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The Star Tribune is Sold to a Group of New York Investors
   

Over the years, many have seen the Star Tribune as an all-powerful force that controls the political discussion in Minneapolis and its suburbs. Its editors and reporters have been accused of slanting the news to favor the liberal position. Now, it seems, this media giant is hurting. The Star Tribune newspaper has been sold to a group of New York investors, Avista Capital Partners, for $530 million. McClatchy had bought the paper for $1.2 billion in 1998. The announcement of the latest sale was made on December 26, 2006.

Taking note of the sales price, the New York investment banking firm Goldman Sachs saw the valuation of the Minneapolis newspaper as "a Bearish signal for the newspaper industry ... The substantial loss on the sale is a vivid reminder of the industry's declining fortunes over the last several years."

Even though the Star Tribune has a paid circulation of 361,172 (596,333 on Sundays) and is solidly in the black, today’s investors are pessimistic about the future of newspapers. McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt said: “The Star Tribune did very well for a few years but recently it has lagged in performance. Large metro papers have under performed smaller ones because they’ve been more dependent on classified ads, which have been most affected by the Internet. The Star Tribune suffered from that.”

Without naming it, Pruitt is referring to Craigslist.com. This web directory allows people to post notices for free offering to sell various products. For instance, a landlord can offer an apartment for rent at a certain price. Prospective tenants, browsing through the list, can contact the landlord and take it from there. This posting costs the landlord nothing. A comparable ad in the Star Tribune might cost $50 to $100 depending on how many days it ran. No wonder landlords and others are bypassing the Star Tribune classifieds in favor of internet listings.

Let me say, on the other hand, that the Star Tribune classifieds are not dead. I found my latest tenant by spending $100 on one of those ads. This represents a week’s rent. Had I not advertised, my apartment units might have been empty for a month or more. I suspect that, as fewer people advertise in the Star Tribune, the number of competing ads decreases so each ad actually becomes more valuable. Not every tenant knows about Craigslist or has access to a computer.

Now for the political implications. Political conservatives generally see a liberal bias in Star Tribune stories and certainly in its editorials. Worse yet, they see meddling in electoral politics. Some examples:

In 1980, the Star Tribune (and the Pioneer Press) ignored their promise of confidentiality to a Republican operative, Dan Cohen, when he brought to their attention the fact that the DFL candidate for lieutenant governor had once been arrested for shoplifting. The Star Tribune played this story to make the DFL candidate be a victim of Republican smear tactics. In a landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Star Tribune had broken its promise to Cohen and awarded him monetary damages.

Some old timers may also remember the disclosure on the front page of the Star Tribune, two weeks before the 1990 election, that conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Grunseth swam in the nude with some teenage girls at a July 4th party; this media revelation forced Grunseth's immediate withdrawal from the race paving the way for Arne Carlson's write-in victory.

Again, some in Senate District 58 may remember that on the day of the 1996 general election, the Star Tribune ran a picture of state senate candidate John Derus next to a story on charities fraud although Derus had nothing to do with the story. He lost to Linda Higgins by a small margin.

In 2002, I (Bill McGaughey) ran for U.S. Senate in the Independence Party primary, opposing Jim Moore (now the party state chair) and Ronald E. Wills. The Star Tribune ran a front-page story about the IP and Green Party Senate primaries which did not mention that Moore had opposition in the primary. My twin platform consisted of a 32-hour workweek by 2010 and “dignity for white males (and everyone else, too).” This last proposal offended Star Tribune officials. It would not accept a paid ad from my campaign so long as the ad contained the phrase “dignity for white males”. The Star Tribune would not even run a story of the results of the primary election even though Wills and I together had more votes than Jim Moore.

It seems that where issues relating to political correctness are concerned, the Star Tribune will not tolerate any discussion that falls outside existing paradigms. Increasingly, it is intolerant of third-party candidacies because they threaten DFL electoral victories.

For example, in the 2006 gubernatorial election, the Star Tribune repeatedly ran commentary pieces speculating on whether Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson would or should drop out of the race, even though Hutchinson had given no indication that he would do so. Hutchinson was mired single digits in the polls even though he had done well in the debates and impressed observers with his thoughtful policy statements. But the Star Tribune wanted people to focus on his inability to win the race. What better way than to speculate that Hutchinson might drop out?

Tammy Lee, the Independence Party candidate for Congress in the 5th District, had a different problem. For her, the problem was that, even though she stood a chance of winning the election if Republican voters defected to her, the public generally assumed that, like Hutchinson, only a small percentage of voters supported her. She needed a timely poll to show otherwise, giving voters enough time to reassess their decisions. Instead, no poll was done on the 5th Congressional race until one was released on the day before the election. This poll showed Tammy Lee and Alan Fine, the Republican, tied at around 21% apiece while Keith Ellison, the DFLer, had over 50%. By then, it was too late. The polling results so close to the election date indicated probable election results, suggesting that Tammy Lee could not win.

On the weekend before the November election, Tammy Lee had a possible windfall. Someone had brought to its attention a web site mimicking Lee’s campaign website except that this website attributed highly racist statements to her and her supporters. Clever detective work within the Lee campaign tied this “satirical” site to an Ellison ally and supporter, a candidate for the Minneapolis school board whom Ellison supported for that position. Tammy Lee held a press conference on Sunday before the election announcing this discovery.

Although a Star Tribune reporter attended the conference and was given a packet of information, the newspaper published nothing before the election allowing both Ellison and his supporter, Chris Stewart, easy victories in their respective races. Only after the election did the Star Tribune run a story about this scandal. A Star Tribune editorial then called for Stewart’s resignation from the school board. One can only imagine how the Star Tribune would have handled the preelection disclosure that a conservative Republican had secretly put up a website mimicking the campaign website of a black candidate with inflammatory racist language.

It does seem that the Star Tribune, under editor Anders Gyllenhaal, did make an attempt to become more balanced in its political views. Notably, it hired a conservative columnist, Katherine Kersten, to offset its liberal columnists. Kersten reflects the conservative viewpoint of the American Center of the American Enterprise, a political think-tank founded by a former newspaper editor. This political school of thought is not necessarily interested in or sympathetic with the kinds of issues raised in the Watchdog newspaper.

Mainstream conservativism is in synch with big business, not with the kinds of mom-and-pop businesses run by inner city landlords who rent to poor people, racial minorities, or members of the unspirited working class. According to its social philosophy, you deal with such persons as objects of charity, not as business customers. So we fly beneath the radar of all major media, having to get the word out in unorthodox ways.

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