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.

"We only own one other block downtown, and we are about to invest a big piece of the cash we'll get from the sale of the other four blocks so we can move more of our people into that remaining block," Harte writes in an email to City Pages. "If we had wanted to include that block in the sale, we would have."

Regardless of the fate of the land, Avista has already created a near mutiny in the newsroom with its handling of the Par Ridder controversy.

"It hurt, it was outrageous," Weiner says. "Reporters were saying, 'He's toast, you've harmed the brand, you're toast.' If I were Mr. Avista, whoever that is, I would have fired him right there. Do you know what that would have done to morale in the newsroom?"

David Kern

Instead, Avista let Riddergate play out in the media and eventually the courtroom. The inexplicable loyalty to Ridder has fueled speculation that his family might have a financial stake in Avista. Tony Ridder, Par's father and the former chairman of Knight Ridder, has denied that the family has any connection to the private equity firm. And a recent New York Times article reported that "Par Ridder stated unequivocally that neither his father nor any other member of the Ridder family was part of Avista, and another person familiar with the deal to buy The Star Tribune concurred." (Par Ridder did not return calls for this story.)

Harte defends the embattled publisher, insisting that he's been treated unfairly by the media. "I'm frankly astounded at how many journalists are jumping to conclusions on the basis of allegations of a competitor who is obviously out to gain competitive advantage," he writes.

Avista claims that it's in the newspaper business for the long haul—Harte writes that he expects Avista to own the paper for "quite a while." But fears persist that the company bought the paper to cut costs and sell out within five years for a quick profit, something for which private equity firms are notorious.

"I think people were hopeful, waiting to see what Avista would be doing," says Weiner. "But after the big round of buyouts, it became clear that they wanted cuts. The dynamic changed."

Shortly after MediaNews acquired the Pioneer Press last August, William Dean Singleton paid a visit to the St. Paul newsroom. The CEO assured editorial staffers that he had no intention of shutting the paper down. "You're joining us because we want you," Singleton told employees, according to a story in the Pioneer Press. "We think there's a lot of opportunity here, and if we didn't want it, we wouldn't have bought it."

But employees had good reason to worry. During more than three decades in the newspaper business, Singleton earned the nickname "Lean Dean"—a reference to his habit of trimming costs and employees. His checkered résumé includes shuttering the Fort Worth Press in 1975 and gutting the Trenton Times in the early '80s. In 1995, he sold the Houston Post to Hearst, which owned the newspaper's chief competitor, the Houston Chronicle, and immediately closed the newly acquired paper.

In the last decade, however, Singleton's reputation has undergone something of a rehabilitation. In 2001, he became chairman of the Newspaper Association of America and was named "Publisher of the Year" by Editor & Publisher magazine. He has earned plaudits for his stewardship of the chain's flagship paper, the Denver Post. Summing up the transformation, a 2003 profile in the Columbia Journalism Review called it "The Evolution of Dean Singleton."

But the ever-worsening economics of the newspaper industry have caused Lean Dean to revert to form recently. Last month, the Denver Post laid off seven newsroom employees. They joined 14 former editorial staffers who voluntarily took buyout packages.

In recent weeks, Pioneer Press employees have gotten a tutorial in the company's hardball labor-relations philosophy. Last month, contract negotiations began between Media-News and the 380 Pioneer Press employees represented by the Minnesota Newspaper Guild Typographical Union. (The current five-year labor deal expires at the end of this month.) The process has not been pretty. The initial proposal from MediaNews asked for a laundry list of concessions. Most seemed aimed at cutting costs and weakening the union. Under the proposal, all restrictions on hiring freelancers would be eliminated. Employees who work for online and niche publications would be excluded from union membership. Mileage reimbursement would be reduced by nearly a third, from 48.5 cents to 35 cents, at a time when gas prices have hit $3 a gallon. And in perhaps the most foreboding proposal, MediaNews wants to reduce severance pay from 38 weeks to just 12. More layoffs are clearly on the minds of management—last week brought word that 30 staff positions would be cut.

Alex Friedrich, a Pioneer Press reporter who sits on the union's bargaining committee, argues that the proposed changes would significantly undermine the newspaper's editorial integrity. "Do you really want some inexperienced freelancer covering a city council meeting?" he asks. "Ultimately, it's the people of these two cities who are going to have to live with the consequences."

Rick Edmonds, a newspaper analyst at the Poynter Institute, says that the bargaining behavior is vintage MediaNews. "That fits the pattern in San Jose and other places where MediaNews operates," he says. "They have typically come in looking for a lot of concessions in work rules and health care and those kinds of things."

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