Shades of Mediocrity

Thomas N. Collins

On Thursday, November 13, Cowles Media Co. announced it would sell its assets to California-based McClatchy Newspapers Inc. for the unprecedented price of $1.4 billion. Employees at the Cowles's Star Tribune were slack-jawed. No one--including the beat writer covering the sale, Terry Fiedler--knew McClatchy was a potential buyer. Only a handful of reporters were even aware McClatchy owned 10 daily and 13 non-daily newspapers in the U.S., including the Sacramento, Fresno and Modesto Bees, the Anchorage Daily News, and the Raleigh News & Observer.

In less than 24 hours, though, the collective reaction turned from shock to a wait-and-see shrug, a phenomenon that unnerved the Strib's token liberal, Doug Grow. In his Friday column, Grow said he expected the sale to spark more staff passion, especially since the locally owned, family-run paper was the last of a dying breed. ("Even the surviving so-called 'alternative newspaper' in the Twin Cities is a piece of the Stern Publishing chain," Grow observed.)

Over the following weekend, Grow's fitting cynicism was dwarfed by page after page of emphatic proclamations about both Cowles and their successor. "McClatchy is down-to-earth, with high journalistic standards," one headline read. The good vibes were further stimulated by McClatchy President and CEO Gary Pruitt, who gave a five-star performance at an "Employee Information Meeting." Loose and eminently approachable, the thirtysomething Pruitt insisted there would be no layoffs and guaranteed local autonomy, all the while calming the nervous room with easy one-liners and bald-faced flattery. ("The Star Tribune is one of the best papers in the country," he said more than once.) Because the proceedings were so nonchalant, a male employee felt comfortable telling the athletic, clean-cut Pruitt that some of the females at the Strib were wondering whether or not he was married. "I am," Pruitt said with a boyish blush. "But I appreciate the sentiment."

Pruitt's polished but predictable shtick notwithstanding, Strib employees and readers have some reason to feel relieved. Their paper isn't being gobbled up by a union-busting monolith like the Tribune Co., a shameless money grubber like Times Mirror Co., or a cookie-cutter chain like Gannett (KARE-11's mothership). Instead of becoming just another space on the monopoly board, the 130-year-old daily is going to be a powerful player with the highest circulation of any McClatchy paper. If McClatchy can handle the initial debt load, the Strib could initially enjoy a windfall of resources.

Even media scholar and perpetual skeptic Ben Bagdikian, author of "The Media Monopoly," agrees the Strib and its readers "got the best of the lot, if that lot included Times Mirror and Gannett." Bagdikian, now retired from the University of California at Berkeley, argues the competitive presence of the St. Paul Pioneer Press helps ensure McClatchy won't abandon the Strib in favor of the bottom line, at least not in the short term. "If they had a regional monopoly, McClatchy would be under pressure from Wall Street to minimize cost and increase profit levels. They would be more apt to downsize staff and shift emphasis from serious news to fluff," he says. "But when there's competition, especially from a chain with the relatively consistent journalistic integrity of Knight-Ridder, there's more pressure to allocate resources to news stories readers care about, to ensure a faithful, long-term audience. Because if readers sense their community is being covered more seriously in one paper, they'll stop picking up the other."

Pat Stith, an investigative journalist at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, says he was nervous when McClatchy bought the family-owned N&O in August 1995. But now he insists the paper "lucked out." "Editorially I can't tell any difference," he says. "People put in charge before are still in charge. People with editorial integrity are valued."

Of course, business as usual at the Strib is not necessarily a panacea. Some staffers have voiced off-the-record disappointment that the New York Times Co. didn't end up buying the paper from Cowles. They might've kicked up some dust; given the Strib's investigative work more room to breathe; hired beat reporters interested in more than skimming the surface; and forced feature writers to develop critical sensibilities. They might have demanded that the Strib's fat and lazy newsroom rev up a bit.

McClatchy's editorial vision, by contrast, is in sync with the tradition of Cowles Media. Bagdikian calls it "being safe." He describes papers which produce solid, but unsurprising news coverage to complement an editorial vision that's socially liberal and fiscally "responsible"--papers, in a word, like the Strib.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN NORTH MINNEAPOLIS: Last Friday night at 10, KARE-11 once again set out to prove that if you scare 'em, they will watch. Reporter--and in this case, we use the term loosely--Rick Kupchella's "Extra," entitled "Blind Justice," sold statistical correlation as causal fact, masked arrogant editorializing as objective reason, and packed more manipulative, gratuitous visuals into four minutes than an entire episode of Cops.

"There's a lot to be proud of in the state of Minnesota," Kupchella said as viewers watched stock footage of waves crashing against the North Shore. "But you're not likely to find it out here... on the streets of North Minneapolis." Cue black kids, crack pipes, and preening cops.

The alleged purpose of the story--according to promotional spots done by the anchor-hungry Kupchella himself--was to link Minneapolis's high crime rate to Minnesota's low incarceration rate. In fact, the report served as nothing more than a campaign ad for Minneapolis Police Lt. Rich Stanek, a Republican state representative from Maple Grove fighting the good fight against "some other folks who still believe rehabilitation is the only way to go." Kupchella didn't bother to mention that the population in over-crowded prisons such as Lino Lakes has doubled in a decade, or that Minnesota now has tougher sentences than almost any other state. He neglected to wonder why juvenile crime has increased at the same time more kids are being carted off to adult prison and failed to produce a source or study to link his metropolitan data to his statewide data to his national data (some of which dated back to 1990). There were no statistics linking prison time with recidivism rates. KARE-11 then conveniently forgot to mention that the violent-crime rate in Minneapolis has fallen this year by 5 percent.

Apparently, because Kupchella's spent five hours in the hood with Stanek, we're supposed to accept his hastily drawn conclusions as expertise. "We're not living in the '50s and '60s anymore," Kupchella concluded. "It was another world back then." Cue white kids, Dad's pipe, and a lawn jockey, preening on mom's manicured lawn.

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