More drama at both Twin Cities' newspapers

Pioneer Press
The St. Paul Pioneer Press is preparing for another round of job cuts -- asking employees to consider taking buyouts in hopes of eliminating 30 jobs.
MPR file photo

The Pioneer Press is asking 30 employees to volunteer for a buyout package that provides two weeks pay for every year of service, up to a maximum of a year's pay. The offer also includes up to six months of health benefits. Employees have a week to take the deal.

The Pioneer Press employs about 800 people, including about 180 in the newsroom.

A round of buyouts in December eliminated 30 jobs, including 21 in the newsroom. At least 15 of this latest round would also come from the newsroom.

Strib headquarters
The Minneapolis headquarters of the Star Tribune.
MPR Photo/Rick Foy

"There's no way to sugarcoat this. I'm not going to try," said editor Thom Fladung said.

Fladung says the staff cuts are necessary to help right the paper's finances.

"We've seen in the first six months of 2007, a continuing -- and actually accelerating -- downturn in revenues, particularly advertising revenues. Our circulation remains strong, we've managed to hold that. But the business model is very tough right now for newspapers, and we feel like we have to react to that," said Fladung.

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Newspapers industrywide are seeing flagging revenues and circulation numbers, and many are responding with job cuts.

But Pioneer Press guild unit co-chairman Alex Friedrich says buyouts and layoffs aren't the way out of the revenue hole. He'd rather see some new thinking about how to make the paper better.

"Whether or not this does harm to the Pioneer Press is not as significant as whether what [Ridder] did was wrong, and whether it's damaging our integrity and credibility as a newspaper."

"Management here has started taking what one could consider baby steps in the right direction in terms of new thinking, building more of an online presence. But things have got to accelerate," said Friedrich. "And we're trying to say, 'Look, let's not cut and cut. Let's rethink. Let's find better ways to do this.'"

Friedrich says the latest buyout offer comes just as the union has started negotiations on a new contract. He says the paper is advancing the "most sweeping" contract proposal the union has seen so far. The union says the company wants to scale back severance pay, job protections, and overtime pay.

This is the Pioneer Press's first contract negotiation under the ownership of Media News Group. And that company's CEO, Dean Singleton, has a reputation for cutting jobs.

But the Pioneer Press is not alone in feeling the rumblings of an industry in tumult. Across the river at the Star Tribune, union members voted 110-2 to call for the resignation of their publisher Par Ridder.

Ridder left the Pioneer Press in March to join the Star Tribune, and is now at the heart of a legal battle between the two papers. In court hearings, Ridder has admitted taking sensitive Pioneer Press documents with him to his new employer, though he says he meant no harm.

The vote by the Newspaper Guild, which covers roughly 300 Star Tribune workers in the newsroom and other parts of the paper, came after some reporters said sources regularly ask them about their bosses' legal issues.

"We, the journalists of the Star Tribune, call on Par Ridder to resign as publisher," the resolution said. "We believe the unethical actions to which he admitted in court have damaged the Star Tribune's credibility and integrity, and undermined our ability to hold public figures accountable for their actions. For the good of the Star Tribune and the community it serves, we believe he should step down."

Ridder and Singleton
Par Ridder, left, with Dean Singleton, CEO of the Pioneer Press' owner, MediaNews Group, taken when Ridder was still publisher of the Pioneer Press. Now he's at the Star Tribune, and he's being sued by Singleton.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Guild officer Chris Serres says even if the legal battle exonerates Ridder, the guild members want to distance themselves from what they perceive as his unethical conduct.

Serres says the court will only consider the potential harm Ridder caused his former employer -- not the harm his actions could cause the Star Tribune.

"Whether or not this does harm to the Pioneer Press is not as significant to this membership as whether what he did was wrong, and whether it's damaging our integrity and credibility as a newspaper in this community," said Serres.

In a statement, Star Tribune chairman Chris Harte called the vote "union posturing" and insisted that the paper's parent company has "full confidence" in Ridder.

University of Minnesota business professor Alfred Marcus says the union's demand for Ridder's departure is unusual. But he says it makes sense that the paper's employees would be concerned about the integrity of their top executive, and that Ridder probably should step down.

"I doubt this person is absolutely indispensable. His value to the organization has to be extremely great, given the possible costs he could have just from a purely utilitarian perspective, for them to maintain him in this position," said Marcus.

A Star Tribune spokesman did not make Ridder available for comment.

The Pioneer Press's legal case against Par Ridder and the Star Tribune will likely not be decided before the end of the summer.