Familiar names leaving Star Tribune

The Star Tribune
Headquarters of the Star Tribune newspaper in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Rick Foy

After the Star Tribune's sale to investment firm Avista Capital Partners was finalized last week, employees had five days to accept a cash buyout. The deal entitles them to two weeks pay for every year they worked at the paper, to a maximum of 40 weeks pay. The official deadline was Friday but the company waited until today to make the announcement to allow resignations to come in over the weekend.

"Some of these people had planned to retire this year or in 2008 and looked at this as an opportunity to get some severance pay on the way out," said Managing Editor Scott Gillespie. "Others will be choosing to take the opportunity to take a break from daily journalism. Some are telling us that they're looking at school or other types of careers."

Chris Serres from the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents Star Tribune workers, says that those who take the buyout couldn't pass up the financial opportunity.

"Most of the people who are leaving had planned on doing so anyway. So this is purely a financial move for them," said Serres.

But St. Thomas University journalism professor Mark Neuzil sees it differently.

"There are older copy editors who are probably thinking about retiring and who are going to take advantage of it," he said. "But there are also some fairly experienced reporters on the list that I've seen . There's institutional memory that's going to go away."

And that may be most evident in the content of the paper.

Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism, says the loss of even a handful of journalists will have a major impact.

"No matter what those in positions of authority will tell you, the fact of the matter is most news organizations these days don't have the luxury of having people on staff who aren't pulling their weight. So any cut is likely to have an impact on the kind of news and information the public is getting," she said.

Long-time Capitol reporter Dane Smith is less convinced that the buyout spells doom. He has been at the paper for more than two decades. Smith says he took the buyout because he was looking for a change and the time felt right.

"I don't really think anybody's by any means irreplaceable," he said.

Tribune Managing Editor Gillespie says it's still unclear whether any buyout positions will be refilled.

"We need to get to the end of this process see how many people are leaving and analyze the jobs that they were doing and see what we might be able to do internally and then go from there. Our publisher's just come on board and we're under new ownership for the first week and theres a lot of change going on and I'm not going to say for sure that no one is going to be replaced," Gillespie said.

New York-based Avista Capital Partners purchased the paper from The McClatchy Company for $530 million. This was just months after McClatchy bought Knight Ridder, then the parent company of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, for more than $4 billion. The Star Tribune had been McClatchy's worst-performing newspaper. Ad revenue at the paper had dropped about 6 percent in 2006.

Journalism professor Neuzil wonders whether the worst is yet to come.

"The next question you have to ask is are layoffs next? Are the buyouts going to be enough to satisfy the new owners are they going to have to trim staff even further? I don't know the answer to that, but it would be a good question for the owners," he said.

Neuzil says the cumulative effect of changes at both the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune is too real to ignore.

"This is a microcosm of everything that's going on in the newspaper business in the United States. It depends on how you define newspapers. If your emphasis is on the second syllable, it's true; the paper part is going to go away. If your emphasis is on the first syllable, the gathering and the retellling of news is not going to go away. It'll just be in a different format. But if you're used to the printed product, those days are numbered."

Reporters at the Star Tribune talk all the time about how newspapers are struggling to adapt to increasing competition from news sources like the Internet, according to Dane Smith. "It's a source of considerable anguish and discomfort among all of us in the newspaper business. Everybody dumps on the whole idea of chain ownership, but with that came some real resources, you know Washington bureaus and international bureaus and coverage and money."

With the presidential election on the horizon, the University of Minnesota's Kirtley says it's the voting public who will likely suffer.

"If we're going to have an eviscerated Pioneer Press and an eviscerated Star Tribune, I think we're left with a big void," she said. "And ultimately the public are really going to suffer because they'll be left at the mercy of the partisan bloggers and campaign advertising, all of which is useful but ultimately has little to do with what the truth of the situation is."

Despite thousands of layoffs, the newspaper industry is still highly profitable. According to the Newspaper Association of America, circulation at a quarter of the nation's dailies increased in 2006. The Star Tribune is the largest newspaper in Minnesota with a Sunday circulation of almost 600,000. But that number is down from what it was 10 years ago. This week's buyouts are a sign that the Star Tribune is getting a taste of the kinds of job losses already seen at other papers around the country.