Star Tribune newsroom asks: Who the hell’s our publisher?

So this is sort of funny: workers begging a court to find out who their boss will be.

In a motion filed late Wednesday — less than a day before a judge is scheduled to approve the Star Tribune’s reorganization plan — unsecured creditors, including a representative of the newsroom’s Newspaper Guild, asked the court to first force soon-to-be owners to disclose the new publisher’s identity.

Strib reporter Jennifer Bjorhus — who apparently drew the short straw to cover her own company — reports that “people familiar with the process say the newspaper has identified a leading candidate from outside the newspaper.” However, unsecured creditors (who are getting little more than a penny on the dollar) want the company to name someone before plan approval, as it promised in an earlier filing.

While this confirms that editor Nancy Barnes won’t take over the business side, it is weird that the company hasn’t named someone — this whole bankruptcy deal is about ducks in a row. And the publisher will sit on the board of directors, which has otherwise been named.

Does a recovering paper really want owners or a CEO with Brett Favre-like decisiveness? I suppose it’s better than hiring a T-Jack.

I’ve spent many hours poring over Strib bankruptcy documents, but I have to say this end game produced one of my favorite legal moments. In making their last-minute, probably hopeless request, the Guild and its allies faced a formidable hurdle: debtor-friendly U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain had just approved another CEO-less plan.

This forced the creditors into an interesting position: arguing that a newspaper publisher was somehow more important than the head of company that must worry about hundreds of people dying if a single thing fails. According to the brief:

“The publisher’s role in the newspaper business is a unique and vital one and impacts all aspects of such business. The Committee is cognizant that this Court recently approved confirmation of a plan of reorganization in the Frontier Airlines case without the debtors in that case having a chief executive officer in place. It is the Committee’s belief that the circumstances surrounding the confirmation of the plan of reorganization in the Frontier Airlines case are distinguishable from the case at bar.

“A newspaper’s publisher is even more critical than any one member of an otherwise complete and functioning management team in another industry (the situation presented to the Court in Frontier Airlines). The publisher’s role in the Debtors’ successful emergence from chapter 11 is a crucial one affecting both administrative and operational aspects of the Debtors’ businesses. The Committee submits that it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully assess the likelihood of the feasibility of the Plan without knowing the identity of the person that will be the most instrumental in the implementation of that Plan.”

I love the First Amendment as much as anyone, and want to know the publisher’s identity more than most. Despite my japery, I think the creditors are right and hope this move succeeds, even though it won’t change the judge’s approval. Still, I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

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