Strib Queasiness

The surprise sale of the Star Tribune to a recently-formed private equity partnership has left reporters and other mid-level employees in a full churn of speculation, almost none of it good. There just isn’t handy model for these things improving the service to community or the professional/personal lives of working stiff journalists.

Nick Coleman got a round of “atta boys” from Strib colleagues for his column ripping McClatchy management for pretty much bailing on all the noble promises it made to the staff and community. It was ballsy stuff. Its refreshing to read someone brave enough to bite off the hand that fed him. My understanding is Coleman’s fill-in, holiday week editor, Nancy Barnes, took heat from McClatchy suits in Sacramento, but, bottom line, supported the column.

If you want to play cockeyed optimist, (i.e. delusional sap), here are a couple speculations floating in the aftermath of the Strib sale.

1: Avista, the private equity gang, may well have bought in strictly because the paper came available at such a startling fire sale price, roughly 40% of what McClatchy paid less than a decade ago, (and that because dumping the Star Tribune was McClatchy’s easiest, fastest, one-step move to avoid a brutal capital gains tax bill). Avista may have figured that at a price like that they can flip the thing in three-four years and see a profit … at which point … perhaps … maybe … a truly private and possibly LOCAL ownership offer … might … be feasible.

At $1.2 billion, (McClatchy’s buying price), there isn’t anyone in Minnesota with the means to take the paper over. Certainly not with every major revenue indicator pointing downward. BUT … at $530, plus Avista’s profit/carrying charge, there might be three or four.

Those three or four will take great interest in what becomes of the Los Angeles Times, where billionaire David Geffen, perhaps with one or two other tycoons, may take that paper private, and out of the grinding, reductive profit demands of Wall St.

“Private” doesn’t guarantee a commitment to full staffing and adequate resources to cover the 14th largest media market, but “LOCAL private ownership”, under the kind of “benign despot” model, holds out a glimmer of a dream whereby the one person responsible for any naked gutting of a high profile institution like a daily newspaper, would be available around town and have to submit to the kind of terse, country club bar confrontations that have an influence far larger than the mutterings of a couple hundred $60k/year reporters.

2. The other speculation is a win/lose proposition for local newspaper employees. Avista COULD decide that one way to goose profits would be to make a concerted effort to truly control the entire Twin Cities market.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press of today is competition in name only. Gutted first by Knight-Ridder’s private equity investors, hollowed out again by Media News this past Thanksgiving, and facing the very high likelihood that Media News will continue to devour it for profits via next summer’s Guild contract negotiations (or lack thereof), the Pioneer Press is in no position to suppress a full Star Tribune “surge” across the east metro. (It hasn’t been for years.)

Pioneer Press publisher, Parr Ridder, came to town talking the generic line of being a geographical alternative to the Star Tribune. The gaping hole in that logic being that the the Strib can be found everywhere the Pioneer Press is, while the Pioneer Press hasn’t ventured west of the Mississippi since Herbert Hoover. The two papers often sit side by side each other east of the river. One twice the size of the other, with indisputably broader coverage of the entire Twin Cities “community”.

Point being the Pioneer Press’s lunch is there for the taking … assuming Avista “invests” in the cost of expanded circulation and east metro staffing … not something a quick-turn equity crowd is expected to do. BUT, if they begin and show progress devaluing the Pioneer Press to east side shopper status, Avista’s successors might let that inform their judgment.

But for the foreseeable future world class skeptics will be asessing Avista’s every move for the first indication of business-as-usual profit-by-decontenting.