Ramsey County (Minn.) Judge David C. Higgs ruled Sept. 18, 2007 that publisher Par Ridder must leave the Minneapolis Star Tribune for one year. The ruling denounced Ridder’s actions and called his attitude “cavalier.”
The ongoing battle between Minnesota’s two largest newspapers tarnished Ridder’s reputation, leading some media observers to question his future in the local newspaper industry and others to call for his permanent removal. The Star Tribune reported September 20 that it is “unlikely” that Ridder will return after the court-ordered hiatus.
The controversy started in March 2007 when Ridder left his post as publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press for the same job at the longtime rival Star Tribune. The Ridder family owned the Pioneer Press from 1927 until 2006 when then-Star Tribune owner The McClatchy Company purchased it from Knight Ridder.
The Pioneer Press filed a civil suit in April 2007 seeking a temporary injunction to keep Ridder and two other executives who also defected from the Pioneer Press, director of niche publications Jennifer Parratt and Senior Vice President of Operations Kevin Desmond, from working for the Star Tribune for one year. At an initial hearing in April, the court granted a temporary injunction to stop Parratt from working at the Minneapolis newspaper, but denied the Pioneer Press’ request regarding Ridder and Desmond. (See “Pioneer Press Sues Star Tribune After Publisher’s Defection” in the Spring 2007 Silha Bulletin.)
All three executives had signed non-compete agreements with the Pioneer Press, but argued they had been waived orally by Art Brisbane, then-senior vice president of Knight Ridder, in December 2005.
The Pioneer Press reported June 28 that Par Ridder testified that the agreements had been waived for all members of the operating committee to keep them from leaving for other markets, which the non-competes did not prevent. The Pioneer Press was for sale at the time and its future was uncertain. Ridder said waiving the agreements was meant to encourage employees to stay at the newspaper knowing they could later leave for a competitor within the same market, which the agreements would not have allowed.
Ridder testified that he instructed a human resources manager to pull the agreements from the files, and later nearly allowed an assistant to destroy them, the Pioneer Press reported. He said he recovered the agreements just before he left the paper in March and eventually turned them over to his lawyers.
Judge Higgs ruled that the waiver, if it did occur, was ineffective because it was an oral modification to a written contract. The Statute of Frauds, Minn. Stat. section 513.01, requires that modifications to certain types of contracts be confirmed in writing. Since the non-compete agreements take more than one year to perform, they are within the statute of frauds and any modification requires written confirmation.
However, Higgs held that the non-compete agreements signed by Ridder and Desmond were never valid because they were agreed to after the men began working for the newspaper. Under Minnesota law, non-compete agreements are only enforceable if they are part of the initial employment contract. To form a valid non-compete with an existing employee, the employer must provide separate consideration, such as a cash bonus or some other favorable contract term.
Unlike Ridder and Desmond, Parratt agreed to be bound by the non-compete agreement when she began work at the Pioneer Press in March 2006, so her agreement remained valid and enforceable. Higgs ruled that she may not return to work at the Star Tribune until April 19, 2008.
Pioneer Press lawyers had also argued that since Ridder suggested the agreement, separate consideration should not be required. Higgs held that Ridder’s acquiescence to the agreement showed that “he believed he would gain ‘real advantages’ by signing” it, but did not prove the newspaper offered any real consideration to Ridder in exchange for the non-compete agreement.
Although Ridder’s non-compete agreement was invalid, Higgs nevertheless barred the publisher from working at the Star Tribune until Sept. 18, 2008. He ruled that Ridder’s continued employment at the Star Tribune threatened to cause “irreparable harm” to the Pioneer Press. Higgs held that Ridder misappropriated confidential information and breached the common law duty of loyalty, and that he was likely to do so again if he continued to work for the Minneapolis newspaper.
The ruling concluded that Ridder misappropriated confidential information when he brought between 18 and 20 spreadsheets containing the Pioneer Press’ advertising and financial data with him when he moved across the river to the Star Tribune and then shared those spreadsheets with other Star Tribune employees. The publisher “knew or should have known” the information was confidential, Higgs wrote. Ridder also admitted during the hearing that the information would be valuable to a competing newspaper, and that he shared the information with Star Tribune employees. He also said that he used confidential employment information when negotiating with Parratt prior to her move to the Star Tribune.
“Ridder essentially grew up in the newspaper industry and therefore was well aware that newspapers, especially major newspapers, dealt with confidential information,” Higgs wrote. “[T]he Court finds that there is a substantial threat that Ridder will further misappropriate confidential Pioneer Press information or use the confidential Pioneer Press information he has already misappropriated in the future.”
Higgs ruled that Ridder’s past action caused “irreparable harm” to the Pioneer Press, and along with his “cavalier” attitude served as “a good indicator” of the potential for future misconduct. In order to prevent continuing harm, Higgs issued an injunction to bar Ridder from working for the Star Tribune for one year from the date of the ruling.
According to a September 18 Pioneer Press report, Ridder left the newspaper’s downtown Minneapolis offices just after 8:30 a.m. that morning. There was a “smattering of applause” as word spread around the newsroom that Ridder had left, the report said. Chris Harte, the chairman of the Star Tribune Co., took over as interim publisher.
“Today’s ruling is clearly not what we expected,” the Star Tribune reported Harte wrote in an e-mail to staff. “While we strongly disagree with this ruling, we will of course abide by the court’s decision as we evaluate our legal options.”
Dean Singleton, vice chairman of MediaNews Group, Inc., owner of the Pioneer Press, told the newspaper that he wished a court battle could have been avoided, but it was the only way to protect the St. Paul newspaper.
“I felt the institution had been wronged, its constituents had been wronged and we needed to make things right,” the Star Tribune reported Singleton said. “I felt betrayed by Par personally because I had known Par a long time. I considered him a friend.”
In addition to barring Ridder and Parratt from working at the Star Tribune for one year, Higgs also ordered the Star Tribune to pay the Pioneer Press’ legal fees. Singleton told the Star Tribune that the St. Paul newspaper’s fees were about $5 million.
Ridder’s testimony at the June 2007 hearing started a discussion among journalists about ethics and the effects of Ridder’s conduct on reporters. Kate Parry, then reader’s representative at the Star Tribune, devoted a July 1 column to the subject. Parry said many reporters told her their sources seemed compelled to interview the reporter before the reporter could begin the interview with the source, but most said that it had not affected their reporting.
Reporter Steve Brandt told her the job requires “a certain amount of swagger and self-confidence ... . If the institution behind you seems fragile, there’s a shadow hanging over it. There’s a great relief in being out on a story right now. It takes your mind off what’s going on inside.”
Reporter Rachel Blount said journalists must hold powerful institutions accountable; a powerful newspaper is no different. “But the essence of our job is not affected. I want to go out and find great stories and write great stories. Nothing is stopping us from going out and doing that.”
But reporter Warren Wolfe said he had trouble with a source while reporting on a follow-up story at the Minneapolis Veterans Home, which has had a series of regulatory problems. Wolfe asked an official whether the home was back in compliance. “‘I don’t know,’ the official replied. ‘Is your publisher?’ I had no answer,” Wolfe told Parry.
Newsroom employees also demonstrated their dissatisfaction with Ridder’s performance at a July 17, 2007 meeting. One-third of the 320 union members attended the meeting where they voted 108 to 2 in favor of a resolution that said Ridder had damaged the newspaper’s credibility and called for his resignation, according to a July 17 Star Tribune story. Reporter Dan Browning complained that “people don’t take us seriously” and called Ridder’s actions “corrosive.”
After the September ruling, the Star Tribune reported that it would launch a national search to replace Ridder. Harte told reporters at the Star Tribune that it was unlikely Ridder would return to the publisher post when the one-year injunction expired, but refused to confirm that statement when asked by The Associated Press.
“For me, this is not giving any joy,” said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota in a September 18 Pioneer Press story. “I think it’s a very, very sad kind of conclusion to the Ridder years in the Twin Cities. What has happened here is probably not consistent with what would have happened with earlier generations of the Ridder family.”
- Micheal Schoepf, Silha Research Assistant