When the McClatchy newspaper chain announced the day after Christmas that they would be selling off the Star Tribune to a private buyout firm for less than half the sum they paid for it eight years ago, not a single soul in the Strib's newsroom
saw it coming. Among the myriad opinions expressed about the devaluation of the paper, the sale, and what it means for the future of the Strib, McClatchy's blindsiding of its staff was the lone source of unanimous consensus among the nearly two dozen newsroom employees City Pages spoke with over a three-day period last week.
"I guess being sold is a fact of life in this industry, where there is no safe place anymore," says Dan Browning, a reporter and editor who has logged eight years at the Strib after spending five at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul. "But we were led down a path to believe that McClatchy was in fact different—that they don't lay off people, for example. But then we saw that they laid off some people in Sacramento recently. So then we were thinking there may be some layoffs here. But nobody expected that they'd essentially lay us off in our entirety."
"I think we are really, really pissed because our jobs are to be watchdogs and we didn't see this coming," says another reporter, who, like many of the younger staffers at the paper who are most vulnerable to being laid off, chose to remain anonymous or not speak at all. "That has created a high level of distrust in the newsroom and a certain feeling of betrayal."
But Strib staffers aren't just pissed at themselves. They have plenty of anger to go around. One favored target is Gary Pruitt, McClatchy's chairman and CEO, who talked about working together to stay ahead of the pack and arranged a sale on the sly when the going got tough. A close second: Anders Gyllenhaal, the former editor of the Strib who conveniently announced he was leaving to edit the Miami Herald—one of the papers McClatchy acquired from Knight Ridder last year—less than two weeks before the Strib was sold. Gyllenhaal has said he did not know of the impending sale when he took the Miami job.
"There is enough anger to go around, but from what I hear, it is mainly directed at Pruitt and Anders," says Rochelle Olson, a metro reporter who has worked at the paper for seven years. "There's a lot of derisive talk about Pruitt, because he was painted in other media as the golden boy, this tanned San Franciscan up-and-comer who liked rock and roll music and talked about a new paradigm. He and Anders led people to believe they cared about journalism. And when push came to shove, all they cared about was the bottom line."
"Pruitt is a joke," said another newsroom source who prefers anonymity. "He said he would consider taking the company private again if the pressure for profits from Wall Street became too much. When he bought the Strib and critics said he paid too much, he said, 'I will prove them wrong over time and I look forward to doing that.' But he and McClatchy came into Minneapolis with all these promises and damaged two newspapers, us and the Pioneer Press." (McClatchy acquired the Pi Press in last year's $6 billion Knight Ridder purchase, but then sold the paper, in a complicated deal, to Hearst, but to be managed by Dean Singleton's Media News group.)
Not everyone was unhappy with Pruitt and his company. "I was proud to be a member of McClatchy," says Neal Justin, the Strib's television critic. "It was doing the right things, the things I care about, like diversity and no layoffs. Every corporate executive has to put a sunny face on everything; they can't say we've only got one more year together. Of all the executives I've met in this business, Gary Pruitt is one of the more impressive. I don't doubt when he says that it was a hard decision to make. It doesn't make me feel any better. But for us to sit here and equate McClatchy with Satan is a mistake." And the Strib's faith and values reporter, Pamela Miller, who also serves as secretary of the Strib's unit of the Twin Cities Newspaper Guild, says, "We are more worried and anxious than angry. I don't know of anybody who is really angry at Anders."
"Obviously Pruitt is the number one source of anger, and then it spreads out depending on who you speak with," says columnist Doug Grow. "There is certainly some anger at Anders. Here is the ship listing, and there goes the captain. And that certainly is a mighty fine-looking dinghy he's got out there."
Yet perhaps even more than Gyllenhaal's well-timed exit, his and Pruitt's pushing of an expensive, controversial 2005 redesign of the paper grated on staffers, especially when it seemed to produce nothing but faster-than-industry-average circulation drops that eventually prompted McClatchy to unload the paper. "Personally, I don't like what has happened in the last two years with a lot of the redesign issues," says Grow. "I'm not saying we didn't need to change, but too many days we insult our readers. We are in some respects a weaker newspaper than when McClatchy took over—the circulation figures certainly bear that out."
"Anders came in here and said we were the flagship paper and, oh—we were going to work so hard to save journalism as we know it. Then they did the redesign first and asked questions later," Olson remembers. "Some of us had issues with that and weren't heard, in my opinion, and now they are bailing. I still think this is a good paper with the potential to be a great paper in a community that likes to read. But they did the redesign with an attitude that 'We know best,' and then all of a sudden we became a drag on the corporate bottom line. I don't think you can discount the redesign in that process. Not just the cost of doing it, but [the fact] that we are fluffier, that we are dumbing down."
"A lot of people here expressed disdain about the redesign," adds Miller. "It was to make us look pretty, and a lot of people think all that money should have gone into new media—maybe that would have been a better use for it. People here really felt like we bent over backwards to try and do what McClatchy wanted."
No one professes to have any idea what to make of Avista Capital Partners, the fledgling investment group that purchased the Strib and whose other holdings include energy, health care, and other media properties. "I think the mood is wary but not scared," says Bill Ward, a features writer who has been with the Strib for 20 years. "I think that having a strong union is responsible for some of that. And since I don't think there is that much affection for the devil we know, the devil we don't know is not that scary an option. If a company is making profits that are approaching 20 percent a year and that is not enough, then something is wrong with the way it is set up. The advertising people always told me that when they were doing their projections, there was always pressure from Sacramento [McClatchy headquarters] to ratchet them up, so it was inflated expectations that ended up not being met. And I'd love a company who worried about quality more than byline counts, which was the pressure from McClatchy the last few years.
"The problem is, we don't know Avista's intentions. I'd be surprised if they didn't want to sell the land to the Vikings. That would make a lot of sense. But I'd like to think they bought us because we are a good value. I did not like being part of a publicly held company beholden to Wall Street. Five years from now I think there is a good chance that this could be seen as a trend, as one of the first newspapers sold to a small private concern."
"We had a guild meeting on Tuesday that was surprisingly calm," says Steve Brandt, a veteran reporter who covers the Minneapolis schools beat. "I don't know if that reflects young people expecting to go through job changes that my generation didn't, or because we have been through this once with McClatchy, or that we were reminded what was in the contract. In this climate, we are taking a chance with [venture capitalists] whose industry M.O. is to strip and flip. That is our fear, but we don't know if this particular company is serious about finding out how to solve the newspaper business conundrum of how to stay relevant in a digital age and still make a profit that allows us to have the scale that we do."
"The damage from the sale is apparent," says Mike Meyers, the Strib's veteran business reporter. "We don't have a Washington bureau. Actually we don't even have a server; everything served online is out of North Carolina through McClatchy, so they are going to have to have some contracts between McClatchy and the new owners. I read they have some agreement to get things like that for one year after the sale, but one year isn't a lot of time. Then again, who knows if they want to? Ambitions are being ratcheted down in journalism on a fairly routine basis. We now have to fill out a form for the managing editor if we want to travel more than 100 miles. The things you hear about now are the province of circulation and marketing departments, not the newsroom. When I started out, I always knew I had a rube on the phone when he or she said, 'Your editor only wants to sell newspapers.' When I heard that, I knew they were a know-nothing. Now when someone says that to me, I have no response because I agree with them. All the talk is constantly about circulation and readership and those were almost never talked about before."
It is that sense of being abandoned, not only by McClatchy but perhaps by the march of time, that most unnerves especially the longtime Strib employees. "This is a destination newspaper: three-quarters of our staff has been here 20 years," says a newsroom employee who wishes to remain anonymous. "Nobody thought we would be sold, especially after the redesign. There was already a lost sense of identity after the redesign and now, wow, you hear talk about selling the land and the building itself here. A few months ago, we were touted as being among the most stable papers in the industry, and now it is hell. You see people talking in small groups, and they're talking about how to pay for their kids to go to college. You see people hugging each other more and patting each other on the back on the way by. There are a lot of people walking around here with softer eyes."
"A lot of us here, a core group, are too young to be eligible for Social Security and too old to be considered young," says reporter Mike Kaszuba. "We need to squeeze out another 10 years to stay in this industry. And you sit back and say, wow, I wonder if there is another 10 years left in this industry? We are the Watergate babies, from back when it was cool and sexy to be a journalist. We were naive, goofy idealists in a way. Now it is about dollars and cents. The thing I got into it for, I'm not sure it's even among the top five reasons this place runs anymore. Your best day is publishing a story that you'd really like to have your name on top of, for all the right reasons. And you look around and wonder how many people who are around here anymore share that need to put out a paper that matters. Then you see what McClatchy paid for us and what they sold it for and you think, my god, I am sitting in a Model-T here.
"It wasn't like we were the New York Times before the redesign," Kaszuba continues. "Compromises have been happening all around. It is like the melting of the polar ice cap. There have been a whole series of what you could call redesigns that have taken us down this slope, where we get more interested in what Britney Spears is doing than what the chair of the county board is doing. It still comes down to [the fact] that we have to give people a reason to go and put 50 cents in that paper box. The thing that I hold on to, and I don't know if this is being stupid or not, is that if they are going to put out a newspaper, they are going to need somebody to go out and get some news. That is what I got into this business for. The question becomes, do they give you 30 inches to write the news or four inches? And at what point in the tradeoff will I decide it is time to get out?"
"I can't describe my feelings," says Meyers brusquely. "I'll let Stephen Colbert deal with feelings. Who gives a shit about my feelings? To me what is interesting are the facts, and there are plenty of them. Let the reader decide: Our circulation has gone down far faster than the industry average and those numbers are there to read. The big fear for the oldsters is that the satisfaction of the job is eroding. I didn't go into this job to retire at 50 or to make a fortune. I did it because I liked it and I enjoyed the work. It is a calling. And over time, it has become more and more of a regular job where you show up do your job and leave. And that is a goddamn shame."