By CP Staff
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Jesse Marx
By Olivia LaVecchia
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.
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."
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.
"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.")
After taking a few days to "cool off," Nelson wrote a response to Lundy's accusatory letter and sent it to his former publisher Rick Sadowski. The confrontation fizzled. "It was puzzling," Nelson reflects. "You'd think I'd committed felony murder rather than quit my job. In the end it only served to make me angry. Now I just want to kick their ass on the page."
On February 25, a mere three months after hiring away Rick Nelson from the Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune added insult to injury, unveiling a "bigger, better" Thursday food section, featuring ten full-color pages filled with articles about local restaurants and specialty shops, gourmet cooking, and fine wine. It was an obvious response to EAT!--and Nelson facilitated its design and wrote the cover story for the debut edition.
The venture is representative of the Star Tribune's new, long-term strategy to attract affluent readers with sections tailored to non-news interests. "Now that we're owned by McClatchy, we're focusing more on core newspaper initiatives," asserts Ben Taylor, the paper's vice president of marketing. "Currently, we're repositioning the Taste section. There will be two more similar initiatives this year. With Taste we did extensive research on who was reading the product, who wasn't, and why. Then we did a very careful segmentation of the market.
"We've carefully researched what will grow circulation, and we've looked at the local-news option and others," Taylor continues, in reference to the Pioneer Press's foray into zoned editions. "And while I think local news is a very important thing, from a promotional standpoint it's not something we'll be pushing. We've got better things to push."
When Tim McGuire spoke to his staff the day after the Pioneer Press scooped the Star Tribune, the editor acknowledged that it wasn't "fun to have such a meeting after you get creamed on a story." But rather than dwell on the preceding 24 hours, the editor opted to gaze into the near future, when Taste's demographic reach will be augmented by two other profit-oriented revamps: At the end of April, McGuire announced, the Star Tribune's sports section will be pumped up to provide more coverage of smaller local events and offer a user-friendly format akin to the paper's Variety section. And in the fall the Strib is slated to debut a weekly entertainment-oriented tabloid section designed to attract younger readers.
That McClatchy, still a neophyte in the Twin Cities market, is already willing to make a play for the Uptown crowd--something Star Tribune pop culture editor Tim Campbell has been talking about for years--speaks volumes about the company's first year of ownership.
At the paper's annual all-employee meeting on February 16, members of the corporate hierarchy could barely contain themselves. Themed "Own the Road" and held at the Lutheran Brotherhood church a few blocks from the newsroom, the hourlong presentation exulted in the financial successes of the past year and looked to the future with cheerleaderlike verve. Dressed in Hawaiian shirts and carrying surfboards, members of the advertising department strolled across the stage as publisher John Schueler enthused that the "Circ's up!" McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt, a boomer executive with a penchant for the Rolling Stones, quoted songs he'd heard the night before at the band's Target Center show: "It's all right now, in fact it's a gas!" he quipped, swiping at Wall Street analysts who a year earlier had predicted that McClatchy would regret paying so much to become the nation's eighth-largest newspaper chain. To cap off the event, honchos confirmed a plan to invest five million dollars in the paper's already state-of-the-art printing plant, and all eligible full-time employees were given a $472 bonus.
It had been a heady year, to be sure. In large part because of the falling cost of newsprint, McClatchy managed to rapidly knock down the debt it had incurred by buying the Star Tribune; instead of being well over one billion dollars as had been predicted, the figure currently stands at $960 million. That means the company's cash flow is five times larger than the interest it must pay on the debt. If the Star Tribune continues to produce 37 percent of McClatchy's revenue, CEO Pruitt believes, the debt load will fall another $100 million in 1999.
Most pleasing to Pruitt has been the paper's strong circulation gains over the past three quarters. For the first time in five years, readership increased: up 3.3 percent to 400,362 from Thursday through Saturday, and up four-tenths of a percent to 671,000 on Sunday. Steve Guida, who until recently served as the Star Tribune's vice president of circulation (he just started a new job at US Bank), says McClatchy wants daily circulation to reach or exceed 400,000 Monday through Friday, and Sunday's count to increase to 700,000 by September 2001.
To achieve these numbers, Guida admits, the paper will have to both solidify its metropolitan base and attract new, well-heeled readers in the suburbs. And although neither he nor Pruitt will come out and say it, outside the Twin Cities metro, projected growth in both population and income is highest in counties just east of St. Paul. In other words, the way to bulk up on readers with disposable income is to sell more papers in the competition'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.
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.
"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."