Toward a one-newspaper town, part two

On Saturday, the Star Tribune posted a curious story about the uncertain future of its main rival, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. As noted in this space previously, speculation about the Pi Press is fully warranted, given the shareholder revolt at Knight Ridder.

The second sentence of the Strib piece was the odd part. Wrote reporters Deborah Caulfield Rybak and Terry Fiedler: "A scenario in which the McClatchy Co., owner of the Star Tribune, buys the Pioneer Press to eliminate a competitor is seen as particularly unlikely."

Since flaks for both companies declined to comment, the reporters relied on a newspaper industry consultant to support this sanguine claim. The analyst, John Morton, declared that Justice Department regulators simply wouldn't stand for such a flagrantly monopolistic deal.

Oh really? Tell that to the people living in the Twin Ports, where less than two years ago, Knight Ridder, owner of the Duluth News Tribune, quietly snapped up its rival in Superior, Wisconsin, the Daily Telegram. [Disclosure: I worked at the Telegram in the early nineties.]

Yes, the Twin Ports is much smaller market and, consequently, media transactions don't attract much attention. But otherwise the parallels are striking. In fact, in one critical regard, the Twin Ports deal is more egregious than any hypothetical purchase of the Pi Press by McClatchy. Why? Because in addition to swallowing the Telegram, Knight Ridder bought four Duluth-area weeklies, effectively giving the chain a stranglehold on print advertising in the Twin Ports. And guess what? No trust busting lawyers from the Justice Department came riding in to save the day.

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