Toward a one newspaper town, part three

So it turns out that the McClatchy Company might make a play for Knight Ridder after all. Both the Star Tribune, owned by McClatchy, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, owned by Knight Ridder, have published stories pooh-poohing this scenario. But today's San Jose Mercury News, a K-R paper, reignited speculation when it reported that "McClatchy is currently weighing whether to make a bid, according to a person with knowledge of the company's thinking."

That fuzzy attribution may raise some eyebrows. But if McClatchy really had no interest in K-R, you might expect the company would do as rival chain Gannett has done: forthrightly announce its lack of interest. That hasn't happened.

Today's Strib and Pi Press offer significantly different takes on the latest development. In its story, the Pi Press quoted two anti-trust regulators, who opined that a takeover of the Pi Press by McClatchy would probably be blocked by the Justice Department. That echoed a November 19 Strib story, which quoted newspaper industry analyst John Morton as saying that he doubted the Justice Department would countenance such a deal.

It might have come as some surprise to the Strib's more careful readers to see a much less skeptical Morton quoted in today's story. The relevant passage:

Newspaper industry analyst John Morton told the Mercury News that McClatchy would be a good fit for Knight Ridder.

"That would be the best of all possible worlds for everyone who works for Knight Ridder," Morton said. "They have a strong journalistic tradition, and it's still closely held by the family. They wouldn't come in and wreck the place."

So what does Morton really think? Reached by phone today, the Maryland-based consultant said he believes a McClatchy takeover would be "culturally a good fit." But, he added, he still doubts the feds would allow the Pi Press to be swallowed by McClatchy.

As has been pointed out in this space previously, tell that to folks living in the Twin Ports, where last year Knight Ridder, owner of the Duluth News Tribune, purchased the rival daily in Superior.

For his part, Morton ackowledges that the Justice Department has chosen not to intervene in lesser markets like Duluth-Superior. "Generally, the Justice Department hasn't complained when a much larger newspaper has taken over a suburban or smaller daily in the same market," he offered. "The threshold is size. These are two sizeable newspapers and any deal would not only attract the Justice Department's attention, but its opposition."

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