Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Trouble in River Cities

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Trouble in River Cities

Article excerpt

The Mississippi River has served as a divider and natural barrier for St. Paul and Minneapolis and their respective newspapers, and each daily has cleaved to its own sense of uniqueness. There are only a few similar markets in the United States, and the one most often compared to the Twin Cities, Dallas/Ft. Worth, actually has plenty of geography separating the two major dailies, so they can comfortably operate as distinct, if competitive, entities.

The two Minnesota cities, on the other hand, back into each other.

In an industry in which papers are often subsumed by their competitors, it's rare that Minnesota has the luxury of supporting two papers, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune.

But that could change. The newspaper- operating environment has deteriorated so quickly that St. Paul and Minneapolis, considered one designated market area -- or DMA, a measurement used by advertisers to parcel out dollars -- is in danger of becoming a one-horse town. On top of the plummeting advertising revenue affecting big metros everywhere, both papers have brand-new owners -- and are now embroiled in a heated lawsuit stemming from the Pioneer Press publisher who crossed the river to head up the competing Star Tribune.

Par Ridder's decamping for the Star Tribune was already unusual by industry standards, but it's proving to be even more impactful than anyone could have imagined. In the lawsuit brought by Pioneer Press owner MediaNews Group earlier this summer, Ridder testified in a Ramsey County courthouse in St. Paul that he took Pioneer Press proprietary advertising information, including specific rates, and shared that information with executives at his new paper.

With newspaper after newspaper reporting alarming double-digit losses in advertising revenue, a competitor armed with rate information could, in the view of several newspaper execs who declined to be identified for this story, tip the advantage to the Star Tribune.

The backslapping, boys-club aesthetic that publishers have long enjoyed in this industry is giving way to a much more competitive, some might even say mean-spirited atmosphere as newspapers look for ways to survive the transition from print to the Web. The Ridder court hearing only underscores how difficult things have become, particularly for metros that operate in the same sphere.

Former Merrill Lynch newspaper analyst Lauren Rich Fine sums up the Minnesota situation bluntly: "There should be only one paper. Think how many markets have two newspapers, and how many of those operate under a JOA."

Already there have been rumblings that the "Strib" and "Pi-Press" are headed for joint ownership, especially since Pioneer Press overseer MediaNews Group runs several such operations. MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton claims a joint agreement hasn't even entered his thought process: "There has never been any discussion of a JOA at this point because both newspapers are profitable, and as you know, one paper has to be unprofitable."

In any event, both papers -- which have enjoyed prosperity in the past -- are headed for a rough battle in which only one might emerge.

Glory days

"I think if you go way back, despite these two cities being right next to each other, there was quite a sense of separate identity" for the two dailies, says Rick Edmonds, a business analyst with the Poynter Institute. Edmonds should know -- he grew up in Minneapolis and worked as an intern at the Star Tribune during the summer of 1968. "For many years, both papers did well," he adds.

The Pioneer Press -- along with the St. Paul Dispatch -- was one of the first papers purchased by the Ridder family in the 1920s and the city served as the headquarters for Ridder Publications Inc. Bernard H. Ridder Jr., the father of Anthony Ridder and grandfather of Par Ridder, managed the St. Paul papers in the late 1950s as publisher, spending 25 years in Minnesota. …

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