The Next Battle in the Newspaper Wars

The specter of a newspaper strike looms in St. Paul --but no matter what happens, the Pioneer Press will never be the same

In 2001 Jay Harris, the publisher of the Mercury News and an heir apparent to Tony Ridder in the eyes of many, resigned in protest over the company's extraordinary profit targets. In his letter of resignation, Harris wrote that the company was placing too much emphasis on money at the expense of journalism, especially at the chain's smaller newspapers. In May of this year, during an interview with Boston Public Radio, he explained to listeners why executives at the mother ship can be so blasé and so draconian. "With several notable and distinguished exceptions, the press does not cover itself as well as it does other institutions in society. If these cuts were happening in local hospitals, it would be an enormous story," he said.

As the Pi-Press shrunk under the radar, the Star Tribune, purchased in 1997 by Sacramento-based McClatchy Co. for $1.4 billion, marshaled its resources to make the cross-town competition irrelevant to every part of the Twin Cities but St. Paul proper. In all the ways that matter, the Strib has already accomplished its goal. The Pi-Press, once widely revered as the little paper that could, is quickly becoming little more than a small-town newspaper: its talent pool deleted, its reporters struggling to keep up in their own neighborhood, and its shrinking news hole home to more and more copy off the corporate wire.

The Strib, under the leadership of new Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal, has pumped up its international coverage, markedly improved its Sunday paper, and become noticeably more aggressive in its local coverage. In short, they have gone a long way toward turning the Twin Cities into a one-newspaper town.

Kirk Anderson

 

Four years ago I wrote a story about the ongoing David-and-Goliath rivalry between the two local dailies. On paper, at least, the Strib was dominant. The Pi-Press had a daily circulation of just over 200,000, and 268,000 readers on Sunday. The Strib was distributing 364,000 daily papers and 672,00 on Sunday.

Despite the numbers, though, Tony Ridder told me that he still considered the Strib to be a direct competitor, both on the page and in the margins.

Was it a bona fide newspaper war? I asked.

"It's just a question of how you define a war," he replied. "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."

At the time, a scrappy Pi-Press staff had given Ridder good reason to talk a little trash. A month before I spoke with him, the paper stunned the Strib by publishing an exclusive series about academic fraud in the University of Minnesota's basketball program. The story's author, George Dohrmann, would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for the piece, and no matter how hard the Strib tried to publish scoops as the scandal unfolded--often succeeding--the Pi-Press owned the story in the public eye. The achievement invigorated everyone at the paper. Reporters believed they could do more with less. Editors mused out loud about burning more resources for long-term projects. The paper's ad reps even believed it was still possible to beat up the Strib in the Twin Cities' eastern suburbs, where a number of affluent readers remained up for grabs.

According to the latest report from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the Strib now has a daily circulation of 375,000 and a Sunday circulation of 669,358 (the nation's 12th largest). The Pioneer Press's Sunday circulation is just 251,000, and its daily number has dropped below 200,000--a figure considered a cutoff point for some large advertisers--to 191,000.

The commonly held belief among local ad executives, as well as business managers at the Star Tribune, is that at some point in the last two years, the Pi-Press fundamentally changed its master strategy, deciding to be a sort of community newspaper and not a metro-wide competitor. (The Oakland Tribune is one model of that approach.) They believe the St. Paul paper's hard-target market area has been reduced from over 700,000 readers in 20 counties to 375,000 readers living in seven--not including Hennepin County, which accounts for 50 percent of the metro area's retail sales and was long ago ceded to the Strib. The Pi-Press still has an advantage in Ramsey County, due to their dominance in St. Paul, but in the once hotly contested suburbs between here and Hudson, Wisconsin, the Strib is taking charge of the battle.

In the Strib's newsroom, reporters have always been reluctant to admit that they pay any attention to what the Pi-Press is up to. Until recently, though, it was obvious that editors and reporters at both papers were tracking each other's movements in the course of plotting their own. Now staffers at the Strib seem to pity their former rivals, hoping more than anything that their parent company never gets as greedy as Knight Ridder.

Those veterans that remain at the Pi-Press, whom I have always known to be fiercely loyal and defiant, have been worn down to admitting that they can no longer keep pace. "Are we getting beat? Yeah, we're getting beat," admits Pi-Press reporter and union steward Chuck Laszewski. "We know we're not covering the stories we should be covering. The simple fact is that, day after day, they have more people. They have to play .500 baseball every other day. We have to play .700 baseball, every day."

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