Off Beat

Close to the Bone

IN APRIL KNIGHT Ridder CEO Tony Ridder let it be known that none of its 32 newspapers would be spared by the corporate campaign to cut costs and boost profits. Last week it became clearer exactly how much carnage will be wrought by Ridder's meat cleaver at the Pioneer Press: Staffers were told to expect personnel cutbacks of ten percent in coming months. Editor Walker Lundy broke the news to his scribes shortly after 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Business writer Scott Carlson describes staffers' reaction as "heartbroken." "I think a fair number of people were stunned that our newspaper needs to make that big a reduction," Carlson says. Many of the rank and file take umbrage at the demand for cutbacks when Knight Ridder--despite a downturn in ad sales and uptick in paper costs--continues to make money hand over fist. In the first quarter of this year the company enjoyed profits of $47.8 million--meaty, sure, but a 30 percent drop from 2000. "A lot of us in the newsroom are not naive when it comes to business and we like to see us making a profitas much as anyone," says David Hanners, another Pi Press business writer. "But when we get to the point where we're having to say goodbye to people we've worked with for a good spell just because our profit margin isn't over 20 percent, then that is hard to deal with." In March Jay Harris resigned as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News rather than oversee Knight Ridder's stringent cost-cutting measures. But few expect to see a similar tack taken by Pi Press publisher Rick Sadowski. In fact, few in the newspaper's offices have seen hide or hair of the publisher since the dismal edict came down. "We'd like to see some leadership," says Lynda Hanner, who works in real estate advertising. "We'd like to have the chance to talk to him about this; we'd like to hear him explain his feelings about this." Sadowski did not return a call from Off Beat seeking comment, but editor Lundy defends the publisher. "I'm responsible for the newsroom and for decisions made in the newsroom," Lundy notes. "I think it would be passing the buck for me to say, 'We have some bad news to tell you; now here's the publisher.'" Lundy says he doesn't enjoy the cost-cutting measures but respects the company's desire to keep shareholders happy. "I don't like it, but I understand how Wall Street works," he says.

Appetite for Destruction

BEST BUY CO.'S proposed $160 million, 42-acre corporate campus in Richfield keeps sprouting lawsuits the way a week-old grilled cheese sandwich sprouts mold. There are now seven court cases contesting some aspect of the project, which is slated for construction at the intersection of Penn Avenue and Interstate 494. Most of the suits have been brought by the Walser Automotive Group, whose strip of surgically bright car lots will be displaced by the project. We're betting an eighth suit will be filed any day now: On May 2, city council member John Enger, the sole Best Buy dissident on Richfield's governing body, wrote a letter to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) accusing the city and the company of flouting the law. He contends that Best Buy and the city went ahead and tore down buildings and trees on the disputed property without having obtained an MPCA permit that's required whenever a development will have a significant impact on traffic, and therefore air and noise pollution. Best Buy and the city two weeks earlier had requested MPCA permission to proceed with some demolition. Best Buy attorney Walter Rockenstein maintains that he was given a verbal go-ahead. In a letter dated April 27, however, the MPCA concluded that most of the work would have to wait until the permit had been issued. Unfortunately the teardown had already begun. "It's blatant," opines Enger. "They just went ahead and did whatever they thought they could get away with." In response, attorneys for Best Buy and its developer, Opus Northwest, quickly drafted their own joint missive threatening "legal consequences" if Enger did not desist in his accusations. The MPCA's Dale Thompson says the matter will be turned over to the agency's enforcement division, where investigators will determine whether any penalties should be imposed. Still, Thompson backs up Best Buy attorney Rockenstein's assertion that it was more a matter of miscommunication than malice on the company's part. "It's just kind of a breakdown in communication here," Thompson says. "We have to take some of the blame." Undoubtedly, like everything else concerning the Best Buy corporate campus, the issue will ultimately be settled in court.

 
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