By: STACI D. KRAMER
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch joins the Chicago Tribune,
Phoenix Newspapers and the Rocky Mountain News of Denver
as newspapers that own all or part of major league teams sp.
WHEN ANHEUSER-BUSCH Inc. rocked St. Louis in late October with the news that the St. Louis Cardinals and a chunk of downtown that includes Busch Stadium were for sale, the editorial staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quickly went to work on one of the top local stories of the year.
Only those in the executive suite at Pulitzer Publishing Co. knew that when the sale was completed, the company and its flagship newspaper, the Post-Dispatch, might become part of the story.
That possibility became a reality when a conditional agreement between Anheuser-Busch and a new ownership group was announced at a hastily called press conference on Dec. 22. As the new owners were introduced, Post-Dispatch staffers in the newsroom watching a live broadcast of the event were stunned to hear a familiar name among the list of local investors ? Pulitzer Publishing, in the guise of Pulitzer Sports II, a new, wholly owned subsidiary.
“My first response? It was a big surprise,”” recalled executive sports editor Phil Gaitens. “”We were watching the announcement on television when they introduced Pulitzer as one of the minority partners.””
Editor William F. Woo, who was on vacation when the announcement was made, was the only person in the newsroom with advance knowledge of the investment. Woo took part in the discussions, as an adviser to the board.
Managing editor Foster Davis said he knew early on that Pulitzer Publishing was willing to invest, but he did not realize a deal had been made.
“My own reaction is, I am very glad, because the Cardinals are an anchor in this community and so is the Post-Dispatch,”” Davis said soon after the announcement.
As for coverage, said Davis, “”Frankly, we haven’t been sports owners before. I’ll probably call some people at the Chicago Tribune and ask them that question.””
Tribune Co. purchased the Chicago Cubs in 1981.
“We’re not going to start pitching softballs, and we’ll continue to spell their name right,”” Davis added.
Post-Dispatch publisher Nicholas G. Penniman IV said questions about the impact on the editorial side of the Post-Dispatch were discussed before the commitment was made.
“Clearly, the news and business interests of the paper have been separate for years and will remain separate,”” he said. “”Our coverage of the Cardinals over the years has, by and large, been very fair.
“This is very much Michael Pulitzer’s idea. He’s very much the impetus behind our involvement with the team. He thought the Cardinals should stay in St. Louis, and he wanted to make a statement to that effect.””
Pulitzer, the chairman of Pulitzer Publishing, was not available for interviews. But in a press release, he called the company a “”good corporate citizen”” of St. Louis and spoke of the need to serve the “”loyal readers”” of the sports pages.
“We believe our experience with newspaper and broadcast sports coverage will help the new ownership promote the team and ensure its continued success,”” Pulitzer said.
The Post-Dispatch immediately began a house ad campaign with the slogan, “”Proud to be part of the home team.””
The Cardinals are not Pulitzer Publishing’s first foray into sports.
Last June, the company formed Pulitzer Sports I to purchase an interest in the Arizona Diamondbacks, one of two major league baseball expansion teams scheduled to start playing in 1990. The move was part civic gesture, part pure business, as Pulitzer-owned radio station KTAR scooped up exclusive rights for the new team.
Phoenix Newspapers Inc., publisher of the Arizona Gazette, Phoenix Republic and Arizona Business Gazette, also bought into the Diamondbacks. The media companies are reported to have invested $8 million.
A company spokesman said neither Pulitzer Publishing investment was significant enough to warrant a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
So far, Pulitzer is the only corporation in the St. Louis investment group, which is led by a trio of Cardinal fans ? lawyer Frederick O. Hanser, businessman William O. DeWitt Jr. and banker Andrew N. Baur ? and comprised mostly of people with close business and personal ties. Six other investors were announced at a press conference; others will be announced later.
Baur and Penniman would not provide specifics about the actual percentage purchased by Pulitzer Sports II. The sale price of the club, the stadium and the other real estate was valued at $150 million.
Pulitzer Publishing’s involvement began with a call from Michael Pulitzer to his friend Andrew Baur, the chairman of Southwest Bank in St. Louis and one of the first names mentioned as a potential buyer.
“He called and said they are very interested in keeping the Cardinals in St. Louis. He felt that we shared that commitment and said he would like to do whatever he could to be helpful,”” Baur recalled.
Baur didn’t see any conflict between Pulitzer Publishing’s interest in the Cardinals and its ownership of the Post-Dispatch.
“The Post-Dispatch has always kept the business side of the paper separate from the editorial,”” he said.
How will he feel the first time he wakes up to a Post-Dispatch column, lambasting the new owners for their failure to sign a free agent or some other flaw?
“We advertise in the Post-Dispatch and we don’t always agree with their editorial stance. It’s something I’m used to as a business man in St. Louis and I think our other partners understand that.””
Gaitens, the executive sports editor, didn’t expect anything to change in terms of coverage. “”You’re talking about a very veteran staff,”” he said. “”These folks are used to going after news and getting it in the paper.””
Like Davis, Gaitens immediately referred to the Tribune.
“I know I’m a pretty close reader of the Trib,”” he said.
“The Trib, at times, is pretty sharp on the Cubs, pretty sharp. I’m not saying the Trib is going to be our model, [but] I don’t see how this is going to change our coverage.””
If the Cubs-Tribune relationship is any example, the Post-Dispatch sports department is unlikely to gain any advantage.
“Does a perception exist that we’re somehow in bed with the Cubs?”” asks Tim Franklin, associate managing editor for sports at the Tribune. “”Yeah, it does. I can’t deny it does, and I don’t think anything we ever do could change their minds.””
But perception is far from reality.
The Chicago Sun-Times made it to the streets first with news of the Cubs’ sale to the Tribune in 1991. Then, in 1994, it scooped the Tribune when it announced the hiring of Andy MacPhail as club president.
“If there’s any corporate favoritism, I’d sure like to know where it is,”” said Franklin. “”If you look at every major move [recently], we were with the pack on those stories.””
Franklin thinks it bodes well that the Post-Dispatch newsroom was not given advance notice about the Cardinals deal.
The competitive situation is fairly similar in Denver, where the Rocky Mountain News is a limited partner in the Colorado Rockies and has a contract with the team for exclusive advertising rights.
The News has paid to call itself “”The Official Newspaper of the Colorado Rockies.”” But, says Mike Connelly, executive sports editor at the Denver Post, “”We’re the official newspaper of the fan, and it’s really gone over well with us. We couldn’t combat them with money, so we combated them with ideas.””
Those ideas include the launch of Baseball Monday, a special section devoted to baseball.
Connelly credits the public relations officials with various sports franchises for ensuring a level playing field.
“They’re so aware of the newspaper war in Denver, they don’t let anything interfere,”” the editor said.
Rocky Mountain News sports editor Barry Forbis was as surprised as the Post-Dispatch sports staff when he found out his paper had invested in the Rockies. At least his St. Louis counterparts heard about it the same time as the rest of the media.
Forbis found out by reading the competition.
“To be honest, I didn’t know we were involved until I saw it in the Post,”” he said.
“I couldn’t believe we were involved. I’d even asked, and been told ‘no.’ The good thing about it is, I think it was a nice civic gesture.””
But it’s made his job more difficult.
“We can’t win,”” he said. “”If you break a story, it was handed to you; if you don’t break a critical story, you were covering it up. So, you really can’t win.””
Two factors help: the hands-off attitude of the publisher, and the paper’s lack of involvement in running the team.
The Tribune faces one problem the papers in St. Louis, Phoenix and Denver don’t: covering two major league baseball teams in the same city.
“There’s a consciousness in our news meetings that we need to bend over backwards to make sure we’re fair to the White Sox,”” said Franklin.
For most of this decade, the White Sox have made that task easier by outplaying the Cubs and by bringing Michael Jordan into the farm system.
“As you know, story play is largely determined by the success of, or interest level in, a team,”” Franklin said.
“Now if you open our sports section, it might look like the Tribune Co. owns Northwestern.””