Metropolis: Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder should have a soft landing if his company is sold.
Hard to Swallow

The daily paper and its owners pass out cupcakes, calendars, and cushy severance packages - but not to everyone.



When the Fort Worth Star-Telegram turned 100 years old last month, its bosses threw themselves — and their friends — a party at the Amon Carter Museum, named for the newspaper’s founder. Mayor Mike Moncrief got an invite. So did Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, a TCU alum. And several of Carter’s heirs.

Conspicuously absent from the gathering, however, were most of the reporters, line editors, photographers, ad sales representatives, paper carriers, and press operators who actually put the paper out each day. The ink-stained wretches, it seems, didn’t rate — and some of them are irate.

“Lots of people in the newsroom were pissed off about that,’’ said one employee, who asked not to be named. “The little guys didn’t get invited.”

If it seems a little callous for Star-Telegram execs to treat themselves to a party while excluding much of their staff, it’s hard to lay blame solely on the daily’s managers. When it comes to taking care of those at the top, they may have been merely following an example set by their own corporate bosses.

A few days before the Star-Telegram feted its Cowtown bigwigs, Knight Ridder, the chain that owns the Fort Worth daily and 31 others, notified the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission that its top managers would be receiving generous severance packages if they lose their jobs when the company is sold. (Responding to pressure from a block of its investors, Knight Ridder put itself on the block last year. A decision on who the new owner might be could come later this month.)

Saying it wished to spare “key executives” from “personal distraction and conflict of interest’’ that might arise from a change in ownership, the company said executives who lose their jobs in a potential sale could look forward to payments three times their annual salary and bonuses plus three years’ worth of life and health insurance.

The document makes no such provision for most of Knight Ridder’s 18,000 employees, whose own jobs could be on the line if a new owner decides to squeeze more profit from its fleet of papers with layoffs. Nor did the filing specify which “key executives” would qualify for soft landings. However, the provision easily could amount to a financial drain totaling tens of millions of dollars. In 2005 alone, P. Anthony Ridder, Knight Ridder’s chief executive officer, received compensation totaling $4.2 million, according to Forbes magazine. Knight Ridder spokesman Polk Laffoon declined comment on the filing or the chain’s possible sale.

In Fort Worth, Star-Telegram publisher Wes Turner said a party for the more than 2,000 people who work for the newspaper would have been impractical and too expensive.

“It’s just not very feasible to get a group that large together,” Turner said. “To have a party of that size would cost $100,000. I don’t have the resources.”

Moreover, the event was never intended “as an employee party,” Turner said. “It was a party to thank the community for its support for 100 years.” Still, Turner said he could see how some of his employees might have felt an unintended slight.

“I can understand how they might feel that way,’’ Turner said.

Carter founded the Fort Worth Star in 1906, purchased the rival Fort Worth Telegram a few years later, and merged the two into the paper still published today.

The Carter family owned the paper until the mid-1970s, when it was sold to Capital Cities Communications. The paper has changed ownership several times since then, most recently in 1997 when Knight Ridder purchased it.

Carter’s granddaughter, Shelia Johnson, was among those invited to the paper’s birthday party. And the absence of the front-line workers at the affair wasn’t lost on her. She doubts that her grandfather, whom she recalls grew up poor in a drafty log cabin, would have excluded anyone from the paper’s centennial if he had lived to see it.

“What they should have done is have a nice party outside and invited everybody,” she said. “He never left anyone out. He didn’t really consider there to be any difference between himself and the guy in the front of the building selling papers because he had been that person.

“He understood the needs of people and their need to have some connection to the organization they were working with,” she said. “Those are the kind of things that get lost when a family company sells.”

Several suitors, including some with ties to Fort Worth, have been spinning the drums on the chain’s printing presses, according to published reports. Among them, according to numerous press reports, is William Dean Singleton, the chief executive of MediaNews Group of Denver, which owns several dozen daily newspapers around the country. His name sometimes send shivers through newsrooms because of his reputation for draconian cost-cutting and a history of presiding over newspapers, such as the defunct Fort Worth Press and the Houston Post, when they closed.

Carter heir Johnson said she’s heard that Phil Meek, a former Star-Telegram publisher, has expressed interest in the company. Additionally, a newspaper union led by Henry Holcomb, a former Star-Telegram managing editor, is trying to create a company to operate Knight Ridders papers with collective bargaining agreements.

Though he would not comment on reports about prospective buyers, Knigh -Ridder spokesman Laffoon said company executives have no plan to break up the chain.

“The company is not going to do that,’’ he said. “The company is seeking strategic options for the entire company.’’

However the Star-Telegram party at the Carter Museum was perceived, it wasn’t as if the newspaper failed entirely to acknowledge the staff’s contributions. “Cake! Giveaways! Prizes!” trumpeted a flier posted on bulletin boards at the paper. “Watch for cupcakes, Century of News calendars, and 100th Anniversary souvenir booklets coming to your department on February 1!”

To some, however, the cupcakes seemed like left-over party crumbs.

“People were really affronted,’’ one employee said. “The cupcakes would have been fine if the contrast [between the little people’s little cakes and the big cheeses’ big party] wasn’t so dramatic.”

The contrast between free calendars and lavish severance packages led one observer to think of the reign of Marie Antoinette, the 18th-century queen of France who lost her head on the guillotine after suggesting that starving peasants who had no bread could dine upon cake instead.

“Birthday cakes and golden parachutes,’’ one employee grumped in a note to Fort Worth Weekly. “On its 100th anniversary, the [Star-Telegram’s] message to employees was: Let them eat (cup) cakes.”

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