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Chris Harte officially out as Star Tribune publisher

This was absolutely, positively expected — indeed, announced repeatedly — but Chris Harte no longer works for the paper he led into, and out of, bankruptcy.

As the memo (below) from board chair Mike Sweeney indicates, Harte was supposed to be gone by Sept. 30, but the Strib hasn’t found a successor, so he’s remained on the masthead.

Safest assumption is that Sweeney is the de facto boss right now; he heads a four-director team appointed by the paper’s Big Five creditors. Sweeney, managing director of the Minneapolis-based investment firm Goldner Hawn, has been the point man meeting with employees and other community members.

Sweeney notes there is “no shortage of interested candidates” for the publisher’s job, which isn’t the same as saying “no shortage of excellent candidates.” But let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Harte, a newspaperman by birth and experience, owned a 4.11 percent Strib stake which was wiped out in Chapter 11. He became publisher after the Par Ridder fiasco, working for no salary, though he did receive $64,800 in expenses in 2008, according to court documents. Harte’s recent bid for his hometown Austin (Tx.) American Statesman also came to naught.

In my mind, Harte’s biggest impact — outside of enabling a horrible business bet where a half-billion in debt sped up job destruction — was turning the Strib editorial page much more cautious and generally away from establishment liberalism. It will be interesting to see what changes new ownership brings there.

Here’s the communication:

To: All Employees
Subject: Message From Board Chair Mike Sweeney

I want to let you know that Chris Harte will no longer be our publisher. He had intended to leave at the end of September, but graciously agreed to stay on a while longer as the new board got organized and began its work. Chris has been dedicated and selfless in serving as our publisher as we went through restructuring. We thank him for his great service and for his deep commitment to the Star Tribune and to the community. And we wish him all the very best.

The board is now well into its search for a new publisher, and there is no shortage of interested candidates. We are moving deliberately and making good progress — placing our highest value on making the right decision.  — Mike

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Richard Parker on 11/10/2009 - 06:23 pm.

    Wasn’t Goldner Hawn the “Sock It To Me” Girl on “Laugh-In?”

  2. Submitted by ted cornwell on 11/10/2009 - 10:14 pm.

    And I quote, since this seemed to be cited as an accomplishment of Mr. Harte:

    “was turning the Strib editorial page much more cautious and generally away from establishment liberalism. It will be interesting to see what changes new ownership brings there.”

    More caution in editorial pages is not what the Strib, or any other paper, needs. One of the reasons why website journalism has become more relevant than “mainstream” journalism is because of its swagger, it’s “let the advertisers be damned” disregard for consequences. In this way, the new journalism seems to me somewhat reminiscent of the penny paper days of swashbuckling editors and publishers who had a point of view and weren’t afraid to show it. Journalism (at least on the editorial pages) should be, fundamentally, the free marketplace of ideas. The Strib’s editorial page has become almost unbearable because of its cautious desire not to offend anyone.

  3. Submitted by Robert Owen on 11/11/2009 - 07:53 am.

    Maybe the Strib should just ditch the editorial page. Yeah, I know the paper is thinner than ever but that page doesn’t help the Strib.

    People are getting opinions all over the Internet. Many search out what they agree with. And we all know what the Strib’s editorial writers are going to say and who they will endorse for office. There are no surprises there.

    A good portion of the Strib’s readers disagree with its editorial page. Many of those don’t believe there is a wall between news and editorial departments no matter what the newspaper claims. Dislike of the editorial page spills over to dislike of the whole newspaper.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Cagle on 11/11/2009 - 08:51 am.

    I say good riddance to Mr. Harte and Avista! They were the biggest reason why the Star Tribune stopped caring about its readers – both in the news and editorial sections.

  5. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/11/2009 - 10:50 am.

    Zero loss. The road to Hell is paved with publishers trying to meddle with the editorial page in an effort to sell more newspapers.

    As a former journalist, I was always amazed that newspapers are the only industry in which so much effort is made to attract the unattractble non-reader in the hope that they are the key to long-term profitability and so little effort is made to keep the hard-core, long-term customer, who is in fact the secrete to long-term profitability. In fact, most long-time customers are insulted every time they see some sort of promotion because it always aimed at great discounts for marginal customers and never anything for them.

  6. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 11/11/2009 - 01:24 pm.

    “In my mind, Harte’s biggest impact — outside of enabling a horrible business bet where a half-billion in debt sped up job destruction”

    These are very critical words, even more so given the author has not managed anything larger than a paper bag. The use of leverage on a bet is common place. The bet was a loser, you took your hits, now it’s time to pick your self up. Additionally I would say he is as responsible for Minnpost and its success as anyone else.

  7. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/11/2009 - 01:56 pm.

    Joe – thanks for basically backing up what I said. I didn’t save leverage was uncommon. I said Harte (who helped midwife the deal) enabled a horrible business bet. Hard to argue with that, I think.

    As for MinnPost, glad you think we’re a success!

  8. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 11/11/2009 - 02:55 pm.

    David – I’m not supporting your statements in the slightest. The merit of the deal at time of transaction was vastly different than your criticism in hindsight. Armchair venture capitalism is not that difficult when you don’t investors requiring +10% return in saturated markets. What confuses me even more is that you take this guy to woodshed when this was an industry wide issue. You could just as well blame the SEC’s qualified investor thresholds for giving VC firms so much more additional capital to invest.

  9. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/11/2009 - 03:24 pm.

    Joe – while many folks thought Avista got a bargain in late 2006, there were also plenty who saw the falling knife that was revenue and wondered what the hell was going on.

    Harte was not alone, but that doesn’t excuse responsibility. Two words on his management decisions: Par Ridder. That one cost needless millions. He was *the* newspaper guy in the Avista stable, and they bet on him as the board’s operations expert. I’ll bet *they’d* ascribe some responsibility to him (while hopefully accepting a heaping helping of their own).

    Seems business types are quick to exalt the great men when the boats are rising, but excuse them on the downdraft. (Or blame government.) A real lack of accountability. That can be wished away as “hindsight,” but that’s the only way to judge many things.

    By the way, Harte was directly responsible for turning the Strib into an even-more-neutered product. I’m hopeful new management will reverse that.

  10. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 11/11/2009 - 07:14 pm.

    David – You’re funny 11.5m on +500m hardly the straw that broke the camels back. Bad decision yes but did he ask the guy to take the files? Who ever would have thought media and ethics would have an inverse relationship. The notes were likely marked at 40% at that point anyway. He did manage the company through reorg and now he’s out. The same result would have happened regardless. Slow moving, high fixed cost, and unionized business it was only a matter of time. Was the deal really that bad? They did get a few years of coupons, assets, and land. I have little background on the terms of the notes but flip the land and buildings to a REIT, then sell the leaner business off to a new group of investors (or IPO you never know the market has turned as of late).

  11. Submitted by Jeff Cagle on 11/12/2009 - 10:25 am.

    “Who ever would have thought media and ethics would have an inverse relationship.” Please don’t begin sounding like Sid Hartman. The two are integral for there to be any kind of success. But Par Ridder didn’t see any of that, which is a shame. And Chris Harte didn’t help matters much by trying his best to sweep this under the rug and move on. Ridder’s actions had a negative effect on the credibility of the Star Tribune, quite unfairly I might add. Again, I’ll say good riddance to Chris Harte and then another good riddance (which is long overdue) to Par Ridder.

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