"Pruitt is a Joke"

In the Star Tribune newsroom, there's plenty of pissed to go around

When the McClatchy newspaper chain announced the day after Christmas that they would be selling off the Star Tribune to a private buyout firm for less than half the sum they paid for it eight years ago, not a single soul in the Strib's newsroom

saw it coming. Among the myriad opinions expressed about the devaluation of the paper, the sale, and what it means for the future of the Strib, McClatchy's blindsiding of its staff was the lone source of unanimous consensus among the nearly two dozen newsroom employees City Pages spoke with over a three-day period last week.

"I guess being sold is a fact of life in this industry, where there is no safe place anymore," says Dan Browning, a reporter and editor who has logged eight years at the Strib after spending five at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul. "But we were led down a path to believe that McClatchy was in fact different—that they don't lay off people, for example. But then we saw that they laid off some people in Sacramento recently. So then we were thinking there may be some layoffs here. But nobody expected that they'd essentially lay us off in our entirety."

David Fick

"I think we are really, really pissed because our jobs are to be watchdogs and we didn't see this coming," says another reporter, who, like many of the younger staffers at the paper who are most vulnerable to being laid off, chose to remain anonymous or not speak at all. "That has created a high level of distrust in the newsroom and a certain feeling of betrayal."

But Strib staffers aren't just pissed at themselves. They have plenty of anger to go around. One favored target is Gary Pruitt, McClatchy's chairman and CEO, who talked about working together to stay ahead of the pack and arranged a sale on the sly when the going got tough. A close second: Anders Gyllenhaal, the former editor of the Strib who conveniently announced he was leaving to edit the Miami Herald—one of the papers McClatchy acquired from Knight Ridder last year—less than two weeks before the Strib was sold. Gyllenhaal has said he did not know of the impending sale when he took the Miami job.

"There is enough anger to go around, but from what I hear, it is mainly directed at Pruitt and Anders," says Rochelle Olson, a metro reporter who has worked at the paper for seven years. "There's a lot of derisive talk about Pruitt, because he was painted in other media as the golden boy, this tanned San Franciscan up-and-comer who liked rock and roll music and talked about a new paradigm. He and Anders led people to believe they cared about journalism. And when push came to shove, all they cared about was the bottom line."

"Pruitt is a joke," said another newsroom source who prefers anonymity. "He said he would consider taking the company private again if the pressure for profits from Wall Street became too much. When he bought the Strib and critics said he paid too much, he said, 'I will prove them wrong over time and I look forward to doing that.' But he and McClatchy came into Minneapolis with all these promises and damaged two newspapers, us and the Pioneer Press." (McClatchy acquired the Pi Press in last year's $6 billion Knight Ridder purchase, but then sold the paper, in a complicated deal, to Hearst, but to be managed by Dean Singleton's Media News group.)

Not everyone was unhappy with Pruitt and his company. "I was proud to be a member of McClatchy," says Neal Justin, the Strib's television critic. "It was doing the right things, the things I care about, like diversity and no layoffs. Every corporate executive has to put a sunny face on everything; they can't say we've only got one more year together. Of all the executives I've met in this business, Gary Pruitt is one of the more impressive. I don't doubt when he says that it was a hard decision to make. It doesn't make me feel any better. But for us to sit here and equate McClatchy with Satan is a mistake." And the Strib's faith and values reporter, Pamela Miller, who also serves as secretary of the Strib's unit of the Twin Cities Newspaper Guild, says, "We are more worried and anxious than angry. I don't know of anybody who is really angry at Anders."

"Obviously Pruitt is the number one source of anger, and then it spreads out depending on who you speak with," says columnist Doug Grow. "There is certainly some anger at Anders. Here is the ship listing, and there goes the captain. And that certainly is a mighty fine-looking dinghy he's got out there."

Yet perhaps even more than Gyllenhaal's well-timed exit, his and Pruitt's pushing of an expensive, controversial 2005 redesign of the paper grated on staffers, especially when it seemed to produce nothing but faster-than-industry-average circulation drops that eventually prompted McClatchy to unload the paper. "Personally, I don't like what has happened in the last two years with a lot of the redesign issues," says Grow. "I'm not saying we didn't need to change, but too many days we insult our readers. We are in some respects a weaker newspaper than when McClatchy took over—the circulation figures certainly bear that out."

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