Friday, April 13, 2007, 4/13/2007 10:28:00 AM

Son of Former Knight Ridder CEO Accused of Stealing Newspaper's Trade Secrets

By Todd
The San Jose Mercury News is reporting that the son of the former chief executive of Knight Ridder was accused in a lawsuit Thursday of staging a secret, months-long plan to defect as publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press to its rival newspaper with company secrets.

The suit, filed in Minnesota state court by the Pioneer Press and its owner, MediaNews, adds a nasty new chapter to the saga of the forced sale and dissolution of the Knight Ridder newspaper group last year.

Par Ridder, 38, abruptly resigned as publisher of the Pioneer Press on March 2 to take the same job with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, kicking off a major battle when his former employer said it learned he left with a laptop filled with confidential information. He was subsequently joined at the Star Tribune by two top Pioneer Press executives.

The suit - which alleges fraud, breach of contract, conspiracy and trade secrets violations - seeks the return of confidential Pioneer Press information and asks that Ridder and its two other former executives be barred from working at the Star Tribune for at least a year.

The lawsuit accuses Ridder of starting to plan his defection within weeks of MediaNews' August 2006 acquisition of the Pioneer Press. Denver-based MediaNews also acquired the Mercury News at the same time. Both newspapers were sold to MediaNews by McClatchy following McClatchy's purchase of the 32-newspaper Knight Ridder group, whose sale was forced by unhappy stockholders.

Ridder is the son of Tony Ridder, former CEO of Knight Ridder and longtime publisher of the Mercury News. In 2004, Par Ridder became publisher of the Pioneer Press, which his great-grandfather acquired in 1927.

In a prepared statement, Star Tribune Chairman Chris Harte said the company would address the allegations in its legal response. "Par Ridder has been discussing these matters in good faith with the Pioneer Press," he said, declining further comment.

Ridder could not be reached for comment.

According to the lawsuit, the departing Ridder "stole" a file of non-competition agreements, including his own, from the Pioneer Press. And, as he "secretly negotiated" with the Star Tribune and Avista Capital Group, Ridder "was accessing the Pioneer Press' confidential and proprietary information," including budget and salary data, advertising customer lists and other competitive files the suit states.

Par Ridder first disclosed he was leaving on Friday, March 2, in a conversation with MediaNews Chief Executive Dean Singleton. On the following Monday, he began work at the Star Tribune. One of his "very first acts," the suit alleges, was to copy all the confidential information from the hard drive of his Pioneer Press laptop to a Star Tribune computer.

When his former paper sent an employee over to collect his laptop and a backup hard drive, Ridder said the backup drive was lost and the employee was "kept waiting for 45 minutes" while a Star Tribune worker completed copying data from the laptop, the suit states.

Among the evidence cited by the lawsuit that Ridder's departure was long-planned were notes for an apparent acceptance speech for the Star Tribune job, found on Ridder's laptop and allegedly written last September: "It's a real honor to be trusted with MNI's X paper," the document said. (MNI is McClatchy's stock ticker symbol.) "My family has been trying to chase you guys out of St. Paul since 1927, so I recognize this will take some time getting used to."
Ridder used very similar words in a March 6 address to the Tribune staff, according to published reports.

In a "working e-mail" that was part of the same document, Ridder allegedly explained the reasons behind his decision to become publisher "at the X newspaper."
In it, Ridder takes a veiled swipe at MediaNews: "While I've enjoyed getting to know Dean Singleton, and have the highest respect for the successful company he has built, I don't feel that MN is a good fit for me," the document says, referring to MediaNews. "I wasn't looking to leave the Pioneer Press but rather I needed to leave MN."

While there were no disagreements with Singleton, the document states, there was "just a sense, after getting to know his leadership team, that we weren't right for each other."
Singleton could not be reached for comment.

Avista purchased the Star Tribune from McClatchy, whose board members include Par Ridder's father, Tony. Avista took over March 5, the same day Par Ridder joined the newspaper.

In addition to Ridder, the suit names as defendants former Pioneer Press executives Kevin Desmond and Jennifer Parrat, who were hired by the Star Tribune; the Star Tribune and its new owner; and two Star Tribune executives.

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