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Star Tribune hires publisher away from rival St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Par Ridder
Par Ridder, the publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is moving across the river to take over the same position at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Par Ridder is from the family whose name is part of Knight-Ridder publishing, the company that owned the Pioneer Press and many other papers.  But last year  the whole company was acquired by the McClatchy company, which at the time owned the Star Tribune.  McClatchy dumped the Pioneer Press because of anti-trust concerns, selling it to the MediaNews Group.  

Throughout the changes, Par Ridder remained in place as publisher of the Pioneer Press.  Then, late last year, McClatchy sold the Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners,  and on Monday, the day the sale closed, Avista announced Par Ridder will join the Strib, his former paper's rival. He replaces J. Keith Moyer, who announced his departure last month.

Ridder says he was as surprised as anyone to find himself sitting at the Star Tribune.

"My family has been a part of the Pioneer Press since 1927, so working for the Star Tribune was not something I had ever given much thought to," he said. "But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was an incredible opportunity to take on a new professional challenge without disrupting my family's life."

Ridder says he was not leaving a sinking ship and that the Pioneer Press's problems of declining readership and ad revenues are shared industry-wide. 

And he asserts that he is not decamping to the Star Tribune with Pioneer Press secrets that will allow him to run the St. Paul paper into the ground.  He says the papers compete less than it might seem.

"The main competition for the Star Tribune is not the Pioneer Press, but people's time, and that's a challenge for the whole industry. How do you publish a newspaper that people are willing to carve 15 or 20 minutes out of their day to read, because they have a million different options, and the main reason that people stop reading the Star Tribune is not that they're choosing to read the Pioneer Press, it's because they have no time to read," he said.

Chris Harte of Avista Capital Partners, which owns the Star Tribune, says the competition between the two local papers is indeed strenuous. But he says the two papers do serve different geographical areas, so their missions are slightly different.  Harte says he's not expecting Ridder simply to come in with the Pioneer Press's playbook. And he says Ridder will have to work out any changes to the paper with Nancy Barnes, who just came on as editor this past month.  

"Between the two of them, I'm sure they'll have things they want to improve on this paper.  But I have no idea how many of those will be things that Par will have learned at a previous paper," Harte said.  "He's been at a half dozen of them, including the Washington Post and Acron Beacon Journal where I was for a while, so he's seen a lot of good papers."

But Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt is not convinced that Ridder will have a strong vision for his new paper. 

"Par has certainly shown that he can be a publisher, I'm not sure he has been a publisher that shows me he can be a publisher to lead us into the digital age," Brandt said.

Brandt also says he's keenly aware of the job cuts Ridder oversaw at the Pioneer Press, and he'll be watching to see how Ridder handles that.

"You have to understand that from the standpoint of the newsroom... the publisher is around to make money, and as long as they try to make money through sources other than reducing the quality of news or reducing the standard of living of the people in the newsroom, we're all for them, but to the extent they come after us, and that's been Par's history in St. Paul, we're going to have problems," he said.

And Pioneer Press employees aren't out of the woods yet.  They negotiate a new contract in May.  Jack Sullivan, a leader of the union that represents reporters at the Pioneer Press, says while he was surprised to hear about Ridder's departure, he has bigger worries.

"For me personally, I don't feel that much about it one way or another," he said.  "My focus both as an employee and as someone who's involved with the union is how we're going to approach our upcoming negotiations."  

Dean singleton of the MediaNews Group, which owns the Pioneer Press, could not be reached for comment concerning Ridder's departure.  In a statement, he said that the Pioneer Press is "bigger than any one person."  The paper expects to hire a replacement in the next three months.   

An interim publisher, Frederick Mott, Jr., has already taken the helm.