Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is mad as hell and won't take it any more. He writes, McClatchy's profit-and-loss statement: They profit, we lose

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By Bruce B. Brugmann

For months now, as the Knight-Ridder/McClatchy/Hearst/Singleton/Gannett/Stephens debacle has unfolded, I have been looking in vain to see if a staff member on any of the papers of the nation's biggest chains (reporter, columnist, editorial writer, editor, union spokesperson, ad salesman, letter writer, blogger, anybody) would beallowed to blast away at this deal of ultimate toxicity in their papers, on their websites, or in their blogs. (Note my postscript to the newspaper unions to this effect in my previous blog.)

The closest I have seen is an excellent First Amendment column by Thomas Peele in the Contra Costa Times/Singleton, raising the right issues about why his owner/publisher had moved to seal the court records in the Reilly vs. Hearst antitrust case in federal court. (See my earlier blog.) James Naughton, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and a K-R stockholder, and a gang of former Knight-Ridder staffers, mostly retired or off staff, also published online a sharp letter rebuke to K-R Chairman Tony Ridder and the K-R board for rolling over and refusing to fight it out with the dissident private equity stockholders.

Now, two days after McClatchy tossed the Star Tribune into the snow banks of Northern Minnesota, columnist Nick Coleman on Thursday wrote a classic column that ought to go into the journalist textbooks at the University of Minnesota and everywhere else. He lays out in a snapshot of what happens to the Twin Cities when McClatchy and Knight-Ridder conspire in a misbegotten deal that leaves St. Paul with Singleton and Minneapolis with, gulp, a one-year-old New York private equity group firm with no newspaper holdings nor experience. Ironically, perhaps the reason the Star Tribune ran his column was because McClatchy was beating it out of town, fast, at full gallop, and the paper was suddenly thrust under the new ownership of Avista Capital Partners, which hadn't gotten the knack of monopoly press control and censorship. Chalk up one good mark for the new owner.

Coleman flashed his sword in his lead paragraphs: "When the McClatchy Co. got the keys to the Star Tribune in l998, McClatchy's patriarch hailed the merger. James McClatchy called it a wedding of two newspaper traditions that shared "'a deep-rooted commitment to building a just society.'

"You are now permitted to laugh derisively.

"Eight years later, hardly anyone in the newspaper business talks about anything other than building profit margins that would choke a robber baron.

"Mercifully, McClatchy passed away in May and did not live to see the Sacrmento-based company that bore his name disgrace his legacy by dumping its largest newspaper--the most important one between Chicago and the West Coast, the one that serves 5 million Minnesotans and that can be a conscience, a scold, a cheerleader and an interpreter of life on the tundra."

Coleman ended with a scathing flourish: "McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt did not bother to come to Minnesota on Tuesday to say he surreptitously had sold the paper and to kiss us goodbye.

"But McClatchy brass gave us some nice parting shots from afar, complaining that the Star Tribune had lost value (and proving it in a secret auction at fire-sale prices), calling the flagship a drag on profits and sayiong McClatchy would have shown a one-percent increase in ad sales if the Star Tribune weren't included. One per cent Huzzah!
Sound the trumpets!

"There's the market for you: the Star Tribune held down ad sales one percent. So One-Percent Pruitt axed his best newspaper. Brilliant.

"'The Star Tribune is one fo the best newspapers in this country,'" Pruitt said in l998. "'The Twin Cities is one of the most attractive newspaper markets in the country. And it was a near perfect fit in terms of values and traditions.'

"We didn't change. But you, Mr. Pruitt? We don't recognize you anymore. So long.

"Don't bother to write."

I like that, and I'll bet a lot of Minnesotans will like that. I can speak with authority because, as a native of Rock Rapids, Iowa, situated five miles from the Minnesota state line just south of Luverne, Minnesota, I grew up with the Star Tribune and its sister paper, the Des Moines Register, both highly respected papers who looked upon the entire states of Minnesota and Iowa as their beats. They were owned at that time by the Cowles family, who lived in Minneapolis and Des Moines, and cared deeply about journalism and Minnesota and Iowa. I spent many a Sunday morning back in the late l940s riding about town proudly delivering the Sunday Register. Everybody, it seemed, in Minnesota and Iowa, read and lived by the Star Tribune and Register. They were our friendly hometown papers.

Coleman has set the standard: The least newspaper owners can do these days of monopoly mayhem is to allow their staff members and readers to write openly and honestly as appropriate in their papers and websites about the way they and their communities are being treated by their owners and publishers. In the meantime, I toast with a Potrero Hill martini Nick Coleman and his editors who passed his story into print. Bravo! keep it up!

Lingering question: Why didn't Tony Ridder fight like hell to keep his family heritage chain of papers? And why didn't the Knight-Ridder board, or his key executives, push him privately or publicly to put up a fight. Every Knight-Ridder executive I run into, I ask the question: how in the world did this happen and why didn't Tony and Knight-Riddger put up a fight? I have yet to get a satisfactory answer. I kept reading Tony's comments at the time to the effect that he had no choice and that a sale would keep the peace and minimize the tumult in his chain papers.

How could there be more tumult and more damage than there is now? Did Tony and his board really think that McClatchy could swallow their entire chain of papers and not peddle any of them off in fire sales? Why didn't they get solid pledges from McClatchy that would at minimum save their best papers (Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury-News, Contra Costa Times, St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minneapolis Star Tribune et al)? I believed then, and i believe now, that Tony and the Knight-Ridder people made a bad mistake by not putting up a big public fight and talking publicly, not just about its respectable 20 per cent profit margins, but also about its reputation for quality journalism, community involvement, the prestigious Knight Foundation, and major First Amendment and public access advocacy.

Moreover, while much of the mainstream press was marching us into Iraq and practicing stenographic reporting of the Bush administration, Knight-Ridder and its Washington bureau regularly did some of the most critical news reporting and editorial writing on Bush and the war of any of the major media. I assure you, Dean Singleton and Avista Capital partners aren't about to pick up the slack, hit hard on Bush and the war, or even try to develop much original Washington and foreign news coverage. Alas. I hope I'm wrong. I refer you to Brugmann's Law: once you damage quality papers like these, it's tough as hell to bring them back. Alas. I hope I'm wrong.

Stay alert--we will keep running the major stories that the Hearst/Singleton monopoly papers refuse to print. B3

Nick Coleman: McClatchy's profit-and-loss statement: They profit, we lose