Grand Forks Tries New Path After KR Sale: Hiring

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By: And No [expletive] Surprises.”

Layoffs at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, labor give-backs at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a proposed freeze on pension benefits at the Saint Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press ? life after Knight Ridder hasn’t been easy for many of the dozen papers “orphaned” in the sale to the McClatchy Co. But in North Dakota, the good old days are back again at the Grand Forks Herald, which has been taken off its long diet by new family owners Forum Communications.

Right after acquiring its erstwhile cross-state rival, Fargo-based Forum issued an order most of the other Knight Ridder orphans hear only in their dreams: Start hiring. Under Knight Ridder’s unrelenting pressure to cut costs, the Grand Forks newsroom had lost about 25% to 30% of its journalists since 2000.

“It wasn’t a bloodbath,” says Publisher and Editor Mike Jacobs, more like a blood-letting. But it hurt the paper, and the new owner, publisher of The Forum, North Dakota’s biggest newspaper, knew that as well as anyone. “They understood that we were not the paper we used to be,” Jacobs says. “The editor of the Forum was not waking up mornings worried about being scooped by the Herald anymore.”

Forum President and CEO William C. Marcil told Jacobs and the staff that he wanted the Herald to become competitive again. The paper quickly hired general assignment reporters (many of whom had worked at the paper before) to get the staff up to what the editor calls a “respectable” number. Months later, it is still hiring for specialty beats, recently adding two education reporters and a roving regional correspondent. At Christmastime, it was still looking for a permanent business writer.

In December, the paper restructured the city desk by assigning a staff devoted exclusively to weekend projects. “I believe, just judging by the story budget so far, that this has the potential to transform the level of our coverage, so that it won’t be so episodic, and that there will always be someone looking at [a topic] long-range,” says Jacobs. Plans are in the works for new sections and other changes to the print product at the 29,839-circulation daily.

The help-wanted signs aren’t just posted in the Herald newsroom. Circulation Director Dawn Zimney built from scratch a call center that Knight Ridder dismantled a decade ago when the chain decided to centralize circulation service calls for all its dailies in Miami. Because of the April 1997 flood and fires that destroyed downtown Grand Forks, including the Herald’s building, the newspaper was the first shifted to the central call center.

It also turned out to be one of the worst fits. In the rural state, the paper relied on the mail more than other Knight Ridder dailies, and it has a sizable number of subscribers who leave for the winter and expect the paper to follow them to Florida or Arizona. “And then, I don’t know if it’s just Northern culture or what, but people here didn’t much like talking to someone from the South when they had a circulation complaint,” Zimney says.

The local call center, which was up and running in early October, has had an “immediate impact” in calming and satisfying subscribers, she adds.

With its new owners, the Herald no longer has corporate looking over its shoulder every fiscal quarter, although it does have the difficult marching orders of pricing advertising and circulation far more aggressively than Knight Ridder did. Independence is liberating, Jacobs says, but you’ve got to keep on your toes: “In Knight Ridder, you never tripped over the rope because it was always right in front of your face. With Forum, the rope is at your feet.”

Indeed, Jacobs says Forum CEO Marcil told him there were just four rules for a publisher in his chain: “No drinking on the job, no stealing from the company, no [expletive] the help

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