December 29, 2006

It Was Only a Matter of Time

Earlier this week, Minnesota's largest--and arguably the nation's most biased--newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, was sold for $530 million dollars. When one considers that it was purchased in 1998 for $1.2 billion, we're talking about a considerable price cut. A fire sale, if you will.

When I first read the news, I thought to myself: "It will be less than a week before Nick Coleman whines about this."

Well, whadyaknow?

When the McClatchy Co. got the keys to the Star Tribune in 1998, 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."

Yes, because we all know it's the responsibility of the press to "build a just society," rather than, say, reporting news and events. I'm sure the idea of "building a just society" were jingle-bells to Nick Coleman's ears, a man who determined 30 years ago society was just sick and wrong about everything.

You now are permitted to laugh derisively.

At who? At Nick Coleman? Believe me, I've been doing that for years now.

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

Why can't newspapers operate at a loss? In the name of building a just society, can't profits be put on hold? Can't the state come in an fund newspapers so they can operate without the nasty specter of having to remain profitable?

Mercifully, Mr. McClatchy passed away in May and did not live to see the Sacramento-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.

Sweet merciful crap! Nick Coleman holds the Strib in far higher esteem than a lot of people. In Nick's mind, the Strib only pales in importance behind God, and only just barely behind at that. The most important newspaper between Chicago and the West Coast? Is that the bubble Nick's been living in? How amazingly, frighteningly sad. Although, it DOES explain a lot. I know I love a newspaper that acts a conscience and a scold. There's nothing I like more than a newspaper that deems itself my Mommy.

On the day after Christmas, the McClatchy Co. took the Star Tribune to the return window and sold us to a company that removes medical wastes, drills for oil and (quoting its website) "operates four off-shore jack-ups, three mobile off-shore production units and one self-propelled completion and work over rig" in the Gulf of Mexico. Not to mention a newspaper in flyoverland.

Oh, the horror! A company that removes medical wastes! As if medical waste just somehow should be able to remove itself. And OIL! That evil black blood of the earth! It's funny how outraged Coleman is about a company that deals in oil, but he seemed fine when the Strib was owned by a company that basically dealt in the pulpified medium of dead trees. It's simply delicious to see Coleman in such an absolute conniption fit. Oh, and please note how the most important newspaper this side of Chicago is now just a newspaper in flyoverland.

Maybe we're an on-shore jack-up.

There's that quality Nick Coleman humor we've grown to know and love. Cue the laugh track.

You are what you eat. So when McClatchy swallowed the larger Knight Ridder newspaper chain last spring, a lot of people worried that the $6.1 billion deal would spell trouble in the Twin Cities.

By "a lot of people," Nick means the employees of the Star-Tribune. Pretty much everyone outside of those doors PROBABLY didn't give a shit.

Both newspapers here were in play: the Star Tribune, as the "flagship" of McClatchy, and the Pioneer Press (where I worked for 17 years) as one of the Ridder heritage newspapers.

We were right to worry.

Again, "We" being the Star-Tribune. As for the worry of everyone else. . . not so much.

First, McClatchy sold the Pioneer Press to MediaNews Group. Staff reductions followed, with threats of more to come.

Now McClatchy has dumped the Star Tribune.

And now, I, Nick Coleman, am crap-in-my-pants terrified that my woefully crappy body of lifetime work may actually be scrutinized and identified for what it is: pure, steaming, crap. I may have to actually think for a change and attempt to write something that doesn't read like a self-parody. OR I MIGHT GET FIRED!

While the outcome of all this cutthroat gambling is unclear, there are two possibilities:

1) A private equity firm with no newspaper experience will show the newspaper industry how to save itself.

Which I, Nick Coleman, completely doubt because a medical waste and oil company will carve out my still-beating heart and try to find a way to make oil out of it.


2) A privateer thinks the Star Tribune, with 2,000-plus workers, is ripe for plucking and pillaging.

Did I mention that I, Nick Coleman, am one of those 2,000-plus workers, and am arguably the most important? And oh my God I just shit my pants.

I hope it was the first option that attracted Avista Capital Partners to add us to its fleet of oil rigs.

Oh. . . just. . . ugh.

But one thing is clear: A newspaper company abandoned its employees and readers, for profit, not principle.

A of all, the Strib was dropped for over HALF what it was purchased for almost a decade ago. Making a profit = DOES NOT COMPUTE. B of all, when was the last time, do you think, a company board got together to talk about principle? How much of the stock market is guided by principle?

McClatchy leaves Minnesota's newspapers weakened and in the hands of companies with no local ties.

Damn you, McClatchy! Damn you all to HELLLLLLL! Has the Pioneer Press really been "weakened?" As for the Strib, if a newspaper basically sells for peanuts, doesn't that indicate an pre-existing status of "weakness?"

And with its departure, McClatchy is taking away important resources that a newspaper chain provides, resources that help each newspaper in the chain serve readers.

Such as paying Nick Coleman, for example, which has been such an invaluable service.

Here is some of what is going away: the Star Tribune Foundation, which has funded nonprofit groups in the Twin Cities for decades;

One of those cornerstone responsibilities of a free press. I know they dedicated an entire semester to teaching the importance of funding non-profit groups back in college. Oh, wait, no they didn't.

and the Washington bureau and foreign correspondents, including those in Iraq. They'll still be working, but not for the Star Tribune. Also disappearing: the pooled financial resources a chain can use to gather news and resist the fickle winds of market forces.

Hey, Nick: I'm pretty sure you'll still have access to AP and Reuter's news feeds. You should be just fine. But, don't let that get in the way of a classic Nick Coleman whine-fest.

Despite lip service to the cause of quality journalism, in the end McClatchy folded like a cheap lawn chair under a steady gale of Wall Street demands.

Again, to the tune of a loss of over a half a billion dollars. At some point, even the most strident believers of "quality journalism" *stifled laugh* have to look at their financial situation and say "wow, we're really taking a bath on this one," and unload a stinker.

When it bought the Star Tribune in 1998, McClatchy was a second-tier chain that had 10 dailies and a profit margin of 13 percent.

Today, after buying its way into a far better club by using the Star Tribune for leverage, McClatchy has 32 papers and a profit margin of 26 percent.

But I was going to Toshi station to pick up some power converters!

But 26 ain't enough. It would be higher if not for the Star Tribune, which earns only about 19 percent, though its revenue has declined over the past year or so. That's still good for a newspaper its size, and two or three times the margin demanded 20 years ago. But it ain't enough. So McClatchy punted.

Two "ain't enoughs" in one paragraph. That must be a record for a newspaper column. Call Guinness. Sure, their revenue has declined over the past year or so, but that still good.

Which shows that the McClatchy Co. lost more than a patriarch when James McClatchy died. It lost its compass.

McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt did not bother to come to Minneapolis on Tuesday to say he surreptitiously had sold the paper and to kiss us goodbye.

Yeah, because that's what CEOs are supposed to do.

But McClatchy brass gave us some nice parting gifts 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 saying McClatchy would have shown a one-percent increase in ad sales if the Star Tribune weren't included. One percent! Huzzah! Sound the trumpets!

Funny how Nick focuses on the one percent increase in ad sales while glossing over the earlier mentions of "lost value," "a drag on profits," and the fact the Strib sold for over HALF less than it did almost a decade ago. Gosh, it almost seems like there was quite a bit more going on than simply the one-percent thing Nick gloms onto.

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

Obviously, it wasn't his best newspaper. B-b-b-b-but, a CEO wouldn't say one thing and do another, right? There are those of us who deal with corporate BS on practically a daily basis and recognize it for exactly what it is. I can't remember the last time I trusted the word of someone two steps above me. It comes as a suprise to Nick though. Imagine that.

"The Star Tribune is one of the best newspapers in this country," Pruitt said in 1998. "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."

Hey, I recognize that paragraph! That's called marketing PR! I write stuff like that! God it sounds good! It's feel-good BS! Funny Coleman didn't recognize it.

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

Maybe the problem was that "you didn't change," Nick. You've been complaining about every newfangled technology that's given a voice to anyone who isn't yourself. Your newspaper defends plagiarism, is hopelessly biased, features routine lazy reporting, and continues to run your drivel practically un-edited. Perhaps a change would do you some real good.

Don't bother to write.

Mainly because Nick probably won't be available at his Strib address for much longer. Hmmm?

Posted by Ryan at December 29, 2006 10:51 AM | TrackBack

God, what a tard that Nick be.

Posted by: Rick at December 29, 2006 12:46 PM

uh, a free press is supposed to be something of a public conscience: a watchdog instead of a lapdog.

When did that become wrong?

Posted by: kg at January 4, 2007 07:57 PM

KG, explain to me where this buyout is somehow making the Strib a lapdog?

And, no, the press is NOT supposed to be something of a public conscience. The press is supposed to REPORT THE NEWS and let the READERS make up their own minds. The press has morphed into an entity that meshes reporting and opinion and has managed to convince people like you, kg, that it does so in the name of being a "public conscience." The Strib is one of the most egregious examples of that kind of ego-inflating elitism you so eagerly lap up.

Posted by: Ryan at January 5, 2007 01:14 PM

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Posted by: rickh at April 9, 2008 03:40 AM
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