On both Friday and Sunday mornings, fans of journalism awoke happy. Knight Ridder, we thought, had been sold to McClatchy, the fairest-haired of its suitors, the one whose CEO is mindful to highlight "community", "service" and "reporting" in his talks and interviews.
After all, we had worried for months, since PCM dispatched KR to limbo in November. The Internet and Wall Street be damned, were we going to lose our precious hometown papers? We knew that in KnightRidderLand, as in Lake Wobegon, all the papers are above average.
Monday, though, we awakened again to find that our happiness was premature. Gary Pruitt made good on his previous pledges to shareholders: I'll keep only good-margin properties in high-growth markets.
He told everyone who would listen that 12 of his new properties would be put immediately on the block. Those properties included the Saint Paul Pioneer Press , which we expected, given anti-trust concerns arising from McClatchy's ownership of the Star Tribune in the Twin Cities, there living the rumor that a federal Anti-Trust Division, last heard from in the last century, still exists.
The list though also included the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Akron Beacon Journal and surprising 3 KR California papers, including the Mercury News in San Jose, and papers in Contra Costa and Monterey. Surely, we all thought, Gary Pruitt was building an impressive California and West Coast base, with seven papers in the once-and-future Golden State and at least 4 in Washington. But no. Pruitt said the Merc didn't meet his oft-stated criteria, and once it was outside the fold, so were its Bay Area sister papers.
Shock. Dismay. Renewed angst. We expect that reaction from fans of journalism.
We didn't expect it from the man who was at the table doing the deal with Gary Pruitt: Tony Ridder.
Tony told his hometown paper -- the paper he had built as publisher in the '80s from a non-player into one of the top 10 in the nation -- that he was, well, shocked, dismayed and filled with as much angst as a Ridder is allowed.
"I was just stunned when I heard they were selling San Jose and Contra Costa, and Monterey, too.....`I was feeling pretty good, and then, out of the blue, selling 12 of the papers."
Wait a minute. You were stunned?
You could be taken aback. Resigned. Despondent. Inclined to spend your own money to keep the paper.
But how could you be stunned? Your name is on the company. You hired you the investment bankers. You reviewed the bids. Gary Pruitt is in the fraternity.
Tony's explanation is that weeks before the bids came in on March 9, he'd been told that McClatchy was only looking at selling at most 2 or 3 of the papers. It was only on March 9, in New York, as the final bids came in did Tony learn from Goldman Sachs that McClatchy intended to sell 12 papers, including the Merc. He says he tried to get the Merc and Contra Costa back into the McClatchy fold but was rebuffed. And of course, it was then too late. It was all over but the crying, the counting of severance and waiting for the Dirty Dozen to show up on eBay .
I have no doubt that Tony is anguished and surprised. But isn't this the fit epitaph for a once-great company, now in the throes of dismemberment, a company that has had such inability to sweat the details and execute: