If Only We Could All Get in Touch with Our Inner Par

For me, the on-going Par Ridder saga/scandal/circus has become an anthropological study as much as legal story. I’ve seen the rich operate before, but rarely with such a flagrant indifference to moment and setting.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve misspent thousands of hours fawning over movie and TV stars, (and local TV news readers who thought they were Hollywood stars). I should have known better. But the (free) drinks were strong and the objects of my attention much better-looking than your average robber baron. But this Ridder business, in the context of the death spiral of newspapers and the lay-offs and backsliding wage standards of literally hundreds of middle-class households here in the Twin Cities has truly been startling.

During one of Par’s patience-testing explanations of why those confidential spreadsheets were booted off his Pioneer Press laptop and into the Star Tribune system, he used the term, “labor line”. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe over his three days in court that was the only reference he made to the people who actually provide the content for the newspapers he has treated like his own personal fiefdoms. (The context for mentioning the “labor line” was Ridder’s satisfaction at seeing how well one of his executives had REDUCED the impact of labor costs on the company revenue stream. A quality manager, in other words.)

I was struck how at every turn in the proceedings, in videotaped testimony from Knight Ridder execs and Star Tribune managers, there was never a sense that news gathering and/or the quantity and quality of journalism being practiced had any relation whatsoever to the “business” at hand. In stark contrast to the feckless “reorganization” /”right-sizing” of both newsrooms under Ridder, (first the PiPress than the Strib), and the pittance people like Doug Grow, Rick Linsk, etc. took with them after years of service, you don’t have to be Michael Moore to be appalled at the contrast in how Ridder has treated himself amid The Great Downturn. The hearing was full of references to extraordinarily comfortable-to-lavish executive employment and severance packages, with endless clauses and legal safeguards designed to buffer upper level managers from any heaving in their career paths.

A favorite of mine, mentioned only in passing, was the $600,000 “double trigger” Change of Ownership Agreement/pay-out Par Ridder agreed to and collected under the terms of his contract with Knight Ridder. This came as compensation for, (A.) the company being sold, (to McClatchy), and (B.) the “adverse” effect it had on him.

As it is explained to me, for the pay-out to kick in, both “triggers” have to fire simultaneously. Obviously Knight Ridder was sold. But it remains a mystery how exactly Ridder endured anything remotely “adverse.” McClatchy, after all, was asking him to stay on.

Whatever the explanation, and I’m guessing it will fall under “standard executive compensation,” my point here is just populist outrage at the thought of a $600k payday being considered fair and normal compensation for one already wealthy individual facing far less uncertainty and travail than any average employee. (Ridder’s six-member Operating Committee at the PiPress all received “stay bonuses” to keep them in place through the sale.)

(The legal curiosity here is that Par Ridder signed this formal Change of Ownership bonus “rider” in November 2005, or at almost the exact time he supposedly sought and got — he says — verbal authorization from Knight Ridder corporate to tear up his own non-compete. In other words, he agreed to a contract rider that would pay him lavishly in the event of a sale and any career inconvenience at the same moment he appears to have commenced the process of extracting himself from the company giving him $600k to stay.)

Meanwhile the sweet old ladies canned from the Star Tribune switchboard … oh, never mind.

It’d be bad enough if it were just the outrageous amounts of money tossed around to these apparently irreplaceable numbers people — playing simultaneous with both Avista and MediaNews (like Knight Ridder before it)slashing staff, stagnating salaries and sucking health care benefits away from the people who provide the actual content they sell. But in Ridder’s case there is also a second whammy. This is the ethical double-standard separating him from his employees.

Whatever Judge David C. Higgs decides, however he assesses “irreparable damage” to the Pioneer Press as a result of Ridder’s cavalier actions, the appearance of waiving your own non-compete and disseminating confidential information to a long-term traditional rival in a cratering market, Ridder’s behavior would not survive the lofty standards he imposed on the rest of the Pioneer Press when he ran the place.

His tenure as publisher was marked by an upsurge in unpaid disciplinary suspensions, some over perceived “ethics” violations.

The most notorious case involved veteran reporters, Chuck Laszewski and the above-mentioned Rick Linsk. The two attended the Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Michael Stipe, John Fogerty Vote for Change concert at the Xcel just prior to the ’04 election. The case, such as it was, was led by then editor, Vicki Gowler. But like other such suspensions it had to be approved by Ridder. In this case the two reporters were suspended three days without pay for their “conflict of interest”. (A year and a couple comically inept presentations by Gowler’s “team” later, the paper dropped the case, conceding it lacked merit … although refusing to return two of the three day’s pay. Probably saved them $1000. Classy, huh?)

The other incident involved part-time copy editor and Vietnam vet, Tim Mahoney, who in 2005 was suspended without pay for attending an anti-Iraq war rally in D.C. … on his own time. This one came with the stamp of approval of current editor Thom Fladung, (hardly his finest hour). But again, Ridder would have had to have been advised of the publicized (and snicker-inducing) action. (To protect its integrity, Ridder’s Pioneer Press prohibited Mahoney from copy-editing — not writing, mind you, copy-editing — anything related to the Iraq war. You can’t make up stuff that loony.)

And this doesn’t even get into the “insubordination” kick that went around the PiPress shortly after Ridder arrived, where “pushing back” or arguing with a superior became grounds for disciplinary action. Reporters arguing with editors! Where did they think they were? A newsroom?

It’s too trite to say the rich are different. But the entitlement factor in Ridder’s behavior is so out of whack with the underlying condition of the industry as to be clueless. I doubt Par ever has or ever will go a day without full compensation-plus.