I’m not usually big on rumors, but last Friday brought an interesting one; former Star Tribune sports reporter John Millea tweeting that Pioneer Press sports columnist Charley “Shooter” Walters could be “moving across the river” to the Strib. A subsequent tweet noted “Non-compete keeps Shooter off the grid for 12 months.”
Millea, who now works for the Minnesota High School League, is a respected enough guy that several newsies were immediately in my in-box urging me to check it out. Awaiting Walters’ callback, I talked to Pioneer Press editor Thom Fladung, who said he’d heard nothing about such a move — and had in the other cases where staffers moved west. Fladung’s verdict rhymed with “fullsnit.”
Subsequently, a knowledgeable source contributed an interesting bit of evidence that, in part, seemed to back up both Fladung and Millea. Shooter does have a contract with a 12-month non-compete. The deal does prevent him from going anywhere until late 2011.
Pioneer Press publisher Guy Gilmore declined to comment, and I didn’t hear back from Strib major domos, but Walters was more open. He acknowledged he was “bound” to the Pioneer Press, insisting that he was “totally committed” to the paper.
“I love St. Paul, I want to stay in St. Paul,” he stated.
Of Millea’s chatter, Walters said, “I don’t think there’s anything to it.”
He expanded on that tiny whiff of vagueness when I asked if he’d talked with the Strib. He said he had “not initiated” conversations with the Minneapolis paper — leaving hanging the implication that they had called him. He added “who knows what will happen?” to newspapers in these uncertain and Internet-disrupted times. “I want to work another seven to 10 years,” said the 63-year-old.
Even if Walters kept writing for another decade, he’d still be a spring chicken compared to Sid Hartman, now 90. Walters and Hartman are great notes-columnist rivals — they often tweak each other in print, though they avoid mentioning each other’s name. Presumably, Walters would eventually replace Hartman; his hire could also be part of the Strib’s latest push to gain readers in the Pioneer Press’s east-suburban base.
It’s also possible, frankly, that the loose talk is designed to give Walters more leverage going into his next contract negotiation. If I have Walters’ current deal right, he signed it in 2004 — before a bad economy totally swamped debt-ridden newspapers — and negotiated with then-owner Knight-Ridder, a country-club operation compared to the tight-fisted current overseer, Media News Group.
This all raises the fundamental question of how important notes columnists really are. As I wrote last week, sports is a big driver of readership. But Hartman — once a truly influential scoop-getter whose power-shilling made him the reporter we youngsters loved to hate — is no longer a must-read.
Fladung says Shooter is one of the PiPress’s most recognizable faces, even though Walters eschews TV and radio that have made Sid a household name. Still: would the needle move enough for either paper to offer any writer a new contract in these fraught times? At this point, we can’t assume anything is even happening, but I suspect 2011 will bring some sort of resolution.