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Pioneer Press: In bigger trouble than the Star Tribune?

A national politics site reckons the PiPress is the eighth-most endangered paper in America; surprisingly, the Strib doesn’t make the list.
By David Brauer

With a hat tip to Minnesota Independent’s Paul Schmelzer, an unbylined piece at Real Clear Politics has declared the Pioneer Press the eighth most endangered U.S. newspaper … and the Star Tribune didn’t make the list.

I understand the case, which is defensible. One newspaper in town will probably die, and that’s usually the smaller one. If the Strib gets through bankruptcy, its labor costs could be lower than the PiPress’. Also, the St. Paul paper’s owner, Media News Group, is massively overleveraged, though not in Chapter 11 for the moment.

A significantly underappreciated death factor: Media News likes to have multiple papers in an area so it can combine operations and reap economies of scale, but the PiPress is its sole regional property here. (As is the only MediaNews paper ranked higher on RCP’s list: the Detroit News.)

Other than Detroit, at least two Media News properties are far bigger disasters than anything suspected in St. Paul: the San Jose Mercury News and hometown Denver Post. Denver’s losses are in the teens of millions annually, and the demise of the rival Rocky Mountain News will likely only slow the bleeding. However, both are in local clusters, so they are more likely to be hollowed out than shuttered.

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Finally, the PiPress’ website lags behind the Strib’s, further reducing growth prospects and asset value.

Still, I think anyone who knows which Twin Cities paper will fold first is confidently calling a coin toss while praying for luck. The PiPress remains the leaner, more focused (some say skeletal) shop, considered one of the better-performing MediaNews properties cashflow-wise — though that might not be saying much. It’s among the chain’s biggest papers, so if it’s not a big cash suck, closing it might actually harm some economies of scale at the corporate level.

The PiPress has stellar household penetration in its target market (Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties), even if it gives some papers away, and has a more advanced niche-sales strategy. On the cost side, if the Strib lowers workers’ wages, it probably won’t be long before that’s matched across the river, though unions retain more leverage short of bankruptcy court.