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Expanding horizons -- Forum Communications buys Grand Forks Herald, Duluth News Tribune

Forum Communications Co., owner of The Forum and 28 other newspapers in four states, is buying the Grand Forks Herald and the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota, said company President and CEO William Marcil.

He said its a logical expansion and a good fit strategically for the company.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, actually, to buy well-run daily newspapers in our backyard, Marcil said.

The announcement was made Wednesday afternoon by McClatchy Co., owner of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and 11 other daily newspapers.

In March, McClatchy announced an agreement to acquire Knight Ridder and its 32 daily newspapers. McClatchy is selling 12 of those papers, including the Herald and News Tribune, to help finance the deal.

With the sale announced Wednesday, the News Tribune and the Herald will be the second- and third-largest newspapers owned by Forum Communications.

The Herald has a daily circulation of about 32,500 and a Sunday circulation of 33,700, while the News Tribunes circulation is about 46,200 daily and 68,800 Sundays, according to Knight Ridders Web site.

The Forums circulation is about 51,000 daily and 65,000 Sundays.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed at the request of Forum Communications.

The company already owns the Dickinson Press and Jamestown Sun daily newspapers in North Dakota, the Mitchell (S.D.) Daily Republic, 18 papers in Minnesota and four in Wisconsin.

The company also owns WDAY TV and radio in Fargo, WDAZ TV in Grand Forks, commercial printing operations in North Dakota and Minnesota and an Internet service provider.

Mike Jacobs, editor and publisher of the Herald, said his newspaper employees were relieved to know their new owner after months of uncertainty.

Im delighted to be part of a family-owned company after being part of a stockholder-owned company, he said.

The Forum and Herald, which compete for readers in the Red River Valley, will continue to do so under Forum Communications philosophy of local autonomy, Marcil said.

I think both newspapers are better if they continue this competitiveness, he said.

Jacobs said theres a little bit of wistful concern about how the sale might affect competition between the two papers. Decisions about news coverage will still be made locally, but in the context of a different ownership, he said.

Theres been some anxiety in Grand Forks about the big sister up river taking over and diminishing us, he said. Ive been pointing out that that didnt happen in Dickinson, it didnt happen in Jamestown and it didnt happen in Bemidji.

Roger Bailey, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said Forum-owned papers are run very independently, so I dont see a marked change.

I think it bodes well for North Dakota. Its North Dakota people knowing and understanding the market and people, Bailey said.

Marcil said there are no plans to cut staff in Grand Forks or Duluth.

Theyre well-run newspapers. We dont expect any changes, no changes in personnel whatsoever, he said.

Marti Buscaglia, publisher of the News Tribune, said the newspapers employees are absolutely delighted for several reasons.

The first one is that we really believe that there will be few changes in how the community here views us and how the employees are treated, she said.

Buscaglia said Marcil indicated a willingness to make capital investments in the paper, and she anticipates readers will see an improved product. Marcils pledge to honor current union contracts also put minds at ease, she said.

Marcil said the two papers will benefit from Forum Communications capitol bureaus in Bismarck and St. Paul. Jacobs said readers can look forward to better customer service through more locally handled circulation.

McClatchy would like to close the sale by the end of June, Marcil said. Company officials have been assured by antitrust lawyers that there isnt a conflict with Forum Communications ownership of WDAZ TV in the Grand Forks market, he said, adding WDAZ is licensed in Devils Lake.

Forum Communications also will acquire several affiliates of the newspapers.

The Herald owns AgWeek, a 26,000-circulation weekly, along with Prairie Business magazine and the Leader, which serves the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

News Tribune holdings include the Superior Daily Telegram, a newspaper with about 6,000 circulation, and three weekly newspapers: the Duluth Budgeteer News, Cloquet Pine Journal and Lake County News Chronicle in Two Harbors.

McClatchys announcement Wednesday involved the sale of five of the six remaining Knight Ridder papers for about $450 million.

The Aberdeen (S.D.) American News, in which Forum Communications had expressed interest, was sold to Schurz Communications Inc. of South Bend, Ind. The Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio went to Sound Publishing Holdings Inc., and the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in Indiana was bought by Ogden Newspapers.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.