ridder's strategy squares with reality.

Media analyst John Morton says it's impossible to know which approach--special sections or zoned editions--will work on the affluent suburban readers to which Steinman refers. The Twin Cities market, he believes, is entering uncharted waters. "I thought McClatchy made a good investment," he says. "And it seems Knight-Ridder is doing a better job of containing its costs and improving profit margins."

Jim Pounds of Periscope Communications thinks that even if the Star Tribune ultimately makes inroads in the east metro, it will take a "long, long time." Meanwhile, he's happy to play both sides for his clients. "It sure seems like everyone's engaged and ready for battle, and I think that's great," says the ad agency exec. "The advantage we have right now in this market is that when you put the two papers together, you can get some respectable household numbers, particularly on a Sunday. You can reach up to 60 percent of the market, whereas in other markets you might only reach 40 percent."

Though Tony Ridder swears that no matter what happens or who ultimately benefits, he will continue to cut the Pioneer Press more slack than his chain's other papers, many wonder if the cutthroat executive, infamous for his singular obsession with the bottom line, will stand by a paper if it loses readership to a competitor. One longtime Pioneer Press reporter who didn't want his name published says Ridder's quarterly assurances that his company has no plans to leave St. Paul provide little comfort. "It's like in baseball, when the owners say they support the manager, and the next day they fire him," he says.

Ridder refused to be specific about the profit margins of individual papers in the Knight-Ridder chain, except to say that "because of the highly competitive situation in St. Paul, our expectation for profit margin is lower than other places." The mere presence of a competitor, he points out, is rare in the Knight-Ridder chain, so the Pioneer Press is given more margin for error. Nor does it hurt that the paper is coming off a strong year financially, in spite of its lagging circulation.

And even if the St. Paul paper were to stumble in its attempts to stave off the Strib, Ridder insists, the PiPress is protected by tradition. "We will never abandon that paper," says the CEO. "We've owned the Pioneer Press since the late 1920s. My grandfather was publisher, as were my father and brother. There is no way we would ever give up. We're not going to allow the Minneapolis Star Tribune to gain ground on us. We're going to spend whatever it takes to maintain and grow our position."

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