Trials and Stribulations

Staffs gutted. Secrets stolen. A traitorous publisher forced to defend his actions in court. The future has never looked bleaker for the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press.

Last week, MediaNews also announced that it was seeking buyouts from at least 30 employees, including 15 from the editorial ranks. After this latest round of belt tightening, the number of newsroom guild employees will have dropped from 243 to 147 in just six years—a 40 percent reduction.

Declining circulation is one reality plaguing daily newspapers. According to the Newspaper Association of America, nationwide daily circulation fell 2.1 percent last year, while Sunday sales dropped by 3.1 percent. The news is slightly worse for the Star Tribune. In the first quarter of the year, daily circulation was off by 4.8 percent, with Sunday sales down 5.1 percent. The Pioneer Press, however, actually recorded a minuscule increase (less than 1 percent) in both daily and Sunday circulations.

More worrying for the future health of daily newspapers are the radical changes to the advertising landscape. Kneecapped by free, online competition from the likes of Monster.com and Car Soup, the revenue from classifieds—long the bread and butter of daily newspapers—has fallen off a cliff. McGuire speculates that the Star Tribune has lost somewhere between $60 million and $80 million worth of Help Wanted ads since he departed in 2002. To put that figure in perspective, it could pay the salaries for everyone in the newsroom for roughly four years.

David Kern

"The real problem with newspapers is that the business model is under attack," says McGuire, who now teaches journalism at Arizona State University. "The advertising game has changed."

For a glimpse at how dire the advertising market has gotten for newspapers, consider a single Macy's ad contract discussed in last month's court hearing. The Pioneer Press argued that Ridder utilized sensitive financial data to lure the retailer to the pages of the Star Tribune. The dispute resembled nothing so much as a couple of scavengers picking over bones.

Making matters worse in the Twin Cities market has been the nasty legal battle that's costing both newspapers millions in legal fees, not to mention the respect of many readers and employees. Last week, the Star Tribune's Newspaper Guild employees voted by a near-unanimous margin, 110-2, to demand the resignation of Ridder.

"Par has shown he can do two things," says veteran reporter Steve Brandt. "Steal a laptop and cut jobs."

When the McClatchy Company bought the Star Tribune in 1998, the economic prospects for daily newspapers still seemed bright. The Cowles family, which had operated what were originally two newspapers since 1935, sold out at a top price. Folks in and outside of the newsroom wondered about new ownership. "You know what they say: 'the last hired, the first fired,"' Strib reporter Allie Shah told the Pioneer Press.

But to the relief of reporters and readers, the eventual suitor, the McClatchy Company, bore a striking resemblance to the Cowles. A family business that had operated newspapers in California for 150 years, McClatchy espoused the same respect for journalism that had been a hallmark of the Cowles era. The McClatchy chain paid $1.4 billion for the Strib, an amount well above the $1 billion Wall Street predicted the sale would fetch, making it the third most expensive media transaction of the year.

"Some analysts say we've paid too much," Gary Pruitt, CEO of McClatchy, said at the time. "I think they're wrong, and I will prove them wrong over time, and I look forward to doing that."

For a while, Pruitt seemed poised to live up to that promise. McClatchy was flush, and cash flow at the Strib had been near $90 million a year. The Star Tribune went on a rosy manifest-destiny campaign, aggressively courting readers from western Wisconsin to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The newspaper began offering zoned suburban editions, and at one point in 2001, the paper's ad revenue was up 4.9 percent.

Then the market bottomed out. The Star Tribune started seeing a dip in circulation and struggled to keep readers and revenues at home. This culminated, infamously, with a more than yearlong redesign project. When the new Strib debuted in October 2005, human-interest stories populated every section, with full-color photos that ran as big as three-quarters of a page.

To hear former and current Stribbers tell it, the situation has only worsened with time.

"I still get the paper, and I find there's very little in there I want to read," says Conrad deFeibre, a Capitol reporter who took a buyout after 34 years. "They've gone a little yellow."

Longtime staffers point to the late 1980s as a high point of the paper's success. By then, the Strib had hit its stride after the 1982 merger of the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune. Under editor Joel Kramer and publisher Roger Parkinson, the Strib boldly dubbed itself "The Newspaper of the Twin Cities," opened a St. Paul bureau, and aggressively expanded home delivery around the metro.

The reporting was more in-depth, the stories longer. The front page featured six or seven headlines, mostly national and international news. One week in July 1987 brought three illuminating stories on federal farm subsidies. An article by longtime pop music writer Jon Bream on the closing of the famous Carlton Celebrity Theater (immortalized in Fargo) jumped not once, but twice. A story about radioactive waste in Dearborn, Michigan, carried a Strib byline instead of the Associated Press logo.

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