We news guys love a good wild card. Bob Hall is a wild card.
I remember touring Yahoo in 1998. Bob (below) was publisher in Philadelphia and I was vp/editorial at Knight Ridder New Media. Heady, optimistic days, and at KRNM, we were hosting the company's publishers, editors, ad and circ vps, talking Web and visiting companies. (On that Yahoo visit, we met with Jerry Yang, who stood before the group in jeans and sneakers. When Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence asked, "Jerry, are you interested in getting into the classified business?" Jerry looked down at his feet and said, "That's not our business." But I digress.)
During our Yahoo visit, we knew we were supposed to call into a KR concall, led by KR CEO Tony Ridder. We found a conference room there, about a minute into the call. ".....and that's why we're moving Corporate from Miami," Tony said. Bob and I looked at each other. I pointed to him and said "you're [Philly] getting him, and he pointed to me and said, "No, you [San Jose] are." Of course, he was right.
That move to San Jose and not Philly probably prolonged Hall's KR tenure, which ended in 2003.
The re-emergence of feisty Bob Hall, feisty former Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News publisher, certainly tosses a curious wild card into the auctioning off of the Dirty Dozen. Those are the 12 papers, including the Inqy, the DN, the Mercury News and the Pioneer Press in Saint Paul that McClatchy put back on the block a day after agreeing on terms to buy Knight Ridder.
All totaled, those 12 papers represent 43% of Knight Ridder's current revenue. Maybe more to the point, going forward, they represent 55% of KRD’s total unique users and 36% of pageviews (Feb. '06).
Hall's hiring by the Yucaipa/Newspaper Guild group, calling itself Value Plus for now, is significant. He's well and widely regarded in the industry, having run well one of its biggest operations until his 2003 retirement. He made a name running good papers and innovatively trying to reach out to some new markets, adding niche offerings. In retiring, it became clear he'd had enough skirmishes with KR Corporate. He'd stared down Corporate several times, including one legendary set-to in which he said, basically "let me run my business." Corporate did, for a while.
So he is of the newspaper trade, part of the brotherhood to which Gary Pruitt (and Dean Singleton) belong. Hall had his share of union fights, but now he's retained as a "senior adviser" in the purchase bid. That tells the industry something. Bob Hall + Ron Burkle's billions through Yucaipa + the Guild and CWA unions. Now that's a mix that even the colorful Dean Singleton can't match.
In the release on Hall's hiring, Value Plus noted that the investors would show the patience needed in the current challenged and challenging newspaper environment. That's good, and not unlike what we're seeing said by the companies wise and lucky enough to have two classes of stock, like the Times, Dow Jones, the Post -- and of expanded significance -- McClatchy.
Patience is good. Much better than panic.
What I don't see in the Value Plus proposal yet -- and I'm willing to be patient and give them time -- is a sense that the newspaper trade as it is now practiced is unsustainable over the longer term. I don't see the understanding that the Internet revolution means new business models that need to be innovated very quickly -- and probably impatiently -- if the journalistic trade we car about is to prosper. It's not the papers that need saving -- it's the journalism, which will be largely electronically distributed sooner than later. That means more change and lots of it -- and challenging the skills sets of those unionized workers backing Value Plus. It's a tough conundrum, but one that should at least be acknowledged as the first round of the bidding process closes Tuesday.
Ah, the zen of patience.