Big Newspaper Deals Brewing in Detroit?

By: Joe Strupp

Is a big newspaper deal gathering speed in the Motor City? Rumors are rampant at The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press of a change in the two papers’ joint operating agreement — or even one or both papers coming under new ownership.

Publishers did not return calls to E&P all day Tuesday. A spokesman for Knight Ridder, and a spokeswoman for Gannett, would neither confirm or deny the rumors, saying they never comment on such speculation.

But two sources at the News (one highly placed) contend that one rumored scenario has Knight Ridder transferring the Free Press to Gannett Co. Inc., which owns the News. Gannett would turn over the News to MediaNews Group, the Denver-based chain that owns The Denver Post and Oakland Tribune.

“I’m told it was to be announced Monday, but that they had to iron some things out,” said the high-ranking source, who requested anonymity. “Stuff has been percolating on this since Friday.” By the end of Tuesday, staffers claimed they had even heard about possible new editors being brought in from out of town, with specific names mentioned.

An announcement on either the ownership shifts or a new JOA deal is rumored to be coming as soon as Wednesday afternoon.

MediaNews vice-chair and CEO William Dean Singleton could not be reached for comment. Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell said, ?I can’t say anything, I am not commenting on anything. We do not comment on business deals.”

Polk Laffoon, vice president/corporate relations for Knight Ridder, said much the same. ?We never comment on speculation of assets,? he told E&P. ?I do not comment on those kinds of issues.?

The two Detroit papers are currently under a joint-operating agreement, which began in 1989 and gives Gannett control of the business operation through a five-person board of directors, three members of which are chosen by Gannett and two by Knight Ridder.

Sources said speculation about some kind of changeover has been increasing since January, when Frank Vega, former director of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, left to become publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle. He has not been replaced, with interim CEO Ed Humphrey running the newspaper agency.

“The longer it has gone on, the more the buzz has grown,” said one source. The newspaper agency also recently spent more than $170 million on new presses.

Editor and Publisher Carol Leigh Hutton of the Free Press and Editor and Publisher Mark Silverman of the News did not return calls seeking comment.

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