By: Mark Fitzgerald
MediaNews Group Inc. CEO William Dean Singleton says he never had a hint that Publisher Par Ridder was planning to decamp from the St. Paul Pioneer Press to the rival Minneapolis Star Tribune — and allegedly take a ton of confidential material with him.
“We assumed he would stay as publisher for a long time, and from everything we could tell he was doing a good job there,” Singleton said in an interview Friday afternoon. “I told him if he decided he wanted to go to a bigger paper we could put together a career path for him” at MediaNews.
Now MediaNews is suing Ridder and two other former Pioneer Press executives, as well as their new newspaper and its parent Avista Capital Partners, alleging they left with trade secrets, employee salary and advertiser lists, and other sensitive information.
One of the exhibits in the wide-ranging lawsuit filed Thursday suggests Ridder may not have felt as good about MediaNews as the Denver-based chain says it felt about him.
In a remarkable document allegedly created last September — six months before his unexpected March 4 departure from the Pioneer Press to the Star Tribune — Ridder drafted talking points and parts of a speech and e-mail to staff he expected deliver when he left for “X newspaper,” which is clearly the Star Tribune.
“This move is a highly unusual end to a highly unusual year, and you deserve an explanation of why I’m making the change. While I’ve enjoyed getting to know Dean Singleton, and have the highest respect for the successful company he has built, I don’t feel that MN (MediaNews) is a good fit for me. I wasn’t looking to leave the Pioneer Press but rather I needed to leave MN. There were no disagreements about budgets or the newspaper’s strategy but just a sense, after getting to know his leadership team, that we weren’t right for each other. Hiring (former Knight Ridder CFO) Steve Rossi was a great move, in my view, and the Pioneer Press is better off with Steve’s involvement. But, I made the decision to leave MNG and join MNI. By accepting this job I’m able to join MNI and take on a new professional challenge without disrupting my kid’s (sic) lives with another move.”
MNI is the stock ticker symbol for The McClatchy Companies, which at the time still owned the Star Tribune. It sold the paper to Avista last December in a sale intended to generate a tax loss.
In the apparent notes for the speech to the staff, a similar rationale is included as “Option 2.”
“I made a decision to leave MN so it was not a question of PP vs X Newspaper but rather a question of the X Newspaper vs another paper,” he allegedly wrote.
“Option 1” explained that “I’m leaving KR and joining a new company any way you slice it. Either I join MN or MNI.”
The lawsuit said just days before Ridder walked from the Pioneer Press, MediaNews included him in a high-level closed-door conference to develop a company-wide strategy for niche publications.
“We let him into everything,” Singleton said. “We had a very good relationship with him while he was publisher. In typical MediaNews style, we left him alone to do his job. We give our papers a lot of autonomy.”
That trusting style, he suggested, allowed Ridder to copy and take sensitive documents with him when he left, as the lawsuit alleges. Ridder has said it would be inappropriate to comment during litigation.
Singleton declined to comment on his personal feelings about Par Ridder, whom he known since Ridder was a boy because of his relationship with Par’s father Tony Ridder, former chairman of Knight Ridder.
Par Ridder’s notes indicate he thought in some detail about his last day at the Pioneer Press.
He wrote one-liners for himself, such as “Little McClatchy is now Big Mac.”
And he anticipated questions about his personal life:
“What are you (sic) interests?
I make time to read 4 papers a day
I have three kids
I love to run. I get to the gym or run every day
Work takes a lot of hours
I met my wife in math camp; one struck out in band camp
On Friday nights I like watching almanac … live
We are raising three little newspaper readers.”
In a cryptic note, Ridder wrote:
Emily, cord, stop reading Romenesko.”
In remarks to the Pioneer Press staff quoted in the newspaper, Singleton said: “In Par’s world, he could get away with anything because Daddy would always take care of him.”
In Par Ridder’s notes, he writes about “how to get change” among employees: “You need to treat them like adults and kill the parent/child relationship.”