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.

Employees of the Star Tribune, who have just one more year left on their labor contract, are anxiously watching the negotiations, knowing that it will set the table for their own talks. "What MediaNews has proposed is essentially an attempt to break that unit," says Chris Serres, a business reporter and union officer at the Star Tribune. "You have to be prepared for the worst. What we're seeing across the river certainly is the worst-case scenario."

Last week, the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press filed final arguments in the case that will decide whether Par Ridder and two newspaper executives he lured across the river will be permitted to perform their new jobs. A ruling isn't expected until the end of summer. But no matter what the judge decides, the case seems likely to drag on for months, if not years.

As far-fetched as it might seem given the current animosity between the two papers, many media observers believe that ultimately the competing dailies will put away the knives and work more closely together. A hallmark of MediaNews's operating philosophy has been to enter into so-called joint operating agreements in markets where there is more than one daily paper. In cities across the country—Denver, Salt Lake City, Detroit—the newspaper chain has opted to work with the competition rather than attempt to kill it off. "They certainly do have a comfort level with joint operating agreements," says Rick Edmonds, of the Poynter Institute.

David Kern

Frederick Mott, a veteran MediaNews executive who served as interim publisher of the Pioneer Press for three months after Ridder departed, says this practice reflects Singleton's business philosophy. "Dean sees that as the way to operate, not be off in your own little shell reinventing the wheel," he says.

Singleton insists, however, that the Star Tribune's deceitful behavior makes such an agreement impossible at this point. "You cooperate with competitors that you trust," says Singleton. "There's certainly been a breach of trust."

Probably a bigger impediment is that Justice Department guidelines require that at least one of the newspapers be operating in the red. Despite all the hand wringing over declining profits, neither daily is running a deficit. In fact, just last year, the Star Tribune had profits of roughly $50 million.

In the long run, however, a merger or buyout of some sort makes economic sense. Former Strib editor and publisher Joel Kramer points out that there's been a "slow erosion" of newspaper subscribers for 50 years. "You have drop in revenue in a business that has high fixed costs. That's it in a nutshell," he says.

For two decades, many have assumed the Star Tribune would eventually swallow the smaller St. Paul daily. The Pioneer Press so far has survived. But whether through a merger, a takeover, or a shuttering of one paper or the other, the prospect of having just one major daily in the Twin Cities seems more likely than ever. "I think the business logic says it will happen," Kramer says. "I don't have a crystal ball to say where or when, but it seems inevitable."

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