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Can Pruitt do for the Associated Press what he did for McClatchy Newspapers?

February 20, 2020

      In retrospect, I wish I'd at least told the dude to move his butt off my table.

      Several years ago, while I was at a journalism convention and manning the booth for the News & Observer, a man I didn't know walked up and imperiously perched on the side of the table at which I sat talking to prospective job applicants.

      Before I could pointedly tell him where else he could go sit, a co-worker came up and introduced the man as Gary Pruitt, CEO of McClatchy Newspapers.

 

      In other words, the man was The Man.

      He appeared to be about my age and his face had, to me, an unlined, untroubled look - the look of someone who had never had to loiter around inside Kmart waiting for the "blue light special" so he could save $1.50 on a pack of irregular tube socks or drawers.

 

      He certainly doesn't now, because after engineering the deal that has pushed a great newspaper chain to the precipice - and imperiled several great newspapers - Pruitt is still doing just fine. While thousands of journalists were forced out of jobs at which they excelled and which they'd hope to have for a long time, Pruitt pirouetted over to the Associated Press as deftly as Victor Silvester.

      He has served as AP's well-compensated CEO and president since 2012.

      Can you imagine sitting in on that job interview when AP executives told Pruitt "We want you to do for us what you did for McClatchy"? 

      You bet, T.C.

      I called and left a message for Pruitt at his New York office, but haven't heard back from him. 

       It's been two-and-a-half years since I left the N&O after 24 glorious years as a columnist there. As a child, I learned to read on the Sunday N&O and the Charlotte Observer, another paper imperiled by McClatchy's just-announced bankruptcy filing.

      Both papers continue to fight the good fight, but now have to do so while watching out for the hedge fund buzzards circling overhead.

      This is Gary Pruitt's legacy.

      The billions in debt taken on by the company when Pruitt won the bid for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain in 2006 debilitated it, forcing it to sell off newspapers and start cutting employees - something for which McClatchy had been heralded within the industry for never doing.

      My first thought upon reading that McClatchy had filed for bankruptcy protection was "Darn you, Pruitt."

      That was also my second through 30th thought.

      My 31st thought, though, was a line from Aretha's song Ain't No Way:

      Stop trying to be someone you're not.

      Hard, cold and cruel is a man

      who paid too much for what he got.

      I'm not saying Pruitt was cold and cruel: he no doubt thought he'd be lauded in newsrooms and, most importantly, on Wall Street for acquiring the much larger Knight Ridder chain.

      But he definitely paid too much for what he got.

      Here's a tip for future negotiations, G-Money: when you're the only one bidding on a property, walk away - or at least don't pay $4.5 billion. McClatchy gobbling up Knight Ridder was described at the time by one writer as akin to "a python swallowing an elephant."

      Perhaps he would have been hailed as a latter day Hearst or Pulitzer - had he not, despite warnings, greedily  assumed the helm of the Titanic and steered it into the iceberg known as the recession.

      Advertising revenue was in freefall, and the internet was stretching and flexing its muscles, preparing to pounce on advertisers like a leopard fixing to pounce on an unsuspecting antelope.

      The internet by itself might have led to the crippling, even the demise, of some newspapers eventually - when you can tour and sell a house online from your living room couch, there is less need to put it in the want ads - but Pruitt's decision to take on billions in debt precisely when he did exacerbated and accelerated the pain.

      McClatchy stock was trading at $75 prior to Pruitt's purchase of Knight Ridder: today it's around 86 cents. That might get you one of those off-brand gas station honeybuns with no icing on it.

      Pruitt's folly reminds me of the time 20 years ago when I went into a Border's book store and saw a wall lined with VHS tapes listed at 75% off. I voraciously and gleefully grabbed several and, as was my wont, bragged to friends about what a great deal I'd gotten.

      My technophile pal Lloyd even more gleefully informed me that VHS tapes were outdated, that everyone was switching to DVDs and good luck finding another VHS player when your current one breaks.

       My impetuous purchase cost me about $200 and embarrassment.

       Pruitt's misguided purchase upended lives.

      What's most galling is the realization that while many newspapers are on life-support and thousands of journalists - many, like me, who thought they'd be reporters, editors, photographers and columnists for life - are forced to find work in other areas, Pruitt's professional ascendancy continues unabated.

      Say, AP: If y'all bought what Pruitt was selling, any chance I can interest you in some unused VHS tapes?

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

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