Pioneer Press sold to MediaNews Group

Bulldog on the block
MediaNews agreed to buy the Pioneer Press, Minnesota's oldest newspaper, on Wednesday. MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton has a history of tight expense controls and closing newspapers, but in recent years he has suggested that maybe newspaper cuts have gone far enough.
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Pioneer Press employees learned about their paper's fate in a hastily called meeting at the end of the workday. Publisher Par Ridder and two top Knight Ridder executives delivered the news. Reporter David Hanners said they had few answers for the many questions that remain.

Dean Singleton
William Dean Singleton, vice chairman & CEO of Media News Group, and publisher of the Denver Post and Salt Lake Tribune, pauses as he testifies during a hearing on media ownership before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation May 13, 2003.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

"They were basically reading from a press release. There's just a lot of uncertainty up there. We wanted answers and we hope that in the next few days, Singleton ... we hope he'll come here himself," said Hanners.

Singleton is Dean Singleton, the controversial newspaper tycoon behind MediaNews Group. On Wednesday Singleton was in California, holding a similar meeting himself with staff of the San Jose Mercury News. Papers in Contra Costa and Monterey round out the four Knight Ridder properties going to MediaNews for about $1 billion.

At the meeting, Singleton referred to the Mercury News as "the crown jewel" of Knight Ridder papers. In a statement, Singleton said he's acquiring the Knight Ridder papers that excited him most. Just what he makes of the Pioneer Press remains to be seen. But it's clear what some employees make of him.

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"It's no secret he wasn't our first choice," said veteran Pioneer Press reporter Chuck Laszewski, who thinks Singleton's reputation as a cost-cutter makes people nervous.

David Hanners
General assignment reporter David Hanners has been with the Pioneer Press for 11 years. He says a staff meeting regarding the paper's acquisition by MediaNews left many questions unanswered.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Without more information, employees parsed the language of the announcement, in which Singleton refers to the sale as an "asset" purchase. It's a fine point, but by one interpretation referring to the papers as assets -- rather than as separate companies -- could mean Singleton is free to disregard existing union contracts. Laszewski says the mood is not good.

"I think it's fair to say there's a great deal of uncertainty yet and, yes, there's fear. You've got people here with families, and they're looking at the possibility that they could lose their jobs," Laszewski said.

MediaNews Group declined any interviews on the deal.

Singleton is known for his focus on profits, and the 10 percent profit margin at the Pioneer Press is unlikely to meet his expectations.

But Joe Mathewson, a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, says there's one big reason to believe Singleton will refrain from slashing resources at the Pioneer Press -- the Star Tribune.

There's going to be an element of competition. There certainly is an incentive on both sides to put out a great newspaper and a great Web site.

"That is encouraging," says Mathewson. "There's going to be an element of competition. And that competition is going to be based on circulation, from a financial standpoint, but the circulation is going to be based on the quality of the product. There certainly is an incentive on both sides to put out a great newspaper and a great Web site."

Pioneer Press Editor-in-Chief Thom Fladung believes fears about Singleton and MediaNews are unwarranted. He says Singleton has great respect at some of his bigger papers like the Denver Post and Detroit News.

But as the newsroom employee perhaps most likely to get the axe under new management, Fladung himself shares in the uncertainty of his staff.

"I can't control that. What I can control is the journalism I try to do every day," says Fladung. "I consider this as a tryout. Remember when you were in the sixth grade trying out for the basketball team? That's what I'm doing again."

The MediaNews deal is a letdown for other potential buyers. Many workers had hoped for a union-backed bid to buy all 12 Knight Ridder papers up for sale, and create an employee-owned company.

A group of anonymous Twin Cities investors had coalesced in an effort to restore local ownership of the paper. A spokesman for the group says they can only hope MediaNews will keep the Pioneer Press a viable source of news and information.

One possible -- but remote -- snag remains. The Department of Justice has requested information from McClatchy regarding its transaction in the Twin Cities. Two Minnesota congressmen earlier requested an investigation into whether McClatchy's ability to essentially choose the competitor for the Star Tribune might itself raise antitrust concerns.

A McClatchy statement says the company does not expect the DOJ inquiry will pose any obstacle to selling the Pioneer Press.