McGuire on Media

Star Tribune decision should not surprise anyone

Par Ridder is out of the Star Tribune for at least a year and Star Tribune executives are still saying they are surprised. That surprise is not universal.

After carefully reading 39 pages of  the opinion of Judge David C. Higgs I was grateful that after all the legalese, voluntary and involuntary waivers, and other rigamarole, Higgs finally landed in the place I’ve told people for weeks that he’d land– on the side of common sense. There were a lot of fears in Minneapolis that Ridder’s deed would go unpunished, but my faith in the common sense of the law has proven correct.

Before we go any further I’ ve got several disclosures: I worked at the Star Tribune for 23 years, retired in 2002, draw a pension and I am on the retiree health plan;  I am in the process of donating money to the new online competitor in the Twin Cities Minn Post; Over 30 years ago I worked for Chris Harte’s father and I have an industry acquaintance with Chris Harte, the Avista representative at the Strib and the new interim publisher.  He has always seemed like a fine fellow and he comes from solid newspapering roots; finally, I have deep affection and respect for hundreds of employees at the Star Tribune.

Grade schoolers at recess know you can’t take stuff from other people and use it to your advantage and to your competitor’s disadvantage. It was incredibly refreshing that, in my non-practicing lawyer’s point of view, the judge in the end, went beyond the obvious misappropriation of confidential material. He did that when he wrote, “Minnesota recognizes a common law duty of loyalty of an employee to his or her employer.”

May all powers above be praised.  As employees we all owe a duty of loyalty to our boss. What a concept.  (It would be nice if it worked the other way too, but this is no time for greed.) That’s been the problem in this case from the beginning. It was not LOYAL for the publisher of the Pioneer Press to become Publisher of the Star Tribune. That’s why, within hours of Ridder’s appointment my old friends, the former editors in St. Paul, Deborah Howell and Walker Lundy, were expressing their personal outrage to me, their old adversary.

At that moment, Avista and Par Ridder should have been on notice that this move and every individual act was going to be carefully scrutinized and judged. For Ridder to then misappropriate confidential information defies logic, common sense, and loyalty.  I will leave it to the psychiatrists to figure out what motivates someone to do that.

Yet, the most maddening thing about this has been the constant insistence from Ridder and Harte that this was something ginned up by the Pioneer Press for competititive reasons. From the day Romanesko transmitted that first PDF of the Pioneer Press complaint, the industry and the Twin Cities knew Ridder had done a bad, disloyal thing which could not go unpunished. 

Now a judge has confirmed that and Ridder is out for a year. Wait, not so fast. I admit I am not a practicing lawyer, my l987 law degree is musty and my memory is even mustier, but I don’t think this is like the year’s suspension implied in some commentary.  This was injunctive relief. That means the Pioneer Press sued for immediate relief, but this case is not over.  It seems to me, and the Star Tribune story hints at such, that the permanent relief part of this case is still to come. Damages can still be determined and, I believe, damages could include Ridder being permanently barred from the Star Tribune. Ridder’s return does not strike me as automatic.

You don’t even have to get that far. There is a reason editors and publishers don’t take one-year sabbaticals.  One year at the top of a newspaper, especially a newspaper in this staggering environment is like a dog year.  One year from now, Ridder is not going to be able to effortlessly slide back into the driver’s seat.  Hundreds of crucial decisions will be made in his absence. New problems will beset the paper strategically and tactically and Ridder will have missed their subtleties and implications. After a year out of the game nobody will have any reason to listen to Ridder.

But then again, that’s been the problem for the last five months. A lot of people haven’t been listening to Ridder because he lacked moral leadership. We follow leaders because we believe in them. Few  people at the Star Tribune have believed in Ridder since the day it was revealed he wasn’t loyal to his last employer. 

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