Judge critical of Par Ridder's conduct in ruling

Par Ridder
A judge has ruled that Par Ridder must leave his position as publisher of the Star Tribune newspaper for a year, because of an ongoing dispute with his former employer, the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Photo by Jerry Holt, courtesy of the Star Tribune

It's a case that's conjured up images more associated with smoky espionage novels rather than the blunt, fact-driven world of the newspaper industry.

Judge David Higgs ruled the grandson of the founder of the Ridder newspaper empire stole confidential information he obtained while publisher of the Pioneer Press, and shared it with the paper's rival the Star Tribune.

Higgs said there is no question that Ridder knew, or at least should have known that the Pioneer Press information he took, used, and distributed was confidential.

Ridder's compensation
This chart shows the growth of Par Ridder's compensation from 1998-2005. (Source: Knight-Ridder filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission)
MPR graphic/Bill Catlin

Dean Singleton, CEO of the Pioneer Press' parent company, MediaNews, says the paper is evaluating its next move in the ongoing lawasuit.

"We're happy the ruling agreed with our allegations, and we're happy the court has intervened to right some wrongs. But we'll take it one day at a time as we move forward," Singleton says.

The publisher of the Pioneer Press, Guy Gilmore, released a statement that said, "the court's decision says that the two newspapers here in St. Paul and Minneapolis should compete on an even playing field. We look forward to competing with the Star Tribune on that basis," said Gilmore.

Star Tribune chairman, Chris Harte will take over as Star Tribune publisher. He released a written statement that said the company disagrees with the judge's rulings. He said the newspaper will have the opportunity to further make its case as the lawsuit proceeds.

"There is no question that Ridder knew, or at least should have known that the Pioneer Press information he took, used, and distributed was confidential."

The union representing Star Tribune's newsroom workers had previously called for Ridder's outster because Ridder's conduct has tarnished the paper's credibility.

"I think the main impact of the ruling today is it removes someone from the newsroom who really hasn't been engaged in the newsgathering process, hasn't been a friendly figure to journalists there," says union representative and reporter Pat Doyle. "Whether in the long run that will make any difference in how the paper conducts itself and gathers news, I don't know. But at least in the short term there seems to be some relief at the prospect that he's going to be departing."

Judge Higgs also barred Ridder from working at the Star Tribune for one year.

Higgs wrote that given Ridder's past conduct and his cavalier attitude toward his use and disclosure of confidential Pioneer Press information, it seems to the court that his past actual misappropriation is a good indicator of possible future use of that information.

The court said there is also a substantial threat that Ridder will further misappropriate confidential Pioneer Press information, or use the confidential information in the future.

The judge ruled that restraining Ridder from further misappropriating confidential Pioneer Press information is necessary to prevent further injury to the St. Paul paper's competitive position in the industry.

Sunday circulation
Sunday circulation for the Twin Cities dailies. (Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations)
MPR Graphic/Martin Moylan

Martha Steffens teaches media economics and finances at the University of Missouri. She's a former reporter and editor at the former Minneapolis Star and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She says the extent of the Pioneer Press' injury in the industry depends largely on whether the Star Tribune got cutting-edge information, not just the typical ad rates.

"You have a lot of long-term advertisers on both sides of the river, and those have longstanding relationships with each of those papers. They know the markets and that might not change," says Steffens. "But the innovative strategies would be online properties, niche publications -- whether print or online. Those kinds of strategies would be the ones in play."

The Pioneer Press lost on one point. It had argued that Par Ridder violated a non-compete agreement by leaving the Pioneer Press to work for the Star Tribune. The judge said that even though Ridder did sign an agreement, it was not valid at the time he left.

Nevertheless, Judge Higgs said even if Ridder's non-compete agreement was invalid, he was on notice that he was expected to maintain information from the Pioneer Press confidential.

The judge said Ridder came from a newspaper family and should know the importance of confidentiality.

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