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Media Watch

It's Just Business

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After watching three newspaper chains--Gannett, Knight-Ridder and MediaNews Group--shuffling properties back and forth a couple of weeks ago, it pays to wonder if Gannett might be thinking about turning the venerable Tucson Citizen into trade bait as well.

Gannett traded three northwest newspapers--Boise, Idaho; Bellingham, Wash.; and Olympia, Wash.--to Knight-Ridder for the Tallahassee Democrat and an undisclosed sum of cash.

Then Gannett bought the Detroit Free Press from Knight-Ridder and sold the Detroit News to MediaNews Group, owner of the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Daily News.

That said, the end in Detroit apparently was about power. After 16 years of letting Gannett call the shots, someone wasn't happy. The Associated Press quoted Knight- Ridder Chairman/CEO Tony Ridder: "In all of the cities where we have newspapers, we run the business. That is the arrangement that works best for us."

Gannett had a similar situation in Tucson after renegotiating the local joint operating agreement with the former Arizona Daily Star owner, Pulitzer Inc. , in 1990.

It was an interesting sight--the smaller paper's owner calling the shots to some extent for the bigger paper. And the shots were called in insidious ways--the agreement was restructured in a way that gave Gannett a look at and a voice in the Star newsroom's annual operating budget, even down to whining about how much the Star spent on its Christmas party.

With that agreement, Gannett seemed to be lining things up for its traditional JOA takeover move--squeeze the small paper to mush so that nobody else would buy it, then buy the bigger paper.

Pulitzer bought in because while the Star was winning the circulation war, the Citizen's numbers were still big enough that it made a reasonable contribution to total TNI circulation numbers--the numbers ad salesfolk use in promoting a medium's "reach."

Maybe the lead then was 20,000. Nearly two decades later, the lead stands at about 80,000 papers.

The Citizen's circulation is about 30,000, and has been slipping by about 5 percent a year. Meanwhile, the Star's circulation is 114,000 and growing apace with local population growth--about 2 percent a year. Under the present contract, the Star sells 79 percent of TNI's total daily circulation, but gets only 50 percent of the take.

If those rates become trends, the Star's Monday-Saturday circulation would be about 139,000, while the Citizen would be at about 18,000 papers a day when the present agreement expires in 2015. If the present contract remains in force, the Star would get half the take on 88 percent of the sales.

Someone important at Lee Enterprises' home office in Davenport, Iowa, probably is already looking at those numbers and wondering what can be done about the mismatch.

Which puts Gannett in a tough spot. They can try Plan A again and make an offer on the Star (probably a suicide mission, considering that Star publisher/editor David Stoeffler's other nameplate is "vice president--news"), or make some huge investment to try to get the Citizen's numbers up again and make the paper more competitive.

There've been some interesting rumors--leaving the JOA to become a morning paper printed elsewhere, reducing publication to Monday-Friday and changing from broadsheet to tabloid format in hopes of gaining some traction.

There's one other option--that Lee and Gannett could take a lesson from events this summer in Las Vegas, which also operates under a JOA.

Under a deal struck in June, The 28,000-circulation Las Vegas Sun will cease publication as a stand-alone newspaper. Starting next month, the Sun will produce a daily "condensed paper"--a section of at least eight pages that will be delivered as part of the 165,000-circulation Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The final option--which we've seen in places such as Miami, Fla.--could mean the end of the Citizen as we know it. At some point, the circulation disparity is too great, and the dwindling paper closes, in exchange for an agreement that allows the dead paper's owner to take a smaller slice of the pie for years to come.


DECERTIFICATION, TAKE TWO

When pressroom workers at Tucson Newspapers voted 19-13 last month to decertify the Graphics Communicators International Union, they may have handed Gannett Co. more than just another union-busting victory.

The union and the Gannett-owned Arizona Republic recently opened contract talks that haven't been going well, according to Local 58M secretary-treasurer Jeffrey J. Quatrone.

"If we were to go out on strike, they could send the Republic to Tucson to be printed," Quatrone said last week, adding that such a move would be illegal had the TNI press operators stuck with the union. Contract talks were also starting in Tucson when the decertification vote was called.

Reflecting on the vote, the union official said TNI (Gannett, actually) did things by the book in the run-up to the decertification vote, in contrast to the company's alleged pre-election misconduct before the distribution center's certification vote earlier this year.

In that case, the National Labor Relations Board accepted a consent agreement in which TNI admitted no guilt, and promised that it would not harass workers or tell them that they'd lose their retirement benefits if the union won the election.

"I guess they (TNI) bought pizza for the press room a few times," Quatrone said, expressing some regret that the local press operators rejected the union.

The previous Tucson contract was negotiated just after the Tucson GCIU local merged with Phoenix-based Local 58M, Quatrone said. In that contract, he said, TNI agreed to use urine testing instead of regular blood tests for drug use, and workers got a 30 percent increase in retirement benefits.

"They know where to find us if they want to try to organize again next year," the union official added.

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