The McClatchy Strib: RIP. WTF?

Pruitt's Folly, big-daily blues, and the invasion of the stripper-flippers

II. A FEW MORE REASONS MCCLATCHY BAILED

To subscribe to Mike Meyers's theory about the sale is to believe that, at the end of the day, McClatchy sold the Star Tribune mainly to fix a serious cash-flow crisis in the face of a looming tax bill. But that hardly explains in full why it was the Strib they decided to toss overboard. Yes, selling this particular paper meant "unique financial tax advantages," but it wasn't the only option at hand. If Pruitt et al. had really believed in the paper's future, McClatchy could have financed its tax obligations by borrowing, despite the beating it likely would have taken from Wall Street for it. Or the company might have been able to devise a package of smaller papers to sell, albeit for less cash and a more modest loss. But McClatchy bosses did none of those things. They sold off the biggest paper in the chain, and the fact they did so points to other factors, general and local, that augured for disposing of a property like the Strib.

Big market = bad business. In 2006 the newspaper industry saw its fortunes decline more precipitously in major cities than in small-to-medium-sized ones. The biggest factor remained the internet—in particular, the continued spread of free classified ad sites like craigslist and of specialized ad sites that cannibalized such traditional print classified category leaders as jobs, cars, and real estate. The trend has moved from city to city in the past five years, looking less like a wave than a virus—reaching different cities at different times, affecting newspaper revenues to differing degrees of severity and in differing ad categories. Newspaper display advertising is also taking a beating in top 15 or 20 metro areas, where national advertising tends to dominate the market. Besides the fact that newspaper demographics are not that desirable anymore, it's much tougher, practically speaking, to do a national ad buy for print as opposed to broadcast or the web, since newspaper ad prices and size standards vary from city to city. Newspapers used to make a lot of national ad money from the free-standing inserts routinely larded into Sunday editions, but they're expensive to produce and advertisers have largely abandoned them.

Conversely, says the California media consultant, "People in smaller markets are still going to place ads in local media when they want to rent out a room or sell their stereo. And there isn't much point in trying to sell your car on a national cars website, since you're hoping to sell it to someone in your town and they're not going to be on that site. As far as your display ad base is concerned, independently owned businesses of some size are going to be a bigger factor in small-to-medium markets."

Media analyst Rick Edmonds thinks it's entirely plausible that big-market economics played a role in McClatchy's decision. "After the sale was announced, [Media News CEO and Pi-Press manager] Dean Singleton made the comment, why would you sell your biggest paper? But you could say that if you're going to sell something, why not sell your biggest paper? That's the most problematic part of the industry now."

The Star Tribune's bigger-than-average '06 circulation decline. Twice a year the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) releases comprehensive figures on daily newspaper circulation. In 2005 the fall numbers made the Strib out to be a relative winner, losing just a quarter of 1 percent of its circulation while papers like the San Francisco Chronicle (16 percent), Boston Globe (8 percent), and Washington Post (4 percent) were posting huge losses. But last fall's ABC numbers were bad news locally. While the business as a whole saw a 2.8 percent drop in circ from September 2005 to September 2006, the Strib was losing 50 percent more than the industry average, 4.2 percent. One probable factor is the Twin Cities' extraordinarily wired populace: According to a representative of the market survey firm Media Audit, Minneapolis/St. Paul has a higher concentration of regular web users than any other US metro area.

But many newsroom staffers think the magnitude of the circulation plunge owes a lot to the paper's high-profile October 2005 redesign (the occasion that prompted Gary Pruitt to call the Strib "a model for a 21st century newspaper"—see sidebar). The new-look Star Tribune featured a more open, graphics-intensive design—and, reporters were quick to note, shorter articles. Writers accustomed to getting 60 inches for an important story learned that they would have to make do with 30 inches. Metro section columnists saw their soapboxes shrink from 800 words to 500. Privately, a lot of staffers call the redesign a "dumbing down" of the paper. A common refrain: How do you shore up print readership by retooling to suit the tastes of people who are never going to read print anyway at the expense of people who still do?

It isn't just the print edition that's suffered since the relaunch 15 months ago. Startribune.com launched a redesigned and re-engineered website at the same time, and it has been plagued ever since by issues of usability (a terrible search engine, for starters) and timeliness (the process of posting to the website and reshuffling its home page contents became more complicated, involving web personnel in Raleigh as well as Minneapolis). The Strib does not publish traffic data for its site, but numbers posted at the traffic-monitor site Alexa.com suggest that startribune.com's unique users declined by roughly 1/3 during 2006.

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