UPDATE: Read the purchase announcement here.
By Deena Winter
MNG Enterprises is buying a family-owned Minnesota newspaper company called Big Fish Works that owns 11 Minnesota newspapers, most of them weeklies, including eight in the western suburbs of Minneapolis.
MNG (formerly known as Digital First Media) is controlled by New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which owns about 60 daily newspapers, including the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Big Fish Media owns newspapers in Prior Lake, Savage, Shakopee, Jordan, Chaska, Chanhassen, Lake Minnetonka communities, Eden Prairie, Litchfield, Hutchinson and International Falls.
According to two Big Fish employees who did not want to be named, because employees were asked to keep the sale quiet until it is finalized, employees were told of the impending sale in a Jan. 23 video call with Big Fish CEO Mark Poss, whose office was in Red Wing.
“We were told that unless MNG chose to hire us back on, our positions would be terminated,” another Big Fish employee said. “The call was very short, and Red Wing couldn’t answer most of our questions, since the ball was now in the court of MNG.”
Poss did not show up in person to deliver the news, and his video call had a bad connection, employees said.
“We were all speechless,” one employee said. “He asked if anyone had any questions and you could hear a pin drop.”
Employees were re-interviewed for their jobs by MNG employees from Jan. 24-27. By Jan. 28, employees began to learn whether they’d get an offer from MNG.
“Most of us have received offers, but not all,” one employee said.
Employees were given 48 hours to decide whether to sign the offer letters, employees said. One employee said MNG offered the same salary as before.
“We have heard rumblings about certain people who either didn’t receive an offer letter or chose not to sign,” an employee said. “All most of us know right now is that we still have our jobs, but we don’t know for how much longer, or when MNG might choose to consolidate our papers even more.”
Another employee had questions about compensation that were unanswered.
“We’re all confused,” the employee said while still in the 48-hour period. “Since when do you sign on a dotted line without knowing what you’re signing? It’s been quite weird.”
Odds are, things are about to get weirder.
I worked for Big Fish’s division called Southwest News Media for 2.5 years as regional editor overseeing the eight weeklies in the Minneapolis suburbs. In that time, I hired many of the reporters and editors whose jobs are now at stake. They are great journalists; most are barely out of college or just a few years into their careers.
When I started in journalism, I was hired to cover a town of about 12,000 people across the river from Bismarck for the Bismarck Tribune, a city of about 50,000 at the time. We had a staff of about 10 reporters, maybe 10 copy editors and four sportswriters.
The whole operation had probably 200 employees in all to gather the news in Bismarck and western North Dakota.
As regional editor for Southwest News, we covered suburbs and towns of 20,000 to 60,000 with one reporter, a sportswriter covering two towns, and an editor. The supporting sales team, human resources and administration for all 11 papers was not as big as that one Bismarck paper I started out working for 30 years ago.
It was a stark reminder of how the newspaper industry has shrunk. I often marveled that I once worked for a newspaper that covered a similar sized community to any one of these 11, but with an army of 200 people.
Deena Winter is a cowgirl flunkie, news junkie, undercover mother. Byline queen for Bismarck Tribune, AP, Denver Post, Lincoln Journal Star, Nebraska Watchdog, and SW News Media.