Toward a one-newspaper town: "I hear Pizza Hut is hiring"

At first blush, the McClatchy Company's announcement that it plans to sell off 12 Knight Ridder papers would seem to be good news for employees at the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. After all, McClatchy--which is parent company of the Star Tribune--would have scant motivation to invest in its long-time competitor. Isn't it best for all concerned that some other entity take charge of the state's oldest newspaper?

But McClatchy's vow to find a buyer for the Pi-Press--supposedly to avoid anti-trust issues--has hardly buoyed spirits in the newsroom at Cedar Street. "The announcement really didn't clear up anything for us. We're still for sale, we're just going to be sold to a different owner," observes veteran Pi-Press reporter David Hanners. "A new owner could come in and really invigorate the place. Or a new owner could come in and bleed it for whatever money they can, get the money out, and then close the place."

Hanners has some first hand perspective on the latter prospect. As a reporter with the Dallas Morning News in the early 90s, Hanners saw what happened when a competing daily, the Dallas Times Herald, was put on the auction block. After changing hands two times over a few years, the new publisher, John Buzetta, began a campaign of ruthless cost cutting. Then in 1991, with scant warning, Buzetta shut down the paper, and sold its assets to the Morning News. Presto: a one newspaper town!

In Hanners' view, the demise of the Times Herald led to a dramatic decline in the quality of reporting in Dallas. "Our management said, 'We're going to continue our commitment to excellent journalism. We're still going to do the best job we can,'" Hanners recalls. "But after a few months, we became fat, dumb and happy. We had created a newsroom culture that was fueled by competition. When you took that competition out of the mix, and the editor suddenly had nothing to compare their daily product to, the pressure was off. Competition keeps you honest. We could sluff off. If we didn't cover something, it didn't happen."

According to Hanners, for the past few months a lot of nervous staffers at the Pioneer Press have been putting the spit and polish to their resumes. Just last week, he notes, staff writer Tim Huber quit his job to take a position with the Associated Press in West Virginia. In the old journalistic paradigm, abandoning a big city paper for a wire service gig might have been regarded as a step down; in the uncertainty of the current market, that is no longer the case.

For Pi Press employees, the most appealing scenario for the future involves a purchase of the paper by the Newspaper Guild. "Maybe if there isn't continuous pressure from stockholders to make obscene profits, we could get back to journalism," Hanners muses. (He notes that the Wall Street regards the Pi Press' 10 percent profit margin as a liability, even though the same margin in other industries is considered more than adequate).

But a worker-friendly purchase by the union also introduces an element of uncertainty. After all, the guild has never run a newspaper; now it aims to run 12. And then there is the question of McClatchy's motives? Economically, it is not in McClatchy's interest that the Pioneer Press fall into the hands of a robust competitor. It seems a safe bet, then, that the company would prefer to unload the Pi Press on either a ruthless cost-cutter or patent incompetent.

For his part, Hanners has adopted something of a que sera sera posture. "Whatever happens is going to happen," he says. "I hear Pizza Hut is hiring down the street. Perhaps I should have asked for spousal support in the last divorce."

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