Newspaper War

The Pioneer Press accuses turncoat publisher Par Ridder of stealing company property and poaching top employees.

At approximately 1:30 p.m. on March 5, a Pioneer Press employee was dispatched to the offices of its rival, the Star Tribune. The worker faced a delicate task: retrieving a laptop computer and external hard drive that Par Ridder, the former publisher of the Pioneer Press, had taken with him upon crossing the river to take over the top post at the competing paper on Portland Avenue. It was Ridder's first day on the enemy paper's payroll.

The Pi Press's emissary was directed to Ridder's new fourth-floor digs, and proceeded to cool his heals for 45 minutes as a Star Tribune employee copied data from the purloined laptop. But he had no such luck retrieving an external hard drive that Ridder claimed he had "lost."

This peculiar scene is laid out in a lawsuit filed last week in Ramsey County District Court by the Pioneer Press against the Star Tribune, Ridder, and four other newspaper employees. The vitriolic 46-page document lays out in detail its claim that Ridder stole key business data from his former employer and poached two top executives from the smaller daily. The lawsuit charges that all three violated the terms of non-compete and confidentiality agreements that they voluntarily signed upon being hired by the Pioneer Press. "The impact of this raid on the Pioneer Press has been, and will continue to be, both devastating and irreparable," the lawsuit argues.

Until last Thursday the two companies had been in talks to resolve the dispute out of court. But now the feud has turned bitter.

"Our confidential data was stolen from us by a competitor and improperly distributed," says William Dean Singleton, chief executive officer of MediaNews Group, the parent company of the Pioneer Press. "That is wrong, it is illegal, and it must be fixed."

Frederick Mott, who was named interim publisher of the Pioneer Press following Ridder's surprise departure last month, says that losing the data could unfairly compromise the Pioneer Press's ability to compete with its cross-river rival for ads.

"With that data, it gives a competitor that is much larger than us and has a lot more resources than us an unfair advantage," Mott says.

The unseemliness of the dispute is particularly surprising given the Ridder family's long association with the St. Paul newspaper. Ben H. Ridder purchased the Pioneer Press in 1927 and personally oversaw its operations. When Par Ridder was named publisher of the Pioneer Press in 2004, he became the fourth generation of the family to oversee the newspaper.

News that the 38-year-old publishing scion was leaving to join the Pi Press's long-standing rival undoubtedly had his great-grandfather doing somersaults in his grave, says John Finnegan, a former executive editor of the Pioneer Press who is writing a book about the Ridder family. "I think he would be pretty shocked by it. When Ben came to town, the one thing he wanted to do was shut Minneapolis out of this market."

But in the wake of a turbulent 12 months, in which both dailies changed ownership, nothing seems particularly surprising anymore. The fact that Knight Ridder, the nationwide newspaper chain that the Ridder family controlled, was sold off last year undoubtedly weakened Par's loyalty to the St. Paul daily.

"There was a time when something like that would have been unthinkable," says Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. "It would not have even occurred to someone that they could make that kind of crossover to the competition. But now it just seems to almost be standard operating procedure."

If you believe the allegations laid out in the lawsuit, Ridder's decision to join the enemy paper was just the capstone to months of treachery. Upon procuring the purloined laptop, the Pioneer Press conducted a forensic audit on the machine. It revealed documents authored by Par Ridder himself that show he began plotting the move all the way back in September. Indeed, on September 19, Ridder drafted a speech on the laptop to announce his resignation from the Pioneer Press and his acceptance of a post with the Star Tribune. The speech was subsequently updated on October 8. Ridder encrypted the document and shielded it with the password "mocha."

"My family has been trying to chase you guys out of St. Paul since 1927," the speech to his new Star Tribune colleagues begins, "so I recognize this will take some getting used to, but I hope over time I will earn your trust, as I have in other places. I encourage you to check me out."

At that time, the Star Tribune was still owned by the McClatchy Company. Gary Pruitt, the company's top executive, denies that there was any attempt to hire Ridder.

"We can only be responsible for our behavior, and we did not offer him a job, and did not talk to him," Pruitt says. "I am at a loss to explain the situation."

The Star Tribune was sold to Avista Capital Partners in December. On March 2, Ridder announced that he was leaving the Pioneer Press to join the state's largest daily newspaper. On his way out the door, Ridder allegedly pilfered the very non-compete agreements that forbid him and other top executives from joining the Strib for at least one year after quitting the Pioneer Press.

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