Many of you probably don’t realize how closely the fortunes — misfortunes, actually — of The Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have paralleled the last 10 years.
But that’s why I’m here, right — to keep you abreast of important matters like this!!??
The parallel is nothing less than amazingly eery.
:: The McClatchy Co. bought The Star and Knight Ridder’s 31 other papers for $4.5 billion in 2006. In doing so, McClatchy took on more than $1 billion in debt, and its debt is still about $1 billion today…Layoffs, buyouts and other cutbacks have been the order of the day since the Knight Ridder purchase.
:: Lee Enterprises, a Davenport-based chain of relatively small newspapers, bought the Post-Dispatch and 13 other Pulitzer Inc. newspapers for $1.46 billion in 2005. In doing so, Lee also took on more than $1 billion in debt, and its current debt is about $750 million. Layoffs, buyouts and other…well, you’ve got the script.
…In both cases, it was the story of a small fish trying to swallow a whale.
Each chain got its wish, but if they had to do it over again, they’d swim as fast as they could from the monsters they had their sights set on.
In the aftermath of the McClatchy deal, Gary Pruitt, McClatchy CEO, left the company six years later (2012) to become president and CEO of the Associated Press. I think it is safe to assume he is earning far less than he was a decade ago.
On the other hand, Mary Junck remains chairman and CEO at Lee Enterprises and appears to be in good standing with the board of directors, primarily because she engineered a 2014 refinancing that reduced the company’s debt. (To the chagrin of the Post-Dispatch staff, Junck got a $700,000 bonus last year for pulling off the refinancing).
We in Kansas City hear a lot about how bleak the situation is at The Star — such as total employment down from more than 2,000 to probably about 500 — but it’s even worse in St. Louis if you consider a rash of bad breaks.
For example…nine editorial employees either took buyouts or were laid off recently. Those who took buyouts included senior political writer Virginia Young and popular local columnist Bill McClellan. (McClellan will continue to write a Sunday column on a contract with the paper.)
As if that weren’t enough, lead sports columnist Bernie Miklasz resigned recently to go to radio; another sports columnist, Bryan Burwell, died of cancer last December; and editorial page editor Tony Messenger had surgery last week for throat cancer.
The paper took another tragic blow Sunday when movie critic Joe Williams was killed in a one-car crash in Jefferson County, south of St. Louis.
This morning I spoke with Kevin Horrigan, deputy editorial page editor, who was a reporter at The Star before leaving for St. Louis in 1977. (There, he started at the Post-Dispatch, went to a couple of radio stations and went back to the P-D, on the editorial page, in 2000.)
Ticking off the rash of setbacks, Horrigan said, “It’s like we’re snakebit here.”
The paper, he said, had gone from an emotional high of winning a Pulitzer Prize — for photographing the Ferguson, MO, story last year — to perhaps an all-time low in the space of a few months.
Putting aside the two deaths and the health problems, Horrigan said the depletion of ranks at his paper was “the reality of life in 21st Century journalism.”
When I asked him how the staff was responding, he replied, “You can piss and moan about it or pull up your socks and go to work. That’s where we are.”
With Messenger’s work load limited, Horrigan, 66, is one of two people writing editorials full time. The other is Deborah Peterson, another former KC Star reporter.
The Star’s editorial page manpower is almost as severely depleted, with four people — Barb Shelly, Steve Paul, Lewis Diuguid and Yael Abouhalkah — writing editorials.
Both papers are down to doing about one editorial a day, instead of two or three. And one day a week — Monday for The Star and Saturday for the P-D — each paper does not have an Op-Ed page.
Both papers have large buildings (although the Post-Dispatch building is for sale) that have way too much space for their current staffs. Illustrating the atrophy, Horrigan recalled a recent incident where fire alarms went off and everyone had to leave the building at 900 N. Tucker Boulevard.
“We were standing around across the street, and I thought (from judging the assembly) that a lot of people must still be inside the building,” Horrigan said. “But there weren’t!
“I thought, ‘Holy cow, where did all the people go?’ “
And there, readers, is a stark image of “the reality of life in 21st Century journalism.” Newspaper journalism, anyway.