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Pultizer's Price?

Reporters at the Arizona Daily Star got nervous when on Saturday, Nov. 20, their paper's Business section printed a wire story relaying anonymous tips that Pulitzer Inc., the Star's owner, was contemplating selling off its assets, including our favorite local morning daily.

The St. Louis-based Pulitzer family had lost its passion for the newspaper business by the time the small but high-profile publishing empire passed to Michael E. Pulitzer, who rose through the reporting ranks but whose ultimate interest was clearly business more than journalism. Mike Pulitzer ran the company competently but passionlessly. He kept his hands off the Star's editorial content, which most newsroom locals appreciated, but he was also content to let Gannett, the hundred-newspaper corporate gorilla that owns the Tucson Citizen, have its way in most matters covered under the papers' joint operating agreement--printing, human resources, marketing, sales, even a periodically crappy cafeteria I at one point dubbed Café Caca Pasa.

When Mike Pulitzer retired in 1999, Bob Woodworth replaced him as president and CEO; he came from Knight-Ridder, not the Pulitzer family, a first in the company's history. Star employees immediately began speculating how long it would be until the blasé Pulitzer Inc. sold off its Tucson paper.

This week, Star employees aren't so troubled by the prospect of a new corporate owner as by the possibility that Gannett will come to the table with the up to $1.5 billion that Pulitzer reportedly hopes to get for its assets, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a bunch of dinky papers you've never heard of.

Gannett couldn't own both dailies in the same market--that's called a monopoly--so one way or another, it would have to transform two newspapers into one. Even if the Citizen became the afternoon edition of the Star, many surplus reporters and editors would be fired. (Gannett's management minions at the Arizona Republic handled this in a particularly insensitive, come-to-the-principal's-office manner when they consolidated with the Phoenix Gazette in the late 1990s.)

It's even possible that the Star would be shut down entirely, and the Citizen would switch to morning publication.

The real losers would be the people of Tucson, who would have to make do with one market-gobbling and therefore rather lazy daily newspaper, one news philosophy, one editorial position. But that's been the trend across America for the past 15 years, as evening papers have shut down because of steeply declining readership and advertising, and big chains have bought up what few family-owned, community-driven papers remain.

Of course, this is mere speculation. Pulitzer may not sell off its newspaper empire at all. Or if it does, it may find a buyer other than Gannett (although few other chains can boast Gannett's rosy financial health right now).

One Star reporter has likened Pulitzer Inc. to a coy but somewhat slutty bride, approaching the altar with one breast exposed, hesitating to say its vows with Gannett just in case a better suitor comes along.

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